Saturday, October 2, 2010

What I Say, What I Mean, What You Hear

Guy le Charles Gonzalez, a slam poet who has gone on to establish himself as a really bright voice in the conversation about the future of book publishing, reposted a funny Venn diagram with two, distinct, non-overlapping circles: "What the poet meant" and "What you thought they meant."

Funny because, of course, yes. And yet... At last Thursday's NYU reading series, Matthew Zapruder fielded several questions about the difference between public and private language. The questions arose from this line in his poem "Come On All You Ghosts": "In this poem // every word means exactly / what it means / when we use it in every day life." This gesture, startlingly generous and probably surprising to most readers of contemporary poetry, assures the reader that we have the means to understand one another. It asserts that the writer / reader circles of the Venn diagram can overlap. Even for me (my own readerly predilection being for poems in which each word spirals out in countless directions), it's a line that comes sweetly, openly, irresistibly.

But that does not mean Matthew thinks the circles overlap 100%. In the Q & A, he made explicit the difference between public and private language -- and that each word functions in each realm all the time. "Really," he said, "it's a miracle we can understand each other at all." He mentioned his young nephew coming to learn the word "tree," for whom it means, first, the very specific tree in his backyard -- one you and I will never see. That tree will always live inside the nephew's word. And each of us has our own private tree inside the word. ("Towering tree within the ear," Rilke wrote in his first Sonnet to Orpheus.) The word is both "public," the abstraction you and I understand and communicate with, and "private," the particular no one else can know. So the poem -- "a machine made out of words" as Williams has it -- delivers a structure for readers, each of us, to share. Together, privately. As Matthew's brilliant "Come On All You Ghosts" gives us in its final lines: "I have done my best to leave // behind this machine / anyone with a mind / who cares can enter."

The lucky ones

At this week's literary salon at NYU, Matthew Zapruder filled the house. While I've almost stopped going to readings altogether recently, this one felt like a can't miss. And it was: His new poems are among the most exciting work produced by our generation and he read them with warmth, humor, and wit. Looked at simply in the context of the poets in the audience that night -- Rachel Zucker, Timothy Donnelly, Cate Marvin, Mark Bibbins, Brenda Shaughnessy, Geoffrey Nutter, etc. -- ours suddenly looks like not only a generation of promise, but, suddenly, one that delivers amazing contributions across an impossibly wide spectrum of interest and style. Add in a few of my other favorite poets who weren't there -- Thomas Sayers Ellis, Claudia Rankine, Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma -- and this is one crazy good group. But while all of the above are roughly the same age, and all are good friends with each other, "group" isn't really the word, is it? They all share an at-playness with their circumstance. But some use persona, some use "self." Some use a forthrightness of delivery, some tell it slant. Some mix-up diction, some keep it straight up. Some keep the politics personal, some invest it in you, dear reader. Afterward, a friend lifted a glass to the whole evening -- which included all of us reading and writing poems today. "Aren't we the lucky ones," he said. Yes.