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How a Poem Happens to Happen, by Brendan Lorber


You’re making a poem. But are you making the poem happen? A certain uncertainty surrounds us as we write, like a dog who doesn’t know the chew toy is also a squeaky toy until it squeaks. Getting at that mystery requires other questions like: what a poem happens to be, and who it happens to. The answers lie in how the poem moves through itself, and how you move through time. Luckily, your poem knows which way to go, and your mastery over time only gets stronger over time.

Time may change you and, despite what Bowie says, you can trace time. But first, have you ever traced the dark voyage of a person’s face as you tell them you’re a poet? It’s like saying you’re an alchemist or a wizard. And the three elicit similar responses for a reason. For hundreds of years, the verse, the opus, and the spell were tools by which we framed the world. But in the mechanized nineteenth century, modern science and prose announced they’d take it from there, replacing wonder with order, rhyme with reason, and mysteries with case histories. Who needs lived practice when you can have factories? The older arts were moved from the public realm into the private. And from there into an adorably decorative storage box already filled with irrelevant, slightly embarrassing hobbies. “Oh you transmute lead to gold, cast incantations, and sing songs without music? How…quaint.”

But alchemy, wizardry, and poetry live on, secret and invisible. Secret even to ourselves because our innate abilities have been recast as facile nonsense and hermetic self-indulgence. Culturally invisible because the intelligent artifice of the twenty-first century has eyes only for gambits that pay. Articulating the unspeakable and solving problems with bigger problems, poetry appears to kill time without bringing much to life. Even William Blake’s line, “You can’t kill time without injuring eternity” seems to dunk on verse’s capabilities in a culture where utility is king. Maybe poetry has run its course.

Or maybe not. A poem wants to create a new system from the husk of the old—so it makes sense that it would invite disdain from those still living in the old, which is approximately everyone. A poem is aspirational but never ambitious, preferring to be the ladder rather than climb it. A poem won’t cover the rent or solve supply chain logistics. But use the heuristics of commerce or the hemmed-in grammar of scientific prose to explain how your unrequited love really should love you back, or that today’s impossibility is tomorrow’s necessity, and see how far it gets you. Everyone knows poetry is the catalyst for transformation through enchantment. But its connection to everyday life is damaged beyond recognition, almost beyond repair.

At best, people mistakenly think poetry is good for them in some vague way, which renders it noble and unappealing. Somewhere between giving up a seat on the subway (lyric poetry) and supporting your family at a dreary job for decades (epic poetry). Poems are taught so that nobody would think to read one except under duress and fewer would think to murder a perfectly good day by writing one. Like a long flight for a short vacation, it hardly seems worth the effort and time. But a poem isn’t a vacation. It’s a feat of engineering that reveals what ego and utility are designed to obscure.

The voyage through time of a poem isn’t about the destination, or even about the voyage, but about a third thing setting itself to work. I took a sleeper train thirty-two hours to New Orleans in order to read from my new book of poetry for twenty minutes. The twenty years it took to write the book makes this either less or much more ridiculous. Embedded in the title is a winking awareness that there is some other operation at play. It’s called If this is paradise why are we still driving? The journey from the Hudson River to Lake Pontchartrain, or from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, or to the fridge to get a drink because it looks like this might be one of those essays—all these distances dissipate in the bright light of a poem. That’s because a poem is not designed to arrive at another place, but to have you arrive as another person.

So who does a poem happen to? Nobody. But they will be changed forever. Nobody is the perfect number of people for this experience. In terms of numerical William Blakematics, as we divide by the zero in the palm of our hand, we approach the infinite in a grain of sand. There were lots of people at the New Orleans reading. But I once did a reading at the Pink Pony on Ludlow Street where not even the host showed up. Always protected from the malarkey of influence by its own samizdat defiance of mass marketry, poetry’s built in encomium: nobody is to read this, means only nobody will engage the work. It’s easy to be nobody, though hard to realize that’s what you are. It is our natural state. But there’s skill and unself-confidence involved in appreciating that state.

Nobody in the Emily Dickinsonian sense of “I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you—Nobody—Too?” or Allen Ginsberg’s “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” When you’re totally in the moment, there’s no you anymore. When, in your subsequent inability to distill the experience to easy points of reference, you say, “There’s nothing like it,” you’re saying everyone is reduced to nothing and all the nothings like it. In the heat of creative destruction, the ayes have it but the nays are it.

Being no one is a pretty hard idea to embrace. Everything from Descartes’ cogito to the ads that your video will play after, insist otherwise. Though thinking may prove you exist, the very act of thinking changes who you are. Every tick of the clock makes you a different person. Now you’re different again. Maybe you’re more like me than I was a minute ago. If you can be said to have a self, it is not the fixed thing that experiences these changes, but the change itself. You happen, kicking away the ladders of your previous emanations as you go. A poem created with an awareness of this process has encoded within it the ability to foment such events in other people, and awaken readers to themselves as events.

Often without realizing it, poets create self-generating destroyers of the self. Poems as destroyers of the self as coherent thing, so that the self can be the transforming event it really is. Frustrated at the end of The Cantos, Ezra Pound said, “I can’t make it cohere!” refusing to accept the covert mechanism at play within his work. Writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein on the other hand relished the process of solving the unsolvable. The nuns in The Sound of Music, at once light and deadly serious, list all sorts of things that Maria isn’t quite as they sing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” They never land on who she is because there is no is, only the thoughts and actions that cascade out. The indeterminate conclusion, “Maria makes me laugh,” is just the sort of move a poem might make. The iconic image from the film is Julie Andrews, arms flung wide, swaying in advance of spinning through a mountaintop meadow. Allen Ginsberg used to say he knew he’d written a poem was working when his body started to sway as he read it aloud. When you find yourself constructing a poem that reveals the nobody at the center, you the practitioner destabilize. So too does your audience and their surroundings under the sway of a poem that is itself a kind of magic spell.

But what does it mean to say a poem that happens, happens as a magic spell? Magic, or what’s perceived as magic, is nothing more than applying pressure to the world’s hidden mechanisms. Any material can be turned to apparently magical uses. The creators of medicine, airplanes, and whiskey understand this. Language is one such material. A poem that happens is made of language, but not in the same way as the twitter feed you look at despite yourself, or your hasty texts reread in the cold sobriety of the next morning. These linear sequences convey single meanings or absolute conclusions. A poem as spell moves in the opposite direction, problematizing the solution. Composed according to the logic of “metamorphony,” it doesn’t teach you because you are the lesson. It’s neither eidetic nor didactic. It neither shows nor tells. It transforms. The stone of projective verse at the unlikely intersection of Charles Olson’s Black Mountain and Nicolas Flamel’s dark arts.

What endows a poem with the ability to transform its reader is the poem’s own transformation. Context ensures that no poem can ever be the same twice. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen at home is very different than reading it behind the speaker at a right wing rally. Lorine Niedecker’s poems in the din of a cramped bar are different that at the condensery of her Wisconsin swamp. Ovid’s erotic poems on the New York subway are extremely different in ancient Rome, ink still wet. But regardless of external factors, these poems are also suffused with an inner refusal to settle down. Fluidity is an essential quality of the text itself.

Demanding spontaneous change is unreasonable to ask of something already written. But poems are unreasonable. Though made of fixed words, poems have a restlessness that rattles in the space between those words. In that space, the relationships among words can be made to evolve and to do more than convey ideas. They can yield conceptual environments with multiple shifting meanings. Navigational impulses that guide the reader’s attention are in turn guided by that attention. The tension between leading and being led recomposes the poem and alters the world beyond. Linear writing, as in this essay, creates meaning the way electrons in a wire cause the wire to glow. But spun around itself, as in a poem, the language’s motion creates an aurora reaching outward, the way electrons moving through a coil create a magnetic field that extends far beyond the coil itself. Here’s where things get lively. Lively in the Mary Shelley lightning storm sense.

The event of a poem generating such a field is the emergence of a new living thing. If the self is an event, why can an event not be a self? A nascent consciousness caused by but extrinsic to the writer’s fixed language on one side, and the reader’s mind on the other. Though the writer and audience are the catalysts, this third sentient entity is able to produce its own ideas, and is endowed with an autonomous volition. In alchemical terms, the event of such a poem is genesis in the retort. This goes beyond C. S. Lewis’s comforting observation that “We read to know we are not alone.” With transformative poetry, we write and read not to bridge the gap between us but to actually be in the presence of a new being, a spontaneously generated companion.

This new acquaintance, born with the qualities of an old friend, needs to transform to survive. A poem’s ability to sustain itself as an event is determined by the way the poem, in its structure, manipulates time. Form and content are natural extensions of each other, but both are extensions of time, which changes both. Prosody, at the intersection of chronology and choreography in verse, is almost an entrance into this operation. With its sure-footed metrical connection to the expectation and surprise of traditions, prosody makes the physicality of a poem gratifying. It helps to arrange a poem along a breath or heartbeat, yet it does nothing to alter the normal operation of time. It takes more than the form of a steeple to make a church.

It takes more than a sermon, too. Content can turn anything into a sonnet, iambic pentameter be damned, thanks to the twists of madhyamaka threefold logic that situates, expands, and then turns to reveal. Look at Ted Berrigan’s sublime, hilarious, heartbreaking, marvelous, and tough sonnets. Just look at them. Or Andrei Codrescu’s, deep in the Ozarks, where he says Bashō says only a pine tree can teach you what a pine tree is. But content doesn’t control time any more than calling Monday “Friday” brings on the weekend.

Only a work of art that exists in time can show how time exists in you. And only such a work offers the opportunity to change that which changes you. Each phrase of a poem is an experience of this moment and also sets up the next. But what if you pilot time into conditions where the poem can be experienced retroactively, where each phrase also revises the one before. Now the poem compels you to stand in this moment, to take one step forward, and another back. Then another and another, extending the moment into the past and future. The poem shows you how to anticipate, participate, and annotate each moment, enjoying a threefold existence attuned to the poem’s aspirations.

We are made for this multiplicity. Look at your two eyes providing depth and clarity through binocular vision. Look at what we’ve invented to extend that. The Very Large Array telescopes resolve dozens of images as though made from one lens twenty-two miles wide. Organizing a poem as a kind of temporal palindrome, replacing time’s arrow with time’s boomerang, you have a device through which to visualize the chronological arena where all change happens. It’s a time machine built of language and it works.

This sounds heavy. Like worse even than saying poetry is good for you (it’s not, at least not for the you you think you are). So let me put it in terms of a compliment that became its opposite. My friend has twins who came up to her one evening and spoke in unison. They stood in double silence for awhile and then said, “Hey mom…we think…you’re pretty…funny…looking.” The pause after each phrase appears to conclude the thought. But the conclusion gets extended and upended by the unexpected phrase that follows. Each phrase turns back to destabilize the meaning of the one before. And then that mischievous phrase gets the same treatment by the one that follows.

To put this into terms of the terms themselves:

Make a poem     happen      to find itself      in a bind      or its opposite      the way one line is bound     to reveal the new world     all constraints were designed    to affirm the freedom of     Just as how     to make a poem      makes the world      where the poem always existed      not as fate      because unless you write this      this was never needed

This bidirectional approach to time is nervously optimistic. Making a poem use language backwards unfixes what was once settled. The future is no longer the only place in which to place our hope, and the past is no longer a refuge. Everything that went awry, every lost paradise can be regained and every bygone hell can be amended. All the big drags of the western approach to passage are challenged. But hope is always paired with anxiety. Every long gone moment is back, open for anything. What you thought was the sun was the sun, but not the one that rises in the morning.

To accept accountability for manipulating time, we have to determine why a poem happens. The most engaging work emerges out of pure requirement, the way the world constrains us until a poem has no choice but to emerge. “No time for poetry except exactly what is,” said Jack Kerouac. Or as my painter friend Kate says: “It will be fun, because it is mandatory.” A poem happens because it has to. A poem is better because it better be.

There’s the assumption that a poem, like other modes of text, has to be about something, which is totally wrong except in the sense that all poems are about what’s called for, given the circumstances. Lyric circumstances, like being in love or despair. Or epic circumstances, like life under a tyrant or the terror of patriarchy. Or more mundane situations. John Ashbery’s The Instruction Manual emerges from the obligation to write an instruction manual, but not. A necessary poem emerges into free time, manipulated time in which cause and effect are reversed. A poem’s existence alters the prior conditions that demanded it be made, and in that sense makes itself autonomous.

For John Keats, the worth of a poem was determined by the alignment of aesthetics and epistemology, the equivalency of truth and beauty. But here in the realm of transformational poetry, beauty is ethics. Poetry happens out of necessity, but it happens to people and its composition creates a new life-form. This means that determining if a poem is good is a moral question. A poet bears a responsibility towards who their poem happens to and (more importantly) who it happens as.

Being necessary makes the poem good morally, technique makes it good aesthetically, and its ability to change as you read it makes it good ontologically. The three are inexorably bundled in the act of a poem’s coming into being. We’ve answered who a poem happens to (nobody, but we are all nobody), why a poem happens (because the world said so), what a poem happens to be (a time machine, a third sentient entity). But where does a poem happen? Don’t make me spell it out. It’s at the gem center of the part of the mind that’s like, “Don’t mind if I do, thanks.”

And finally, when does a poem happen? A poem never starts, because everything that begins must end. A poem that cascades forward and backward in time never ends. Your favorite poem, perhaps not yet even written, both exists and doesn’t exist at this every moment. It’s like how William Wordsworth was wrong when he said a poem is “emotion recollected in tranquility” because there is no later in which the tranquil recollection can happen because, as C. E. Putnam said, “things keep happening.”

When you write a poem that happens, you are casting a spell, a kind of magic that waits for someone else to read it and become themselves the transformed practitioner. A magic spell, but also spell in the temporal sense that opens a new parcel of time beyond past and future. A spell that incubates new life in a field spun from the motion of ideas relative to each other. When you write a poem that happens you’ve made a companion with whom to explore a changing universe whose change you’ve also made. You will never be alone, for poetry ensures that nobody never is.

  • Brendan Lorber is the author of If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? and several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems. His work appears in the American Poetry Review, Big Other, Fence, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Since 1995, he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.

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