An Open Letter to the Poet
I shared a spliff with Ginsberg on a fire escape in New York. I lay naked in summer grass with Whitman, and wished that he was straight. Emily Dickinson fell apart in my arms and I sewed her back into her Entirety. I drank Dylan Thomas under the table and fell asleep with my head in his title pages. I trod so softly with Yeats that he wrote a poem for my listening heart.
I am the lover of the poet.
I ask too much, I do, it’s true. I ask a world from you. And the moon, too, in my pocket, the sun in my eyes and the winds of a thousand words in my hair. Give me stars in daytime, nothing less. Be Galileo to me or don’t bother.
I don’t mind if you sob like a broken child, as long as your tears soak every letter. I don’t mind if you are angry as long as you singe the paper. I don’t mind if you are cosy, in sock-mending mood, as long as your fondness felts the page to warm wool for me.
Tell me what you love, tell me what you fear, tell me where you’ve been, only tell me tellingly. Translate yourself to me.
I don’t need to know how you fuck, but I need (– from how you lodge a word, how you turn a stone in your hand – ) to be able to guess.
Can you fling up a trapeze between stars, no matter how many light years there are between them? Can you learn your poem by heart and speak it unselfconsciously as if you’d found the poem in a galaxy just next door and only wrote it down? Does the world call to you, and whisper to you and shout; do its strings sing? Or is it so unstrung that you must force yourself to thrum out a plastic tune by mixing ring-tones?
You, said Shelley, are the unacknowledged legislator of the world. Not so. You are the acknowledged legislator. Medieval Welsh poets were both bards and judges. You author-ize because you carve in stone the laws of the human heart. In Australia, for forty thousand years and more, you have known your Songline is both Poem and Law. In the emotional courts of justice, your witness is unanswerable and damned only by the deaf.
You are everywhere, and so am I. I don’t care if you’re a tramp or a marabout, a court jester or a waitress. Orpheus, trapped in an office, will still claim an ocean of soul; demanding of his poetry what I also demand. Can it tickle, can it growl, can it rise, can it swell? Can it crack and can it jump? Can it give me a hint of the divinity of kindness? Can it give the human spirit a tilt of wingtips? Can it trace an essential delineation, no matter how subtle? Can it read tiny in the cosmos and gigantize a twig? Can it pass the test of pagination? (If, set as prose, it remains unaltered then it should remain prose and halt its conceit.)
Is it bullet-proof? Would a soldier take that poem to war? (Mind needing protection like a flak jacket.) Is it tear-proof? Would an unhappy teenager write it out by hand on her bedroom wall? (Heart needing comfort like a hearth.) Is it grave-proof? Would a lonely old woman blossom into youth an hour on reading it? (Soul needing vitality like water.)
Poetry looks back, (you looked back and lost me), and its cadences fall shadow-minded; the Idea has more mattering than the Real. Poetry draws the invisible world in negative space. There is in it something nocturnal, twilight ricochets between mind and mind, dis-spelling the ordinary. It is transformation. It is the strong creature from before the flood. It is shamanic. That is why there is no such thing as modern poetry. There is poetry and there is not. Ancient, bardic and written just now. Shamanic, vivid with life and written a thousand years ago.
Words have souls. Shamans and poets know this and spell with it. But so does breath and silence. You write, and the words are the strings of the harp, but the music comes through the spaces between the strings, there where the breath is, there where the wind is. The words are not a net, not an airless mesh of knotted catgut but rather they play to the soliloquy of all our silences, so the music rings out along the strings and then the miracle, that my heart resonates to yours.
For the poet, bodily senses are figurative. (Both pun and paradox intended.) They are not enough. How many senses does the body have? Far more than five. A sense of direction, a solar sense, a sense of time. And how many senses does the spirit have? Unlimited. Some senses are only struck when the right words are chosen, and other senses are still unnamed for the phrase which would reveal them is – as yet – unfound.
I don’t want you to suffer but I suspect you must. Taliesin describes the initiation of druidic bards; being cast adrift in a coracle to test the resilience of the poet-priest. The initiation of the open boat. A test of buoyancy. The place chosen was one where the waters would eventually carry the boat back to shore, but in the meantime, you were tested to see if you could steer through waves of loneliness and the tempests that your kind is heir to.
Poetry must be sundered from convenience, orphaned from the ordinary. Some minds are born not for a cottage on land but for a coracle at sea, exposed to storms, open to the elements, where you must navigate not by terra firma and human signposts but by the firmament of the stars, your compass is myth and the loving past. And in your solitude, your lodestar is in the ultra-beyond.
A Romantic before either Rome or the novel had been invented, you knew that the root of passion is suffering; you knew that your Romanticism was political dissidence. You knew that freedom was something you might have to die for. And you have. For revolution and on behalf of peasants; you have died fighting against the ultimate enclosure, the enclosure of spirit. When the unlucky rhymers have tried to mimic your voice and pipe up for the status quo, you have turned your face to the wall.
So give me rags with your roses and red eyes with your harp. Did you write that line drunk on the back of your hand, or did you type it neatly with the air-con on? I won’t read the bored punctuation of paperclips; I want the piss and shit of it. Did you tidily snip a line from a book of quotes, or did you curse and thank your world and write with the charred splinter that is left after you’ve burned all the bridges in your mind? For then I will hold every word with gravity, justice and the deepest, kindest mirth. Oh, you too, I’ll say.
Your work must matter. Do you really want to write? Or do you just want the title “poet”? Did the necessity erupt in you and dispossess you of your life’s security? (If not, why not, and don’t answer.)
Poetry makes nothing happen, said a poet who should have known better. It’s bullshit. You were jailed for your poetry, exiled for your similes, transported across Siberia for your carrying metaphors. How many of your lovers have stood in front of tanks and guns because of you? Where else can we find courage except in that dazzling of the spirit?
I ask all this because when I was a very small child, you took my hand and told me I would never be lonely, because of you. And I hold you to that promise, poet, poet of the fourteenth century and poet of war, poet of languages I cannot speak, poet of atlases and lichen. Don’t betray my trust – I have the tearful, forceful love of a child in my heart and in my mind I have the subtle residue of a long residence of this world, as long as yours. Yours.
Yours with love and respect, your reader.