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presence

MIchael Hettich, Lobby Bar, July 16 (2)

Long-time resident of Miami poet Michael Hettich has been writing and publishing poetry for over three decades now. His friends and students here in South Florida have luckily benefitted from the closeness and dialy-ness of his presence and work, so too have many of his long-time readers here and abroad. As the three poems to be shared here will show, Hettich’s is a poetics of external and internal metamorphosis and regeneration, at once fed by and still feeding from elemental forces many times taken for granted because of their everyday groundedness in time and place. With a powerful impetus that has always seemed to me Ovidian, his poetry is always immediate, action-packed, vivid and engrossingly visceral, even when subjective fancies enter lyrically or narratively mid-stream. In an always trusting and refreshing manner, his poems invite all readers to dwell in them for a little. His are poems to be lived, explored, worn, dreamed or, many times, breathed as mantras.

To prove these highlighted observations I have taken three poems from Michael Hettich’s The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011), a fairly recent award-winning volume. Because he is readying to publish a new collection in April (tentatively titled Systems of Vanishing), I purposely took three arguably recent poems that deal specifically with a poet still trying to cope with the almost decade-long loss of his father.  And the beauty will be apparent immediately—for they are not poems of morbidity, rigidity, melodrama or woe-is-me lamentation; instead, they are poems of remembrance that have transformed personal loss, change and impermanence into a newfound wakefulness, a here and now celebration and witnessing. In these poems there is no hint of regret, just a new “way of staying present.”

Measuring the Days

My father dives in and swims off across the bay,
tries to swim all the way to the other side,
swims past slag islands of mucky-drift and mangrove
crowded with birds that don’t notice him.
If he makes it to the other shore he will walk home, barefoot
and dripping. This is his weekend routine,
his way of staying present. But of course we miss him,
cutting the grass or walking through the neighborhood,
talking to acquaintances or glancing at the sky.
Even the minnows swim through him now
as he slowly dissolves into the current. And we remember him
like hair and teeth, like skin–if we remember him
at all. He swims as he always did, steady
and relaxed, reaching forward and pulling, kicking hard.

Concrete and Mortar

I dreamed I was running backward, through fields
and woods, feeling as though I was about to
crash into a rock, or a tree, or fall into
a river and be swept away. But still I ran on.
The windows in our bedroom this morning are dusted
with pollen that smells like damp mushrooms, or like
pipe tobacco in a rarely-opened drawer.
The wild coffee is blooming too, and full of buzzing bees.
Your father has died, two thousand miles away.
The mortar anchoring the bricks of the house
he built with his father, the house you grew up in,
has been crumbling away, falling back to sand.
The workshop he built himself in the back yard
will be pulled down; all his tools will be scattered.
We were married in that back yard. Even the mountains
are slowly coming down. I remember that basement,
the cool darkness where your brother slept the days away, for years.
I remember your mother making cards and gifts down there.
Everything is secret, or else it wouldn’t need to be.
Everything is waiting. Certain days we couldn’t see
the mountains from your parents’ street. Other days they loomed.

The Small Birds

They ask us to understand our grief
by simply leaping out, trusting the air
which is far more complex than sorrow, to follow
all we’ve ever done with a pure heart and change ourselves
completely, but never for long.
Someday, you say, you’ll be glass in a window
that looks across a landscape of wilderness and snow
which will melt when you go out there and walk, because
you’ve loved someone well. But whom do you love,
after all? For now, you open that window
and lean out. For now you just watch things: vivid rugs
on hardwood floors, closets full of clothes
that would never fit you, where another person’s smell
lingers for years. And then it vanishes.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.

I strive for presence in my work—not for visual or oral appeal, but for a presence beyond the overt trickery of either. I am known for being a good reader of my poetry, but, if you listen to me on tape, you would not find my reading voice to be at all remarkable. I do not use acting or oral chops. I am actually reading with a far from mellifluous voice—but it is always a “Speaking voice.” It is the voice of my consciousness. There are three basic kinds of speaking voice:

1. The voice aware of itself speaking, and, thereby, speechifying. This voice will include various devices of rhetoric such as amplitude, hyperbole, adynaton, apostrophic address, extended metaphor, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, cadence. Slammers, at least over the last few years, are prone to what I call “shot gun” metaphors—a series of extended metaphors that decorate a basic issue oriented trope—very much like menology, especially monology as it was evolved post Lenny Bruce—humor as recognition and identification rather than as punch line or story. Slammers have also fallen into a definite slam cadence, one which irritates the hell out of me unless it is done with some nuance. But the voice aware of itself speaking pre-dates slam. It is the voice of the orator, the con artist, the preacher, the rhetorician. It is exactly this voice that modernism and postmodernity sought to mute. Now onto a second form of speaking:

2. The voice as conversational lyric—the poet’s consciousness moving, and ruminating, and allowing an audience to overhear. This “voice” has been a dominant entity in poems since Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ginsberg, Stevens, wildly dissimilar poets, employ the conversational lyric. it may be formal, or casual, confessionalist or impersonal and vatic, but it has the one shared quality of being “overheard”—a voice caught in mid-consciousness. Such a voice enables the poet to mix registers of speech.

3. The voice as relaying information—without attitude, simply reading. Somehow this is considered the most honest voice by certain aficionados of poetry (especially those who hate spoken word or slam) but, in its radical rejection of any tone or attitude, it, too, is a literary conceit.

I have used all these forms of “Speaking,” sometimes in the course of a single poem, but I do not “perform” poems. I read them. They exist as scripts for me, and I often change them as I read—much as a musician might decorate a note, or leave out a chord passage depending on the mood of the moment.

So I am not a performative poet, and certainly not a slammer, but I am a reader of poetry—meant to have a speaking voice, a voice that often shifts according to my consciousness. I construct my line on the page as I am writing the poem, not for visual appeal, but as a sort of flow chart that changes and shifts in such a way that, if read out loud, the presence of a speaking voice will be the result.

I bring all this up because yesterday, after I had read at the West Caldwell magazine festival, a very nice woman named Bess came over to compliment and praise me. She did not buy my book because she already had it. She asked me where the poem “Poem for Advent” appeared. She said: “I loved it.” I smiled: “it’s right in the book you already purchased.” She looked surprised. “I read that book cover to cover… I’m sure I would have remembered it…” Then she paused and continued: “of course, it’s the way you read your poems. You’re such a good reader… you should do a recording… whatever you do, it’s not on the page.” I said: “you’re both right and you’re wrong. It’s both on the page and out loud, but it’s really neither. The force does not come from my performing the poem, or reading it with any special talent. My only talent as a reader is that I’m clear, and change speeds as I read… But thank you.”

This troubled me. Was “Poem for Advent” only good when I read it? The poem received a great crowd reception, and yet it was not a poem you would typically read to wow a crowd. It was not that I read it well, but rather that what I had written on the page (and always on the page) had managed to create a presence, a speaker. The speaking voice was not lost even in the page version. I write my poems as I think—they move with my thoughts. Now I want to analyze that poem as if it were not mine to see why it might go over well with a crowd of listeners—most of whom were published poets in their 30′s, 40′s and beyond.

The world takes us at its leisure…

This is the first line, not exactly a thrilling hook, but there are things going on here. First, it’s an opinion, a wager, a statement. Second, it does not yield its meaning immediately. What does it mean for a “World” to take us at its leisure? I am using personification, ascribing to the world a character. Taking is an aggressive act, whether it is sexual or a species of theft. To do so at its leisure implies a certain toying with us. Of course I was not thinking any of this when I wrote that first line. I was probably not thinking at all, but “sounding” my way into thought. I never have an idea I translate into poetry. I have sounding I shape, and within those shapes the thoughts of the poem begin to form. In this case, I had a title first (unusual for me) so I consider any poem that has a title first to be somewhat occasional—to serve the occasion, in this case Advent. If you are a reader of the Gospel, you will know we do not “belong” to this world, but this is my instinctive, rather than premeditated first act. Sound wise, it contains Uh, Er, long A, Uh, aah (the gag vowel), small i, high e, and er again. World and leisure share chiming sounds. IN terms of vowel sounds, it is only missing the long u as in ooh, the long oh as in boat, and the sound, Ah as in Ska. Note the dentals as in d at the end of world, t in takes, at, and its. So, in sonic terms, a lot more is happening than I might think until now. Still, this is not a poem seeking an immediate bang. I think takes is a strong verb. Much poetry on the page is wary of strong verbs. Floaty gerunds have somehow become more “lyrical.” Beats me, but let’s continue:

The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”

Now the listener can’t see the quotes around virtue, but increments of infamy is a distant cousin of “weapons of mass destruction” or jack boot of the state. It uses the common sound of “in” as Joyce did with agin bite of inwit. In point of fact, Joyce is secretly hidden in my ear along with Stevens and Williams because I spent years reading them (and not out loud, though, sometimes). The ur sound serves as a rhyming function (world, leisure, virtue), but, as with hip hop, it is never in a predictable position. It’s sneaky rhyme, so sneaky I have no idea I am doing it. This helps create a speaking voice because people are often rhyming without knowing it. Still, no metaphors, no meter, and nothing that sounds like common speech exists here. The first two lines are 8 syllables, but not metered.

In short, there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly. There are several unusual phrases that get developed later, there is a play with the idea of conning, and evangelizing, and the poem moves into the darkness of advent, into a sort of freely improvised meditation on what is genuine and holy and what is false in terms of the spirit, but nothing in this poem is overtly oratorical. If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing, yet never forgetting to circle an intention which is to meditate upon the false and the genuine, and more so, upon the merge points between them. At its close, it becomes a plea to God: Maranatha. It employs the mystical oxymoron of “despairing more deeply into joy. Somehow, I am able to convey my sense of struggle with faith and conscience. I also compare the “lascivious” grin of an old Chrysler to Burt Lancaster’s smile in Elmer Gantry, and that is a good simile, a very good simile, and visually accurate in an odd way. There are moments of anaphora, and alliteration, especially toward the end when the poem reaches its climax, but neither is used as a chief shaping agent. So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric. Hell, beats me. I know I did not think the poem up. I wrote it one line and word at a time, not knowing ever exactly where I was going: the same way I talk. Maybe people were just being nice.