The Universal Notebook: The art of poetry

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“When you are a famous poet in America,” John Ashbery once observed, “you are not famous.”

Unlike most everything else in America, including many other art forms, poetry is incorruptible. Poetry won’t make you rich or famous. Poetry is enriched language. It is its own wealth. Poetry is what language aspires to – freedom from strictures of logic and grammar to pursue wild and expressive ends, a speaking in tongues, spiritual utterance.

These thoughts are occasioned by the arrival of “Quarry: The Collected Poems of Peter Kilgore” (North Country Press, $19.95), the life’s work of a Maine poet who died too soon.

Most of Peter Kilgore’s poems are long, thin strings of words, like votive candles of letters with section glyphs for printed flames. But “Portland Renewal Authority,” a paean to the poet’s lost Bayside neighborhood, is a thick, run-on stream-of-consciousness accounting.

“franklin street: bing chous laundry jacks barber shop the house where myna lived diamond meat market diagonal; front cut off the square a single pillar & thumb latch doors a sawdust store of mustachioed men in stained white aprons men with red faces reading kitchen notes from women”

Peter Kilgore (1941-1992) was part of a countercultural literary scene in the 1970s that included Bruce Holsapple, co-founder of Contraband magazine and co-editor (with nature writer Dana Wilde) of “Quarry,” and writers and poets such as David Empfield, Agnes Bushell, Lee Sharkey, Gary Lawless, Stephen Petroff and Mark Melnicove. How well I remember Bruce Holsapple selling poetry out front of the old Portland Public Library when I worked there in the 1970s. I lost track of him decades ago, but was pleased to discover that he still lives a life of poetry out in New Mexico.

Memories of these local literary folks come flooding back both with the arrival of “Quarry” and with the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Steve Luttrell’s Café Review ($10 quarterly) and publication of “Balancing Act 2” (Littoral Books, $25).

Back in 1975, “Balancing Act” addressed the gender imbalance in Maine poetry by publishing the work of 10 female poets. “Balancing Act 2” contains poetry by 50 Maine women, among them Marcia Brown, Lee Sharkey, Betsy Sholl and Lynn Siefert.

Being a child of the 1960s, I grew up reading the poets of the 1950s: Welsh wild man Dylan Thomas and Beat Generation bards such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Under their influence and that of Bob Dylan, I wrote a poem entitled “Uncensorable Like the Light” that I read at my 1967 high school graduation. I’m sure I would be embarrassed by it today, but, fortunately, all I remember is the title.

At the University of Maine in Portland, I studied with poets James Lewisohn and Richard Grossinger and developed a liking for the poetry of John Ashbery, John Berryman, Galway Kinnell and Philip Larkin. Larkin’s deep pessimism appealed to me at the time.

“Man hands on misery to man,/ It deepens like a coastal shelf./ Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

I didn’t follow the poet’s advice. Nor did I become a poet. But I do still read poetry to experience language in its most concentrated form, unfettered by ulterior motives of analysis and argumentation. As Archibald McLeish wrote:

“A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean

But be.”

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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