Sunday, February 8, 2009

TC: The Lonesome Guitarist: What Is The Place Of Poetry On A Blog?

(A Letter to a Blog Administrator)

Dear ----,

Thanks for writing. There are issues in your letter I'd like to address.

To then begin by considering your thoughtful comment:

"[Your poem], I suspect, will have intimidated the [blog readers], it is indeed profound and serious, and has both general and deeply personal meaning. I would imagine that most of them will have read it, felt that it needed them to come back and re-read and make a thoughtful comment, and then other things will have got in the way or they will have felt in the end that they had nothing to offer.

"The [blog readers] as a group are terrified of seeming pretentious and are very modest about their own critical abilities - they're also aware, because they have all put their own pieces on [these blogs], that it takes courage for people to post their own work. So they go in the direction of saying 'That's nice' and then having a chat. While this sometimes makes the writer feel like the guitarist in the corner of a coffee-shop..."

This analogy of the lonesome and disregarded guitarist perhaps comes close to certain issues of mutual concern re. the poet's participation in a blog-chatter site.

You may or may not know I have written many books (and literally many hundreds of essays and reviews) about the art of poetry and its practitioners: critical essays collected in a book called The Poetry Beat, critical biographies of many poets including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn--perhaps mere vaguely-familiar names to you, but, from what I've seen, luminaries of magnitude, diluted somewhat perhaps by fifth- and sixth-hand transmission, in the Guardian Unlimited poem-of-the-month homework assignments.

But the one book I've written about poets/poetry that maybe speaks most closely to the art itself, as we are discussing it here, is a biography-in-verse of John Keats, Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats (Black Sparrow Press, 1994).

In this book a (or the) central motif is suggested in a frontispiece drawing (repeated following the last poem) of an unstrung lyre. This image represents, on a literal and specific level, a gift bestowed upon Keats by Fanny Brawne: a Tassie seal upon which is graven the image of an unstrung lyre. The lyre, in the small world of Keats and his circle, is of course that of Apollo--a lyre whose strings Keats had vowed from early manhood to pluck, and a god whose laurels he intended, above all other things in life, to someday gather.

In some sense my verse biography tells the story of that lovely, lofty aspiration, and of its shattering by life, and of the coming-unstrung of the lyre.

The metaphor is resonant through the book also in images of the constellation Lyra, hanging like a map to Apollo's kingdom above the mean and not-so-mean streets of Regency London. You know of course Keats was an ostler's son born within earshot of Bow Bells (your current neighbourhood, after all!), who determined early on, despite the enormity of this ambition considering his class status, to make a name for himself in time to come as among "the English Poets"--by which he meant no less than Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, all those creators of wonders he'd discovered as a lad at Clarke's school in Enfield. (As of that class status, his friends called JK "Junkets" in a friendly imitation of his Cockney way of saying his name--but of course there were others, like "Z" of Blackwood's, who were far less kind about his unmistakeably evident Cockney origins.)

In the prelude to the book, we hear that Hermes found an empty tortoise shell on the beach and strung seven strings through the holes, and that light shimmered then upon the strings, which when plucked delivered heavenly sounds. Hermes swapped this instrument to Apollo for a magic healing staff entwined with snakes. The staff also possessed the ability to render its owner airborne. But Apollo did not feel cheated in the exchange, for now he possessed the divine power of song.

Apollo passed on the power of song to his son, Orpheus, but not without warning him about the special concealed defect of this wonderful gift. Though it was a very strong power, it left you in many ways defenseless, because you could not do harm with it. And the defect concealed in this gift? You might well die for possessing it.

While staying very close to the period historical grain throughout, in my Junkets I deploy this metaphor as a motif or subtext that tells the life story of Keats at a parabolic level. (The Allegory of a Poet's Life is a title I've also used, in my biography of Olson, there again to refer to Keats' comment that the life of a poet is a Life of Allegory, figurative in so many important respects.) Throughout the book, the poet's lyre appears as a figure of poetic gift, meanwhile beckoning overhead as that remote constellation in the London night sky.

Should you ever look into the book, you'll find the poems that are to some extent pervaded by this motif include The Power of Song, Pegasus Jockey, Yonder's Wall, Cockney Childhood, Sidereal Study, Debut, and Sensitive--

"At their meeting presided over by Haydon
Wordsworth told Keats his Hymn to Pan
was no more than a pretty piece of paganism
and, as Haydon shrewdly noted, Keats
actually trembled, like the string of
a lyre when it has been touched"

-- and Sentiment, spoken by Fanny Brawne--

"Somehow I knew damaged Beauty would be his theme, giving him on the happiest day I had ever then spent the Tassie letter seal of a Greek lyre with half its strings dangling slack and broken--a gift I was right to think might pique his power of song--which was no less than Apollo's--playing with words was then and ever after his chief pastime and pleasure--"

--The Summer Triangle, A Pocket Apollo, and A Warm Situation, spoken by Keats himself--

"My chance of immortality is to learn the tune of nature's quiet power, and take up my lyre, a pocket Apollo as Mrs. Jones teased me once, assimilated completely to that warm song..."

--and then, in his terminal illness, Unstrung--

"His lyre pulled down from the sky, stomped on, broken..."

-- and Sentiment II (Fanny Brawne)--

"...and from Italy he sealed his last letters with that same Tassie seal..."

--and again in the Coda--

"The whole fate drama hoving onto view
Before dawn under the lyric stars--"

"The burden of the mystery producing
A mimetic touching of the strings"

What is it I am struggling to say, by way of this circuitous tour through the course of that Apollonian lyre metaphor in my version of Keats' life, that's relevant to our dialogue about the place of poetry on a blogchatter site?

Perhaps this.

Your line, "While this sometimes makes the writer feel like the guitarist in the corner of a coffee-shop," now helps me to understand that maybe Apollo did indeed get the poor end of that bargain with Hermes. And that the unfortunate fate of Keats is a small parable on the subject. And that in this cold and all-too-real earthly world of ours the lonely guitarist had better find some warming coin--not so much monetary as, dare one say, spiritual reward--in his case at the end of the evening, else all he was doing was hastening his own demise to no discernible end... while the insouciant audience chattered on around him/her. (For all of eternity, as it were.)


And the Blog Administrator replied:

"... while they're a nice, varied and intelligent bunch they don't have much critical apparatus. (Nor do I, for that matter, where poetry's concerned) It'll never be like the audience you might get at a poetry reading who would have the vocabulary to express their reactions to the work, but that doesn't mean they don't take the work in and react in their own way..."

"...But it's a pleasant coffee bar and the guitarist is expected to sit and chat with everyone else, and they'll usually have a kind word to say about the music."

Tom Clark


Dale said...

This is a beautiful essay. Much love to you, Tom....

(I had to write "cuptood" in order to publish these words.)


TC said...


What a pleasure to have you as our first guest.

The intention in this series of posts is to explore the question, What Is the Poetic? As a veteran explorer of that particular dark continent, your company in the quest is sincerely appreciated.

(The image of the impressive ream of publications in your avatar box, by the way, gives rise to a possibly-poetic thought. Perhaps we might begin to assemble a stack of meaningless-word poems--beginning with your "cuptood". I have so far been offered "consinge" and "gueterea". The associations thereunto, of course, might well be endless. Were there but world enough and time...)

elanecu said...

I give you "chyre"


TC said...


Quite fortifying, "chyre", do they not say?

In return on a bleak and rainy day I fear I can offer but a meagre dish of "polanaba".

(And when the waiter tripped in serving that, he returned with a perhaps superior "cousse".)

Dale said...

Tom, I've been thinking about this post all day, and wrote about it briefly at I quoted this, from an email to you yesterday, and thought I'd share it here as well:

I also wonder about that guitarist, and how good it is to have some purpose--even if no one listens--if it's utter vacuum--the guitarist has adventure, purpose, drive--in the face of that vast silence. I don't think the audience has that same awareness of adventure. They may despise the guitarist's awareness of it, too. But I've always resisted that sense of poetry's uselessness. I think it was Duncan who said something to that effect--poetry does nothing. I don't believe that though--but you can't count on response. No one loves the guitarist; they love his song. And since they love the song, they will not remember the singer. I like the image of a poet as a medieval craftsman. Those cathedrals remain, but who remembers the masons and architects who made them. For me, poetry gives something that others don't have: a way to enter the world more efficiently.

TC said...

For those interested in poetic radiology, the brilliant Tom Raworth has seen through Keats in Hampstead to find the Blue Guitarist, here:

poetowen said...

Great essay--sent me back to the Keats book (and Keats) for the nth time. Had been swimming around the poetry pool for awhile when Junkets came out, but that book (and Tom's classes at New College)took me out to the deep end.

TC said...


As Keats's story helps us to understand, there are times when it takes a friend or two to keep a poet afloat. (Too bad all that's left of S.S. New College are the bubbles.)

elanecu said...


1598 B. JONSON Ev. Man in Hum. I. i, You are welcome, cousse.

love, Tom