I like to think that, at times, in the right light, I look a bit like one of my heroes, the poet Richard Hugo. We're both writers obsessed with place, both writers who love jazz, and both writers who see the terrain beneath our feet as a starting place, a jumping-off point, a pick-up note for poetry. Hugo's best work is improvisatory. He finds a rhythm in line one and develops a theme, like Miles Davis locked in the pocket, exploring the mode.
Hugo's work taught me that the triggering subject is the root, but the improvisation is the key. I'm nowhere near the poet was; don't misunderstand me. Rather, I see in him a kindred spirit, someone I look up to, someone who's work continues to inspire me.
I'm planning a fishing trip soon. I'll look out over the Gulf of Mexico, cast a line out, and listen to the surf churning in. I'll be thinking of Richard Hugo, mourning the fact that I never got a chance to meet him. I'll try to keep this poem in my head:
Quick and yet he moves like silt.
I envy dreams that see his curving
silver in the weeds. When stiff as snags
he blends with certain stones.
When evening pulls the ceiling tight
across his back he leaps for bugs.
I wedged hard water to validate his skin-
call it chrome, say red is on
his side like apples in a fog, gold
gills. Swirls always looked one way
until he carved the water into any
kinds of current with his nerve-edged nose.
And I have stared at steelhead teeth
to know him, savage in his sea-run growth,
to drug his facts, catalog his fins
with wings and arms, to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions of cress.
From Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo
The Sundress Best of the Net online anthology is now live. Featuring some great poetry by Eduardo Corral, Elizabeth Ashe, and Wendy Xu, this year's publication features fiction by James Valvis (among others) and nonfiction by Peyton Marshall (among others). The beautiful cover image is by Rhonda Lott.
Contributing journals include Blackbird, Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, and Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, all perennial favorites of mine.
In effect, asking what a poem is about is like asking what music is about. And our inability to answer that question succinctly is hardly a testament to the meaningless of poetry—or music for that matter. When we mistake a poem for a newspaper article or even an anecdote, then the expectations for a poem’s language changes—and drastically. As Eliot said, poetry “is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.”
Can I get an amen?
O for a muse of fire,