Sunday, December 9, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Vow To Poetry by Anne Waldman

The hottest jazz station where I live is KCSM, 91.1 FM. Alisa Clancy's "Morning Cup-o-Jazz" has a regular feature called "Desert Island." Guest musicians bring with them the jazz renditions they would require if stranded on a desert island. Listening to these quintessential cuts is the best education in jazz one can get. I'm as addicted to my "morning cup" as if it were a drug--which it is.

If I had to name the books I would cram into my backpack, knowing I would be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, one of them would beVow To Poetry, a cobbled-together collection of essays, interviews, and manifestos by Anne Waldman and some of her desert island poets, about poetry and its demands as a living "vow." It, therefore, easily finds its place on my top ten list of poetry books that should be on your holiday wish list.

Perhaps if you read the Author's Note at the beginning of the book, you will understand something of why. I will not reproduce it in entirety, only summarizing her first paragraph in which she traces the etymology of "vow." The "vow," Waldman explains, "meaning, as in the Frank O'Hara line, you go on your nerve, is felt as a metabolic necessity." Beginning with "vowe" (middle English, from "vou," Old French, from Latin, "vote"), Waldman traces the word, by her own admittedly "skewed association with mathematics" to "voice."

She continues:

"Poetry" is, of course, from "poiein:" to make. This English fifteenth-century word, which means "courtly makes," is the exact equivalent of the word "poets." The whole world is the court now (judicial, economic, worldly, spiritual, virtual), in which the making of alternative versions (poems) and realities for poetry activity seems more pressing than ever.

To the point of this book:

With the exception of the interviews sprinkled throughout, Vow to Poetry is organized nonchronologically, which is more conducive to sensing the relative momentum of each piece to the pieces around it. As such, the arrangement attempts to juxtapose a range of "takes" from soapbox to schoolmarm. Many of the pieces evolved from notes for, or transcriptions of, classes and panels at Naropa University on a range of subjects, many autobiographical, often instigated by travel, while others are musings or responses to issues at hand. An inordinate amount of outside interest provoked mutterings around various Buddhist notions and how they might relate to a practice of poetry.

This is a "big" book--not merely in excess of 350 pages, but in its scope, breadth and depth. I would like to list the chapter headings, but each chapter is so brief, that to do so would require a list longer than I care to type. Here is a representative sample from the table of contents, with a brief explanation of each:

Prelude: "My Long and Only Afterlife": stream-of-consciousness diary entry by Waldman about her Hanoi experience, May, 2000.

Feminafesto: as the title indicates, a "feminist manifesto" for the poet in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Vow to Poetry: interview/conversation between Ann Waldman and Randy Roark, Boulder, Colorado, 1991, which contains a terrific discussion of "generosity."

Creative Writing Life: a list of over 100 exercises, prompts, and experiments to better reading, writing, performing, and living the writing life. My favorite:

Be in the Mind/perspective of a writer twenty-four hours a day . . . Repeat the mantra: "I exist to write."

Epic & Performance: Waldman discusses quotes from famous poets--my favorite is from "Coleridge:

I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten years to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable mathematician. I would thoroughly understand Mechanics; Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy; Botany; Metallurgy; Fossilism; Chemistry; Geology: Anatomy: Medicine: then the minds of men, in all Travels, Voyages, and Histories. So I would spend ten years, the next five in the composition of the poem, and the next five in the correction of it. So would I write, haply not unhearing of that divine and nightly whispering voice, which speaks to mighty minds, or predestined garlands, starry and unwithering.

And there are 30 more chapters just as powerful, waiting to be devoured, metabolized, and turned into poetry and its attendant commitments. That's why--you know--Vow to Poetry is on my top ten list of poetry books to put on your wish list.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

As always, your comments and observations allow the poet to shine, not the commentator. I'm starting today with this most recent post, so I am not aware of what has preceded this recommendation for the Desert Isle Library, but I'm ready to take this one along. Not so much because it sounds like something I will like as because it sounds like something that will challenge and enrich my thinking and writing for a long time. And, it seems clear, it will encourage desert island writing that is just for its own sake, not for some expected editor or audience.