Let me say something about contemporary poetry. It believes itself progressive. That is, when we write, as poets, we think of ourselves as creating something new in the world, that our thoughts & feelings & word choices are not replications of the past, though they are built of things from the past, the way a new home is built of brick & brick is made of sand & sand was around for a long long time. The sand, however, could not have hoped to become a house. Nor the brick, which was intended for construction, might never have been, in the brickmaker’s mind, intended for a specific house, shaped as it is from the mind of an architect.
& yet I read the poetry of Philippe Soupault from three quarters of a century ago & it reads as if could be presented at Pete’s Candy Store or Studio AIR tomorrow night by one of my friends. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by the old Dadaist/Surrealist:
Wednesday on a barge
and you Saturday like a flag
the days have crowns
like kings and dead men
lissome as a kiss my hand
rests on chained foreheads
A child cries for her doll
and we’ll have to start over again
Monday and Tuesday cold-blooded
four Thursdays off from work
a thread unravels
a shadow falls
a butterfly exploded
chrysalis or glow worm
[translation by Paulette Schmidt]
Progress lies in the thinking behind a thing, in the intelligence that incorporates the teachings of the past (in as much at it can in one lifetime), but this does not prevent the intelligence from covering the same territory as the minds preceding it–on its own terms, in its own way, in its own time–nor does the newer intelligence find itself mired in absolute fallibility when discovering that its insight into an experience or phenomena matches up with what came before. What may seem derivative may also just be that certain like modes of inquiry & experimentation yield similar results, even when the minds doing the inquiring are separated by a century or more. A poem written by a young poet today might share certain values, sounds, verbal play, word choices, even an underlying aesthetic with those developed by the co-founder of the Surrealist movement years ago, but that does not necessarily mean the poet has not progressed, or that poetry has not. Millenia separate Plato from his adherents. It’s not that the world hasn’t changed, it’s that the world & human emotion & human reasoning hasn’t changed so much that the past has little to no direct bearing on the present. It does. & poetry, for all its impressive strives, still maintains a primary interest in humanity & the human condition, & for this reason will continue to entertain & employ elements of its forbearers’ work for centuries to come.
Readers have a penchent for the unexpected; poets are expected to deliver the old news in new wrappings, or the new news in raw form, but sometimes the old news, in its primal form, which was new for the time, is the best news for the new time. & some poems, as we know, reach from behind you to grab hold of the future you are just now imagining. & that can be a fun sort of tickle.
When I read this Philippe Soupault poem a certain delicious shiver runs through me. I can’t just read it once. It becomes a sort of deep incantation. I find myself speaking it aloud while reading without even knowing I am:
I’m not sleeping Georgia
I shoot arrows into the darkness Georgia
I’m waiting Georgia
The fire is like snow Georgia
The night is my neighbor Georgia
I hear every single noise Georgia
I see the smoke climbing and escaping Georgia
I walk stealthily along in the shadows Georgia
I run–here is the street to the suburbs Georgia
Here is a town which is the same
And which I don’t recognize Georgia
I hurry–here is the wind Georgia
And the cold and silence and fear Georgia
I run away Georgia
I run Georgia
The clouds are low and they’re going to fall Georgia
I have to be in your arms Georgia
I’m not closing my eyes Georgia
I call ‘Georgia’
I call you Georgia
Will you come Georgia
Georgia Georgia Georgia
I’m not sleeping Georgia
I’m waiting for you Georgia
[translation Julia Murkin]
There are also times in my writing life where I discover something of the past with a determined mode of expression that speaks directly to me in such a way that I cannot learn from it, or overcome it, or work against it with subversion. It feels like a perfect example of a thing, even if I find certain word choices to be too easy or just slightly off in one direction or another–all the better for its human flaws. So what I end up doing is singing with it, a kind of spiritual translation into the newer time of ever-occurring now, though I don’t believe much in the soul or in translation.
I think it’s common to experience reading a good book at the right time, & perhaps picking it up later & feeling it childish. But for that time it was a great book, & it delighted. This love of a great book inspires people to write. Not because they wish to outdo the creator of the great book, or outdo the great book itself, but because that book makes the writer wish to sing along. To contribute. To add. But of course, when you sing, it can never be quite the same song.
I’m waiting Anna.
I’m not sleeping Heather.
Mildred. Mildred. Mildred.
Don’t be long Michael.
Won’t you come Bethany.
I’m calling you Lucy.
I’m calling Stella.
I’m crying Billy.
I’m calling Amelia.
I don’t close my eyes anymore Dawn.
I open my arms like a goalie Lenin.
The sky is already falling Lauren.
I’m running Julian.
I scatter like nickels Damien.
All this cold silence & fear Cordelia.
I hurried but here’s the wind Libby.
& it’s all very strange to me.
Here’s another fucking causeway Sister.
I’m running down a suburban street Hermione.
I’m a wolf to your shadow Adam.
I see the smoke rising in shapes Brandon.
I hear all noises no exceptions Janice.
Night is the hot girl next-door Joanna.
Fire is a kind of quick snow Matthew.
I’m thinking of you Julia.
I’m waiting Emily.
I send flares into the night Cynthia.
I don’t sleep Georgia.
I don’t ever sleep Georgia.