In February of this year The New York Times Magazine announced a revamped issue with new fonts, columns, writers, and most surprisingly the announcement that they planned to publish a poem each week: Poetry is often seen as a quaint preoccupation, but we believe it is a vital experience, particularly when published within a newspaper, where the clamor of pressing timely items calls for the counterpoint of a more timeless note.
Needless to say, as the author of nine books of poetry, I was thrilled to read this announcement and curious to see just how they’d present the work. For four months now Natasha Trethewey, former U.S Poet Laureate, and professor at Emory University has selected a single poem from a number of poets, introducing each work with a comment on how the piece impacts her personally.
I’d like to present this notion of the timeless quality inherent in good poetry by selecting work from fellow poets, ask them a few questions, and attempt to synthesize the dialogue by way of introduction. To begin this series I outreached Betsy Sholl, former Maine State Poet Laureate, and 2014 Winner of the Four Lakes Poetry Prize, which included publication of her book, Otherwise Unseeable by The University of Wisconsin Press.
Her poem, Bass Flute, bowled me over with its language and imagery. I was curious about the actual context of the experience, wondering where the spontaneous onomatopoeia erupted from, and whether the opening line had any conscious reference to Archibald MacLeish’s famous adage: A poem should not mean / But be.
Betsy let me know that the piece was based on a performance here in Portland by Carl Dimow. She describes how she’d never seen a bass flute before, “an instrument so big that it seemed as though the man and instrument were wrestling each other ... I couldn’t help thinking that art at its best really uses its maker entirely – at least in the moment of making.” She responded that she wanted to make the piece noisy, which she’s succeeded in doing so well here with such raucous words as, “raw urge ... clatter and wheeze ... unmuffled gut ... heart ungagged ... wants to be bad, to beatbox, batter his breath, hiss ...” Damn, I’m there! I hear Carl!
MacLeish’s belief that a poem goes beyond meaning into the very realm of separate existence is wonderfully accomplished here in Bass Flute, a poem I’m thankful to have the opportunity to share.
Otherwise Unseeable is Betsy Sholl’s eighth book of poetry. Recently she read some of her jazz poems as part of a trio with guitarist Gary Whittner and sax virtuoso Jimmy Cameron.
Robert Gibbons’ Trilogy of prose poems, This Time, Traveling Companion, and To Know Others, Various & Free, is available from Nine Point Publishing. ^
No talk here of Meaning, it’s
raw urge that nudges the wall
music and noise. Now the man
his mouthpiece, hums it into a
buzzing out from the silver
it’s the sound of key clatter and
sound of the unmuffled gut set
to bluster and honk, the drowsy
ungagged, as if this instrument
to be more than notes on a
to be amped up past soothing
oohs, oomphed out
through spheres, ousted far
It pulls the man to his toes,
then bends him
in half. It wants to be bad, to
batter his breath, hiss and
clang like steam heat.
It wants to riff till the rafters
fall, and won’t
let the man go until it’s emptied
soul and sweat and spit. –