Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Poet Always . . . ? (Don't Everybody Raise Your Hand At Once)

Dear Everybody:

Okay, today’s poem is by somebody you’ve likely never heard of. Why? Well, because most living poets you’ve never heard of. And yet some of them are quite good. As witness the following:

Suicide Note
Mario Milosevic

The plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft
that was designed
to tell extraterrestrials
all about us could easily outlive us.

Then the centerpiece of the design,
the naked woman standing beside the naked man,
his hand raised in a bland greeting,
both of them exposed to the elements
in a way that testifies to their indifference,
could easily be interpreted as a man saying good-bye
while his one true love stands with him,
perhaps saying good-bye in her own way.

Eons after the last human has died,
this image might be found
and read as the last act of life,
stuffed into the bottle of a spaceship
and sent into the sea of the cosmos
saying we had it all
we could have lived forever
but there was something in us
that we could not help
which just wanted everything to die.

Nice stuff, eh? I trust I don’t have to tell you guys that the Pioneer was the first space probe to leave the Solar System, that a plaque was put on it against the unlikely chance that in some far distant future intelligent aliens might find it, nor that it was an awfully bland bit of work. (It was put together by that same committee which, challenged to design a horse, came up with a camel.)

See here the transformative power of words! Milosevic has taken that sad plaque and, through an act of interpretation, made it into something interesting and moving.

This poem appeared in a book titled Poets Against the War, which was put together after Laura Bush canceled a White House symposium on poetry because she learned that many of the invitees were planning to read poems critical of her husband’s invasion of Iraq. So there is a political dimension to it as well.

Percy Bysshe Shelly said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Well... that was a pretty dicey statement even then. But observe how (and whether you agree with their politics or not is irrelevant here) the real legislators and other politicians are afraid of them. That’s because poetry’s primary loyalty is to truth.

Which is all for today. Except to note that the sharp-eyed among you have noticed that this poem is neither in the public domain nor taken from a source where permission to copy was implicit. Which is why I contacted the poet (it’s my good fortune that we’re on speaking terms) and got his permission. I’m sending him a token payment even though, being a nice guy, he would have let me copy it free, just for the courtesy of my asking. But, as Sean will testify, there is one iron-clad rule in this household: THE ARTIST ALWAYS GETS PAID.

All best,



gkae said...

i love poetry! i write "poems" to keep me sane. :-)

Michael Swanwick said...

I read 'em to refresh my language and to sharpen my logical sense And for entertainment, of course. But sanity is also a respectable function.

Really, poetry isthe Swiss Army knife of language.

Markin said...

"... the real legislators and other politicians are afraid of [poets]."

One might argue that's true for artists of any kind, perhaps most especially for visual artists. Would Jesse Helms have gotten his knickers in such a twist if he had honestly thought Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs would have no effect at all? I suspect it wasn't so much that he was offended, as that he was afraid others might not be ... and that there were altogether too many of THOSE kind already.

As for why one reads poetry ... Yes to all reasons cited, but it's also in the hopes of encountering one of those poems that make the hair on the back of one's neck stand on end. Not unlike hearing the Hölle Rache (aka the Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte) sung absolutely note perfect. Or even when it isn't quite perfect -- as long as it's accompanied by heavy metal guitars and a laser show ... [grin]

Thanks for the heads up on Mario Milosevic -- I had indeed not known of his work. That will soon be rectified. (Of course I haven't heard of most living poets. There are so gorsh durned many of 'em!)

mcp said...

Here's a game for your next dinner party: challenge everyone to name 10 living poets. I'll give you Billy Collins to get you started. Beware! This is far harder than it sounds.

Markin said...

You're right, mcp -- one does have to keep checking Wikipedia to make sure the poet is still alive. But:

Kay Ryan -- obviously
Donald Hall
Maya Angelou
Charles Simic (didn't actually take to his poetry, myself, but once in a while he has a nice turn of phrase)
Ted Kooser
Marge Piercy (her "Attack of the Squash People" is a delight)
Nikki Giovanni
Gwendolyn Brooks
Jack Prelutsky ("In the desolate depths of a perilous place / the bogeyman lurks, with a snarl on his face ..." -- he outdrew the Poet Laureate at last year's National Festival of the Book in DC; and you didn't say the poet had to be a serious for grown-ups poet)
Seamus Heaney (you didn't specify poets from the U.S.), whose translation of Beowulf I treasure

Michael Swanwick said...

And, up to a month ago, Tom Disch, who was that extreme rarity, a science fiction writer who had actual cred as a poet.

Judith Moffett was an excellent poet (I particularly admire "Whinny Moor Crossing"), but she gave it up when she started writing SF.

mcp said...

So! (I love the Heaney Beowulf.)

I'll give you another to keep in reserve: Rita Dove. She did a great poem on the Statue of Liberty, of all things. I read it at a Flag Day/Diversity Awareness Event at work (why yes, I do work for a bureaucracy) and sent her an e-mail to let her know it had been well received (fair use and all that). No answer, but what the heck, she's busy. Then 9 months later, an e-mail, apologizing for the delayed response. The house had burned down and she'd gotten behind in her correspondence. Talent AND class.