Meghan O'Rourke

It's hard to say anything about one's own poems that seems true one year later, but when I first started reading poetry I was haunted by two things: Wallace Stevens' line "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind" and John Ashbery's statement that he wrote poems about the "experience of experience." I was influenced by the idea that poetry was both of these things – that it could be at once diffuse and intense. Over time, my poetry has gotten sparer and smaller and more concerned with precision but I am still interested in that diffuse clarity, the fog drifting through winter trees whose branches stand out all the more clearly for it.

Sometimes I wonder why write poems rather than, say, make movies (which I love more and more as time goes on). For me the answer is that the lyric poem still seems like the most powerful embodiment of the paradox of life, and so I can't get away from it. Walter Pater once talked about "the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity," a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of feeling that being alive entails, and the peculiar corollary—those perceptions are fleeting because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, and they mimic memory: you can revisit them and rehandle them over and over, and each time they are different, and each time they hum and evade us somehow. That humming evasion can seem to contain our deepest feelings, or, as W.G. Sebald said, what we take to be our deepest feelings.

Wallace Stevens is someone I turn to for his ability to create entire speculative realities; a poem like "The Emperor of Ice Cream" or "Sunday Morning" contains myth, history, ethics, nonsense, ritual, meditations on existence, and, last but not least, languor, an often overlooked virtue in our fast-paced rationalistic culture. Poetry today is prayer in the age of reproduction, a kind of perverse hymn sung alongside the concatenation of machines. Though I turn frequently to John Ashbery to remind me of the expansive possiblities of a lyric poem, I'm interested in the clarity that can emerge from contemplating what he called "the loose / Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor," though that may sound like a paradox. Another way to put it is to say that poems pleasingly negotiate the fine line between the extremes of obsessive control and psychotic intensity as almost nothing else does, and this, too, is what interests me about writing them. As Andy Warhol once observed, "The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet."

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Meditations on a Moth

How splendid yellow is.-Vincent van Gogh


My poor eye. It has done
so much looking--at the sky, at the dark-fretted
trumpets in the frescoes of the Chrysler Building,
at the opium dens of High and Low,
where bodies sway like white flowers--
amount due, amount due.
Is the blue the blue you think of when I tell you?
Do ghosts have neuroses?
What is the point of the haunting they do?
Here--look. No, look.
I am trying to rid myself of myself;
to see past the tumbling clouds.
All evening drums rumble in the corner park.
The mobsters convene when the cops leave.
What goes down stays down,
the street at three A.M. a fantastic absence of color.
Outside the studio window
a river slides along its dulcimer bed,
aquifers and accordions and Alcatraz.
But you have to get up in the morning.
The brute blind glare of snow in sun.
Look again, and up you may rise
to something quite surprising in the distance.

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Poem from Halflife (W. W. Norton, 2007). All Rights Reserved. 




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