Poetry Supplement Summer 1999, Volume 17.0
With Sharon Olds in Idaho
Ron McFarland teaches 17th-century and modern poetry, contemporary Northwest writers, and creative writing at the University of Idaho, where he is director of the creative writing program, faculty advisor to the UI literary magazine, Fugue, and to the UI Soccer Club. His most recent book is a critical study, The World of David Wagoner (UI Press, 1997). The University of South Carolina Press will publish his critical study, Understanding James Welch, later this year. A chapbook of his poems, Dreaming of Baseball, will be published soon by Spitball magazine.
Read other work by Ron McFarland published in Weber Studies: Vol. 8.1 (fiction), Vol. 12.1 (poetry), Vol. 15.2 (poetry), Vol. 17.1 (fiction), Vol. 19.3 (fiction), Vol. 22.2 (essay), Vol. 23.1 (Fiction).
Because the Poets in Person session at Deary, Idaho (population slightly in excess of 500) was about thirty miles into the country, I left Moscow earlier than I needed to, planning to arrive about 7:15 p.m. and chat for ten or fifteen minutes with the librarian who would be my host. When the head librarian of the Moscow-Latah County Library, mapped out the programs with me a year earlier, she had dreamed up an ambitious scheme about which, as I recall, Joseph Parisi, the editor of Poetry and coordinator of our training session, had some misgivings. Certainly her approach, which became our approach, would place a burden on me as the presenter, but I am the reckless type, and being a veteran of two series presentations in Sandpoint, which required trips north of two and a half hours each way, I was confident I could pull it off.
Our focus was simple enough: to investigate with the discussion groups the element of story or narrative within and "behind" the poems under consideration. The PIP series provides taped interviews with the poet, including the reading of several poems, along with an anthology (usually seven or eight poems) and a brief essay on the poet and his or her work (usually around ten pages). The "in person" part of the project refers to the taped presence of the poet's voice, but there is often some initial confusion, with local participants assuming their small town in Idaho will be visited in successive weeks by four or five major poets the likes of John Ashbery, Gwendolyn Brooks and W. S. Merwin. The second time we ran the program in Sandpoint, we called it "Poets on Tape." Participants pick up the anthology and tapes at the library and prepare themselves for a two-hour visit by the presenter. The presenter fleshes out the information provided by the now somewhat dated materials (the tapes are copyrighted 1991, when Gary Soto described himself as a "reconfirmed Catholic"—more recently he has become a Presbyterian); then there is usually a break for refreshments; then the group reconvenes for open discussion. Although librarians and poets representing constituencies in Massachusetts and Virginia claimed huge crowds from past experiences with PIP, in these parts I knew we might reasonably expect groups of anywhere from ten or twelve to twenty.
What complicated our scheme was the head librarian's desire to serve the outlying branch libraries in a couple of smaller communities. Idaho is sometimes described as a state made up of small towns, and with a population of only about 1.2 million spread over more than 82 thousand miles of land (ranked 11th nationally), that description is probably accurate. Although I did have some reservations as to whether the locals fifteen miles north of Moscow at Potlatch (population about 800), or Deary, or Bovill (about 45 miles east, population circa 300) would flock to hear The Great Ron McFarland lead a poetry discussion, I am just egocentric enough to have wanted to think that might happen. Pride goeth before a fall. But perhaps it was true that there was a craving for poetry out in the back-country of Idaho, a state described in a recent front-page feature in the New York Times as "in danger of becoming another Mississippi." Whatever my motive, I warmed to the challenge.
The head librarian and her energetic husband, who teaches Spanish at the University of Idaho, would prepare the way at each site with a showing of the film Il Postino, which testifies to the power of poetry via Pablo Neruda. The week after the film, I would visit, first, the Moscow library, where the central collection is kept, and I would present poets on two successive weeks in order to build interest, attract media attention, arouse curiosity, and promote the general welfare. Then, after the videotape, I would appear for two meetings at the Potlatch library (as it turned out, at the high school), and ditto for the Deary-Bovill libraries, which are two very small branches served by the same librarian, who lives in Deary. We would wrap up the marathon with a final visit to the home library in Moscow where, frankly, I imagined hordes (or at least enthusiastic trickles) of poetry lovers would descend from the provinces, having been fueled with a lust for the muse.
The head librarian and I selected the four target poets carefully from among the thirteen listed in the PIP listener's guide: Sharon Olds, James Merrill, Gary Soto, Rita Dove. We were guided in our selection of Olds because, fortuitously, she would be giving a public reading and running a workshop at the University of Idaho here in Moscow the same week I gave my inaugural presentation; moreover, her poems have a powerful narrative drive, and more than many poets her work reflects what one might call a mythic story: abusive, alcoholic father and passive, enabling mother almost destroy their daughter's identity, but the daughter comes to terms with herself as a woman, wife, and mother through her poems. That is a great oversimplification, of course, but I think it will suffice. To say that Olds's poems are "powerfully personal" and are couched in the sometimes graphic "language of the body" would be an understatement, but the prospect of jolting the audience from its media-induced lethargy struck me as worthy. One week after the film was shown, I would open with Olds at each respective site; then I would return the next week to offer a program on Gary Soto in Potlatch and on Rita Dove in Bovill.
While I did not anticipate a huge crowd in Moscow, which as a university town can be rather blasé about cultural matters (we suffer from a surfeit of such opportunities), I had hoped for more than the dozen or so that showed up. Nevertheless, I felt we'd had a worthwhile session. Two teachers from the high school and a pair from the junior high were in the audience, which also included a couple of males, always at a premium when it comes to matters literary in these parts. The high school teachers informed us they would not be back the next week, as they had other plans, and in fact our audience dwindled to just seven or eight for the session on Merrill. It struck me as odd in Moscow, as it had in Sandpoint, that more English teachers or elementary school teachers had not come and brought along some of their students as well. It did not strike me as odd that none of my colleagues from the university's English department were in attendance, inasmuch as very few of them attend poetry readings even by such luminaries as Olds herself. Ours is a rather prosaic department in the literal sense that most of the professors wrote dissertations in fiction or drama, linguistics or composition, and it is notably un-collegial. The "failure" of poetry in the public schools, and in this country generally, owes very much to college departments of English like the one at the University of Idaho.
Typically, only four or five of the twenty-odd English professors at this university show up for readings of any sort, and I have watched sadly as colleagues have tossed announcements of upcoming readings in the wastebasket without a second thought. We always ask them to announce the readings in their classes, but many do not, and most of those who do urge their students to attend, sometimes even offering them extra credit, do not attend themselves. Our department chair is a linguist, and I do not recall having seen him attend a single reading in the twenty-three years we have sponsored them. Ditto for our medievalist, our specialist in 19th-century novels, our Shakespeare man, our director of composition, our English education person, our Restoration and 18th-century guy (who is also the assistant director of the university's honors program). Not surprisingly, the turnout among graduate English majors is also slight, even among those pursuing M.F.A. degrees in creative writing, even though we have for years scheduled the readings on Wednesdays, which appears to be the most neutral night of the week. While it is tempting to assume that this problem is local, my colleagues at Washington State University, just eight miles to the west, make similar complaints.
The problem, then, is not in the stars, but in ourselves. The venue for the readings here is comfortable, the readings are free of charge and rarely run more than an hour, and a local book store owner provides coffee, punch, cookies, and cheese and crackers. After the reading the poet or writer sits at a table and signs perhaps three or four books. The several dozen undergraduates who generally attend the read ings, bringing our average audience to something between fifty and a hundred, seem to enjoy the experience, and I am sure they appreciate the extra credit. Most of them would scan the audience in vain for their instructors. Something is very wrong with this picture. One might understand the disinclination of public school teachers to attend such events, even though some of them work hard to promote contemporary writers and poets in particular. After an exhausting day teaching five or six classes, most of them have little excess energy to expend. But English professors here teach just two or three classes per week, and many of them come to the office only two or three days a week. One can only conclude that, like Melville's Bartleby, when it comes to readings, they would "prefer not to."
When I inaugurated what was to become an ongoing series of visits by poets and writers in 1976, I struggled to build an audience by sending out announcements to each of the English department faculty members and to the twenty or so teaching assistants, in which I prepared a brief bio on the writer and an accompanying poem or paragraph. The results were disappointing, sometimes embarrassing. Because of our limited funds, we paid poets like William Stafford, John Haines, and Richard Hugo a mere hundred dollars or so for their readings, and my wife and I provided room and board for a night or two. For the first few years we made our own posters by hand, sometimes decorating them with linoleum blocks that my wife would design and roll out herself. We would host a dinner before the reading or a party afterwards. On one memorable occasion, when we had invited four couples from the department to dinner with the visiting poet, two of the couples thanked us profusely and offered their regrets that they could not attend the reading that was to begin in about an hour.
So it was without great optimism that I shipped out to Potlatch the evening of March 31st to lure the folks in that former mill town and now UI bedroom community into the bowers of poetry. I had read my own poems there about ten years ago in my capacity as Idaho's first State Writer in Residence, and I recall a decent sized and appreciative audience, but the head librarian tipped me off that very few had shown up the previous week for the showing of Il Postino. How few? Well, she confessed, just two or three, but the Potlatch librarian was optimistic that others would show up. Being fresh out of optimism, I compelled my daughter Jennifer, currently completing her master's in English here, to come along "just in case." The head librarian suggested I cut a couple of the poems I had used for supplementary discussion in Moscow, in the event that high school or junior high students might show up, so I deleted two or three of the more—and here the language fails me in a way—"more" what? Objectionable? Controversial? Explicitly sexual? Erotic? Obscene? Poems.
To me, Sharon Olds's poems are neither controversial nor objectionable, and they are neither erotic nor obscene, although I submit they often employ the necessary language, which is to say the real and colloquial (as opposed to the textbook or clinical) language used when we talk or write about our sexual identity. So I suppose "explicitly sexual" would be the closest term here. My assumption was (and is) that anyone who intends to discuss serious writing ipso facto wishes to do so as adults. If the poet (Olds in this case) uses words like "shit," "fuck," "cock," and "cunt," that is up for discussion, if the participants wish to discuss it. Current critics sometimes refer to that sort of usage as "transgression," and in many, if not most, of her poems, Olds sooner or later transgresses. Does she employ such language merely for shock value? That topic might be worth discussing. How does the texture of sexuality in her poems pertain to the experiences with which she is dealing? That topic would surely be worth discussing. But in the event, the evening at Potlatch went smoothly enough. What I do not know is whether some patrons may have looked at the seven poems in the listener's guide and decided from those not to participate, but I gather that very few people had even checked out the program.
Counting the local librarian and my daughter, four people made up the audience in Potlatch that evening, and one of them had neither checked out the tapes nor read the poems in the anthology. We waited for fifteen minutes or so because the librarian was sure that so-and-so would show up; after all, she had checked out the tape and books. But so-and-so did not show up, so we went on with it. It all came off pretty well, in a low-key, chatty sort of way. We read the poems to each other, and I pointed out some thematic strains, and we savored some of the metaphors. I showed them a few minutes of videotape from the Lannan Series, which features Olds reading two or three of her poems. It turned out that none of the ladies had gone to the reading in Moscow a couple of weeks earlier. After some cookies and coffee, we parted amicably, and I remember consoling myself with the notion that an audience of three or four who really cared about poetry and who appreciated Olds's work was better than several dozen who were indifferent.
The next week, however, nine people (not including my daughter this time) showed up at Potlatch High School for a very pleasant discussion of the poems of Gary Soto, and five of them were high-school age. The only drawback to the evening was that only the librarian had actually read the poems in the guide and listened to the tape prior to the program, so what happened that evening was akin to what happens when I make an assignment in one of my literature classes at the university and none, or perhaps just a few, have read it. It might surprise some people outside the ivied walls of Old Siwash to know that this scenario is the rule rather than the exception these days, at least at universities like Idaho, which have low to nonexistent entrance standards. That is another topic, but suffice it to say that having taught for twenty-eight years at the University of Idaho, I am always ready to find that my students, even in graduate-level courses in literature, have not read the assignment. The only "solution" my colleagues and I have discovered is to levy frequent "pop quizzes." Tempting as that might have been, it was not appropriate to the PIP presentations.
And now, at last, we are where we were at the start of this text: I am driving up to the door of the tiny library beside the gas station at Deary on the 21st of April, 1998, and I'm sort of wishing I had come maybe a half an hour earlier so that I could grab a quick beer at Fuzzy's Tavern before the event. When I enter the library, however, I discover the librarian and the two participants, all women in their thirties, I guess, expected me to show up at seven. They seem a little annoyed with me, but I point out that all of these programs were to have started at 7:30, and indeed, when they consult the poster on the door, it clearly reads "7:30." One of the women promptly informs me that she must leave at eight o'clock because of an arrangement with her baby-sitter. The other informs me that she must leave early also, but she offers no explanation. Feeling a little unnerved at the prospect of telescoping a two-hour session into something under an hour, I start right in, but it's obvious from the start that something is wrong.
Of course if I was truly prescient, I would have known what was bothering these women, from the first, but under the circumstances, I read the problem as one of timing and my own anxiety about the pace of things. Like the speaker in Ezra Pound's "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour," I suspect I have once again "over-prepared the event," so I am mentally shuffling my deck to see what I can come up with. I tell the three of Olds's visit to the UI campus a few weeks earlier and of her remarkable impact on our students, one of whom is my daughter's boyfriend, who is working on his M.F.A. at the university. I tell them of her academic credentials: the bachelor's from Stanford, the doctorate from Columbia, her directorship of the creative writing program at NYU. I describe the "myth" underlying her poems, and I point to the irony of a poet with such prestigious academic credentials writing with the sometimes transgressive force of colloquial English, and together we look at the first of her poems in the anthology, "The Language of the Brag."
It isn't working. Their faces are stony. But the fact is, I do not see it, at least not right away. I show them a clip from the Lannan Series videotape, a portion of an interview followed by her reading of two or three poems, including the prose poem, "The Solution" (from The Gold Cell), which I find hilarious and which has evoked good responses at both Moscow and Potlatch. Unfortunately, the VCR is uncooperative, and we waste five or ten minutes that seem like much more at the time. My own panicky sense that time is becoming slippery should probably tell me more than it does. After the tape, I hastily turn to a few poems I have prepared as a handout, and we read "Early Memories," "Adolescence," and one other poem, perhaps "High School Senior." While we're taking turns reading the latter poem one of the women begins to cough and choke. She excuses herself and does not return for several minutes, and by the time she is back, we are nearly finished. I can see they all want out. One of the women, perhaps the librarian, informs me that it would never have occurred to her to regard the cock in the opening stanza of "The Language of the Brag" as anything other than a rooster:
I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the center of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.
I do not believe this lady was at all grateful to me for suggesting during our discussion that this cock was not the sort that would wake up a person by calling cock-a-doodle-do of a morning.
I confess that at the time I misread what was going on there in Deary. I supposed the timing had been the big problem, and I assumed that the woman who was coughing had a cold. It was later, when I received a note from the head librarian, that I discovered all three participants had been much offended by Sharon Olds, and of course by me as well. The coughing and choking, I could now see, was symptomatic: that poor woman could not bring herself to read the words. In an especially ironic turn of events, her body had revolted psychosomatically against the poems of the very poet who, particularly for women, has become famous as the poet of the body. Perhaps if a woman had been the presenter there in Deary, she could have pulled it off. Maybe she could have generated the kind of discussion that I could not, perhaps because I'm a man. At any rate, it was a hard evening and one in which I celebrated this country's third annual National Poetry Month by losing two or three adherents to the cause.
Poetry in the United States, despite the wishful thinking of some proponents of the genre, has never drawn the adherents that have been attracted by prose. Even during the supposed halcyon days of the mid-nineteenth century, Longfellow felt it remarkable that his Evangeline would sell as many as 6,000 copies in a year; Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was selling more like 600,000 copies. When I talk with participants in the Idaho state library's "Let's Talk About It" series, which is somewhat similar in nature to the PIP program, they tell me that their husbands do not read, or if they do, it is only mysteries and westerns, or much more commonly, only nonfiction. (I have been a visiting scholar for more than thirty LTAI sessions in the past dozen or so years at fifteen communities throughout the state. None of these involve poetry, and the audiences, which average a dozen or so, rarely include more than one or two males.) To say that the "average American male" is not literary, or that he does not read poetry, is to misrepresent the matter entirely. The "average American male" does not read at all.
This is a problem bordering on a dilemma. In his ABC of Reading, published sixty-five years ago, well before the advent of television or the worldwide web, Ezra Pound wrote, "Language is the main means of human communication. If an animal's nervous system does not transmit sensations and stimuli, the animal atrophies. If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays." Pound was not naïve on the subject. He proceeded from the assumption that "We live in an age of science and abundance," and he was well aware, as were the modernists generally, that poetry in particular was in jeopardy. "Literature is news that STAYS news," Pound asserted, and he was determined to argue the claims of poetry as the best news of all.
In a note passed on to me after my hard times in Deary, the head librarian appealed to me to say something "conciliatory" when I visited Bovill the next week, where we expected a larger group, at least a dozen, whether the two participants from Deary came or not. So I traveled the 45 miles to Deary prepared to eat a little crow, and I was so wrapped up in my premeditations that I missed seeing a sizable herd of elk grazing in a meadow at the edge of town. Or so the mayor of Bovill informed me when I entered her tiny office, which then doubled as the library. The loquacious mayor and the librarian were the total audience for that program, which dealt with the poems of Rita Dove and the latest gossip of Bovill. The mayor told me about how the town was almost blown up because of a leak in the natural gas line a year or two earlier, and she told me about some local eccentric who was buying up all the eyesores and letting them collapse, which reminded me of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour." I told her and the librarian about Rita Dove, and we chatted about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was a friendly session, and I had brought in Dove's poem, "Small Town," which worked very well under the circum stances.
The head librarian worried that someone at Deary might file a complaint with the National Endowment about our program. Idaho's small congressional delegation, two congressmen and the requisite pair of senators, votes slightly to the right of Jesse Helms, so I had to concede that her fears were legitimate. Congressman (as she prefers to be called) Helen Chenowith prides herself on her connections with militia groups and has recently invited Oliver North to speak at her big fund raiser. Thanks to me and Sharon Olds, we could set the first amendment back a couple of generations.
The last session of PIP, at the Moscow library, drew a dozen or so participants to discuss the poems of Gary Soto and Rita Dove. The high school teachers did not reappear, but the two junior high school teachers did, and there were four or five students as well, including a couple of guys, one of whom I recognized from my son's football team at MHS. All went smoothly, and it turned out that it was possible to deal with two poets in a single evening without tacking on extra time, probably because most of the participants (as at Potlatch) had not read the poems or listened to the tapes. I winged it, just as I had at Potlatch, and it worked.
Of course I wish I could feel better about all of this. I cannot fault the head librarian or the local librarians for the failure of the Poets in Person visits; they did what they could to assure an audience, and I am confident they had high hopes. The program was announced in local newspapers; posters were hanging in all of the libraries I visited; the librarians generally had gone out of their way to provide refreshments. So how does one foster a passion for literature, and particular for poetry, in what Heidegger called "a destitute time"? While I don't want to feel sorry for myself, I cannot avoid feeling that I failed the library, the PIP series, Sharon Olds, and in a way poetry itself. Apologies, however, will not avail. It may be that the much-maligned (and sometimes deservedly maligned) academy will be the salvation, or the renaissance of poetry in the United States. It may be that the surge of enthusiasm for creative writing programs will produce not so much a generation of inspired or merely technically competent poets, as a generation of people who care about and read poems, and perhaps they will become the English professors of the next millenium. It may be that electronic publication of 'zines will help; or that performance poetry, from coffee houses, to cowboy recitals, to poetry slams will help; or that the New Formalists or "expansive" poets will discover the missing (or "lost") audience; or that the current avant garde, the so-called Language Poets, will save the day. For me, at least, there was at least one bright spot in all of this: When the lbrarian from Deary showed up at Bovill, she was carrying a copy of Sharon Olds's most recent book, The Wellspring.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) 91.
Sharon Olds, Satan Says (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1980) 44.
Exra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1934) 32, 17, 29.