Play & Turn The Wheel: Midlife Poetics

by David Cope


Compassion and awareness, the heart spoke first, and I set my stamp of approval there, but I am more interested in the ambiguities, the multiple layers of conflicting experience, the paradoxes that force us, blind and deaf, to grope our way without the pat reassurances of those so certain they've found their way—to move through the darkness of the time and retrieve complexities of vision beyond what machine mentalities with their continuous barrage of debased language, simplistic answers, slogans and political and commercial hounding would program us to ignore and to play, to strut sweetly with the uncertainties, to dance among the paradoxes. If the poem rings the bells in someone's clouds, so much am I the happier, yet I would also play and turn the wheel.

My writing began with what Allen Ginsberg identified as the "tradition of lucid grounded sane objectivism . . . following the visually solid practice of Charles Reznikoff and William Carlos Williams," and while that visual aspect—attentiveness to what Blake called "minute particulars"—has been important to me, my books have developed as a series of experiments in constructing interlocking suites of poems using a variety of images as connecting motifs, continuing series (the love poems for Sue, the "canoeing" poems, the poems for Billy, etc.), and the use of allusions to develop intertextual matrix. I have also deliberately approached style and technique with the idea of maximizing variety, not only continuing the objectivist "postcard" series derivative of Reznikoff and Cendrars, but also developing Kerouacian jazz-solo performance pieces, my own idiosyncratic variations of middle-eastern ghazals, "weird sonnets," funky villanelles, dialect testimonies and dramatic monologues involving voices overheard in lunch rooms & on dark streets, free verse triads loosely based on the dantescan model, dream & visionary poems scribbled out of sleep, spatial explorations after WCW's late models—the open spaces signifying silences between words or syllables—and multi-stanzaed poems set up as an Aleutian chain of stanzasislands loosely connected in a sea of silences, Whitmanic prophetic rants and quietly Berriganlike personal poems written as letters, etc. I am interested in a multi-dimensional language which is both plain and elegant: accessible to those with no knowledge of traditions yet also a feast of techniques and allusion for those with greater knowledge, neither reader barred from the poem.

A Credo of Sorts

I experience words intimately, I love to sniff about them and let them sing in my flesh, flame up and go out and rekindle, that I might place them like jewels when the time comes for them to sing in a song. I believe in unfettered expression, in following the thought wherever it might lead, and in spontaneity of inspiration, but I also believe that the poem requires attentiveness to shape and sound. I am innately suspicious of "first thought, best thought," having seen many a first thought that plays a surface tune without ever piercing to the depths below. The poem requires groundwork, sweat, it must be earned and is not a given, and one must attend to it as to a favorite scene, a recurring day-dream, a deep node of suffering, a demanding muse, a falling petal. Further, Williams said one must "go back to the people" because the poem that is disconnected from human need has no depth or sustenance for the readers who come to it.

Later Years

In these later years, I find myself more and more playing with voices, characters who speak to me in dead air or in the blue room of dreams, and with opening the invisible doors that the riddles presume is here: "the next path can't be seen with living eyes; the heart's blind cupid can't fathom the love to come; sit." I am less interested in the deliberate experimentations of the last three books (Fragments from the Stars, Coming Home, and Silences for Love) finding myself now with a toolbox stuffed with those techniques learned through those books; now, I say let technique take care of itself—and it will—and I await only that poem that demands to be written. This stage of life has involved patience: learning to recognize that piece which comes only a few times a year—if that—bypassing the poems that have written themselves out before for the sake of poems whose fire burns in a deeper & less brilliant way, but whose singing captures complexities only hinted at when I was younger & burned with a different kind of air.