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(Note: this missive is from our good friend and poetry master class instructor, Chris Ransick.)
Imagine aspiring authors as survivors in a lifeboat afloat on Arctic waters, desperately awaiting rescue by the Reader Ship. Some scribble anxiously in their damp notebooks, some stare pensively across the blackness, and a few, probably future critics, whisper together about whom to cannibalize when provisions run low.
Now cast a glance at the hearty souls clinging to the gunwales. It was determined by consensus that there was simply not enough room for them aboard. They’re hanging on, legs dangling in the icy deep, teeth chattering behind blue lips.
But their eyes are fierce. These are the poets and they aren’t going to let go.
Six writers have signed on to the Lighthouse poetry master class this winter and I want to welcome them all—and tell the larger community how much I admire their chutzpah. Each has a manuscript, not just random poems but a collection that has aggregated, evolved, and cohered, equivalent to a novel or a full-length memoir but distinguished by its homage to language music above narrative, theme, or any other consideration.
These people are all the more impressive to me because they have stuck to their task despite the knowledge that writing a collection of poetry in this time and place is, as my physicist father would have said, damned impractical.
Plato argued in The Republic that poets should be banished (overboard!) and the marginalization of contemporary poetry in our literary culture suggests the old Greek’s fears that the mythoi are dangerous to the status quo. They roll language right up to its boundaries and then with a grin or a grimace, they push it beyond. They contradict themselves, tweak the rhetorician’s nose, and their difficult lines often mock logos and add up to nonsense.
In his recent book Close Calls With Nonsense, Stephen Burt provides an approach for effectively reading contemporary poetry. What struck me was an understanding I’d gotten elsewhere, one that informs my own writing and will underlie my facilitating of the master class: in the best books of poetry, language music drives the art and from its harmony and cacophony, its clashing and melding, meaning can happen—but it must finally happen as a resonance in the reader who perceives not what is being said but how language is being used. So those completing a book of poetry must finally settle their work and hope this elusive effect, intuitive and amorphous, coalesces in the reader’s experience.
I just read a wonderful article in Slate tracing the life, writing, and literary philosophy of the late author David Foster Wallace. Among Wallace’s epiphanies, informed by the philosophical work of Wittgenstein, is that same idea again: meaning doesn’t inhere in language. Rather, language can only take meaning from how it is used.
Granted, this is summary of a complex treatise, but at its core, the concept is clear and brilliant—and devilishly hard to excel at as a poet. But that’s the challenge the master class participants have shouldered. They know that you know what they’re trying to do. Did I mention that their eyes are fierce?
And as a final commentary on this matter I offer lines from Jack Gilbert’s masterful Refusing Heaven, from a poem titled “The Lost Hotels of Paris.”
Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
So on a Monday in early January, a group of survivors, poets all, will meet in Tom Ferril’s upstairs living room and exchange their texts—printed symbols of sounds that form words that evoke abstract ideas that will please please please readers. Foremost, these texts are a score for voice, and over the course of the next six months, we’ll sing them together and thereby finish fashioning these manuscripts into books. And then, finally, we’ll let go the gunwales and start swimming for the Reader Ship on our own.