Poetry that “counts”
Last summer, I attended a reading by Fred Moten, during which he explained that the title, “I ran from it and was still in it,” of a section in his book, The Feel Trio, came from a conversation he had with a friend who had lived through Hurricane Katrina—that no matter how far he ran, he was still in the hurricane. And Moten said it occured to him that that applied to race too: that no matter how far he ran, he would still be in it.
Since then I’ve thought a lot about what Moten said: that sense of enormity, that sense of being in it—whether “it” is racial injustice, global inequity or ecological crisis—and how those issues intersect and compound one another in something such as Hurricane Katrina, and, from there, the place of poets within that enormity of it. What is it to write poetry that takes into itself that situation, that it, and realization of being in it—a prepositional phrase that echoes back to the bible, with that question of how Jesus was in the world but not of it, and what that has meant through centuries of trouble between human and world and human and human. How to be a poet and write poetry in a way that counts in, to and of the world we find ourselves in?
So with this question, I find myself usually returning to the concept of inhabitance: what that means to deeply inhabit a space, minutely and presently, and from there, the process of apprehension: apprehension as a sort of conscious comprehension, with wary awareness of how that space is ever-evolving because, very importantly, that space is not empty—instead, what we inhabit is filled with we, us, them, others, us, we, other beings with whom we are and must always negotiate in ongoing interaction.
And a good part of those negotiations take place in language, and that language operates on a vast range of levels, from mind-numbingly bureaucratic and minute to glorious and ecstatic: from contracts, to article, to tweet, to update, to memo, to speech. And within all this language of negotiation and inhabitance, where can the poet—supposed smithy of words—enter?
What is perhaps unique to poetry is how poets shape language into creative and possibile form. But what deep structures, exactly, make poetry count? Jennifer Moxley writes in her introduction to the French poet Sebastian Smirou’s book, My Lorenzo, “Whether consciously or not, poets are always counting. How many syllables, words, beats, does each line contain? How many stanzas?” As music has been called “numbers in time,” so poetry might be seen as the breath apprehending the energy of organized time as expressed in language. Poetry contains the active percussion that shepherds language into creative possibility.
Now, talking about poetic form might make you already feel strangled by the colonialist hands of rigid dictates for what poetry should be and sound like. Plus the idea of rhythm in language already carries, as Michael Golstein points out in his book, Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science, treacherous echoes of Pound, fascism and racism. But first, I’d like to continue with another quote from Moxley, describing the strict numerical forms of My Lorenzo, which chronicles the life of Lorenzo di Medici: “We feel the tautness of an intricate and purposeful order, as well as the energy of excluded meanings pressuring the borders of the tightly controlled ideological boundaries.”
So, just as count and form can include and exclude, so can count and form pressure, open, welcome and invite. At this point, I’d like to talk about my recent dive into one of the most rigid of European forms, the alexadrine, which consists of 12-syllable lines and which has ruled French poetry with an iron hand for several centuries (and its echos can be heard faintly even today in some contemporary poetry). However, the form of the alexandrine also has civic meaning: medieval alexandrines were meant to offer the “life of the city to the public.” This is fascinatingly circular: The public creates the life of the city, so how can it be offered back? What exactly is the public, which is so often associated with urban, the civitas, shared spaces? How does public relate to citizen relate to inhabitant relate to resident relate to neighbor relate again to inhabitance? And where is the poet in this sort of recycling of public civic urban life? What sort of mediatory role does this posit for the poet, that she is the one to offer this life created by the public-audience back to them? And that she is to do so within an established counting, established by whom? Here is a tension, a particularly taut tension, between how much the poet is to reflect and relate, and how much the poet is to investigate and create. How much of the poem is really hers? Particularly when she writes within the grip of number, counting and an articulation that occurs within the formal order—the counting—of a poem?
So you may see glimpses of the troubling behind a contemporary conception of the activist-poet in this public offering to the civitas, a complex role of public antennae and interpreter, an articulating fool who perceives then shapes that perception within language. As a concerned citizen-poet—and I’ll say here my particular concerns are overtly with ecology and race, with particular nuanced concerns within those broad categories, concerns that have to do with urban ecology and the possibilities and necessities of negotiation between humans within that ecology—I was fascinated by the difficulties of the compromised form of the alexandrine, and how that form might yet present a way for me to somehow investigate, relate and create the nitty-gritties of my daily activism within the counting articulation of poetry.
As Raymond Williams put it in his great book, The Country and The City, “Whenever I consider the relations between country and city, and between birth and learning, I find this history active and continuous: the relations are not only of ideas and experiences, but of rent and interest, of situation and power; a wider system.” I’ve found it difficult to convey what I deal with on a daily basis—for instance, in the diversity work I do in the New York City educational system, which involves doubletalk and bureaucratic details, meetings and curriculum and immense amount of negotiation—how can those details of situation and power, that miniscule counting, go into a poem? Or the conflicts I experienced in community gardening, where even what color to paint a shed was the subject of weeks, sometimes years, of tedious back and forth. So I thought the alexandrine, upon which I am still working, might be a form that could shape and position my own minute urban negotiations. And I do have a tendency to overfocus on the microscopic—I find the minute urban details of how a city is put together in the rivets and 8 million breaths and energy transferences of bridges and timing of traffic lights and where water pools in a street and how it increases reflection of sidewalks fascinating, in a creative, poetic way, when not everyone else necessarily does. A book like Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue points the way, in my opinion, brilliantly, in which form and counting can, rather than exclude, re-envision a form that that can carry the question of how the civitas is actually created and maintained by those with “excluded meanings” who are pounding on the boundaries created by oppression and exploitation. The city in his City Eclogue, the title of which is a oxymoron because the eclogue was originally a pastoral form for shepherds, is built from the histories of people fighting for civil rights. Instead of shepherds, the contemporary eclogue, a form that inhabits the here and now rather than nostalgic arcadia ever-receding on the memory horizons, shapes the language of civil rights into civic present poetry.
There are historied forms to be revisited and then forms to be invented, so much possibility in both, and a chance also to strengthen continuity with all the activist-poets of the past—look at Anne Waldman’s amazing work turning the form of the epic inside out and projecting outward. As for new forms, I think of the sun, which has 10 million keys or notes —that incredible variance of sound that helioseismologists are mapping but which are yet to be “heard” (and I am not sure whether they can be heard by the human ear without intervention of computer interpretation) and included in our own minutely prescribed speech. And then poets like Will Alexander, who reach out with full ambition to the sun and even further, to create new sound and form to accommodate their vision. And then, as Patricia Spears Jones suggests to me, infinity, which is all numbers ongoing and therefore none–how would a poem count infinity? (I think of the experiments by Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer, in which they tried to approach endless writing, endlessly writing.)
To speak more to those poetic countings yet to be apprehended and invented, more recently (the alexandrine is resting for a while), I’ve been interested in, not imitating, but incorporating the numbers of, say, bees, entering the number six and hectagons, into my work, but letting the line go long to hold those various numbers building up within it. I’m interested in seeing if I’ll hit upon an unstudied count, if the count can be internal rather than external, discovering that count instead of adhering to it. This practices my hearing, hearing others, being silent in my own privilege, hearing something before an opinion has been delivered upon it because activism is not just about having an opinion, but having open ears to hear what’s been silenced. To create an activist poetry that “counts” counts counts. And then, as the poet, offering that previously unsaid back in language to the public.
I’ll end with a quote from Robert Creeley’s “numbers”
They come now with
one in the middle—
either side thus
another. Do they
know who each other
is or simply walk
with this pivot between them.
Here forms have possibility.
This talk was given during Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program in June 2015, as part of the panel, “Activism in Our Own Writing and Lives,” with Anne Waldman, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and Jonathan Skinner.
Marcella Durand is the author of Deep Eco Pré (with Tina Darragh), AREA, Traffic & Weather and Western Capital Rhapsodies. She has written, taught and talked about the potential intersections of poetry and ecology in a number of venues, including the (eco(lang)(uage (reader), ecopoetics, and Jacket2. Her published translations from French include poems by Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Nicole Brossard and Michèle Métail. At present, she is working on a book length poem written in alexandrines, titled In this world previous to ours. She is a Black Earth Institute Fellow and she edited the Wall Street issue of About Place Journal.