Do Poets Keep Secrets?
My earlier plays were called “poetic,” and reviewers described them as “haiku plays,” not knowing exactly what haiku was, or perhaps using it as a metaphor for the mood of the genre, or perhaps they thought it was appropriate because my name is Japanese. Despite this, I understand very little about contemporary poetry, and I have a feeling that many poets do not mind not being understood. When one’s play goes up, unless it’s written completely “naturalistically” in a mundane language and with a single chronological plot, one must assume that a certain percentage of the audience will go away not understanding or having misunderstood the writer’s intention. A playwright can also take pleasure in thinking that people will go home taking with them completely different aspects of the play when they leave the theater. I don’t know if this is how poets approach their readers.
As I read the anonymous poems given to me to contemplate, I could not help but think, would I want my plays to be analyzed by academics? My answer is no. By poets? Possibly. So I hope that the authors of these poems may find a playwright’s thoughts about their work interesting, but I apologize in advance for the complete lack of academic insight.
What I came to think after carefully studying the eleven poems was that these poets have secrets hidden in their poems. What I don’t understand is if the secrets are a challenge to the general readers or a privilege reserved only for the people who are poetry-educated. I suspect the latter, and I’m not quite on the borderline of these two populations, even though some of my own plays contain secrets that are called “experimental.” I’m your typical, literary yet ignorant average reader of poetry. Having tried for years to make my tendency for warping of realities and time and my attraction to capricious character identities more audience-friendly without giving up the magic, I’m curious about what these poets are imagining that the readers would walk away with after reading their poetry. Do they care if no one has the key to open the door to the secret chamber of their minds?
Once I was struggling to grasp Lefor’s Questions of Democracy, and though I believed I did not misunderstand the content, I could not say I was having a dialogue with him. Questions of Democracy brought up a question of my own about democracy. What self- righteousness makes a thinker write on a subject of democracy in a way that only a fraction of the population could comprehend? I do not mean that all thinking should be expressed in the USA Today format, but isn’t it inherently contradictory to the philosophy of democracy to make the writing so pedantic as to exclude most of even the reasonably educated? I believe that in Lefor’s case, the secret is intentional, and I do not think he cares if the door to his intellect is closed to the masses.
I digress. Back to poetry. The secrets in poetry are intriguing and make the poems mysterious and beautiful. Perhaps the secrets are what make poetry poetry—otherwise they might be monologues or statements or observations.
I was excited to see the title “Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day” because it suggested that the poem would tell me a story. I’m partial to storytelling. The poem did not fail my expectations, but it took me a while to find the key to the poet’s secret door—the flatted fifth—the dissonance. I might have still appreciated the central character’s psyche without this key, his (I assume) alternating confidence and feelings of alienation without having the flatted fifth to open the door for me. The poem is immediate—the scene is happening as I read it. The character insists that he is in control, but in between lines lays his doubt. “It’s that simple,” yet I feel an urgency of possible complications that the character is trying to ignore. I should state here that I’m reading the poem in the same manner that I read plays. This is where my imagination takes me in my connection to the character speaking. I’m not a musician, so I didn’t know what the flatted fifth was. A jazz trumpet player explained it and hummed it for me with another person to let me hear the dissonance. He told me that in Western history it was considered the sound of the devil. Is this part of the poet’s secret? I’m not able to discern it from the words.
The poem I most enjoyed was “Mortal Combat,” not so much because it was the least secretive, but because of the vivid storytelling. I have a clear portrait of the character in my mind; I can even visualize him as “a squinty old fool stooped over his keyboard having an anxiety attack over an English muffin!” I’m partial to quirky humanity. I know Mortal Combat belonged to the first generation of video games; it probably still exists in an evolved form, but I have never played it. The only images I have seen of it are from the movie trailer some years ago. So I don’t know if my key quite fits the lock to this poem, yet I see that the speaker’s psychological struggle is both hilarious and serious. His story is my story, only the details are different. This is what playwrights call a “universal” experience. The specifics of the poet’s circumstances translate into a feeling that we can all recall from somewhere in our lives, from sometime in our pasts. I find vigor and hope in this character from the last line, “And that’s the way I like it.” He (again I assume) is not going to lose this battle with the English muffin, and even if he did, we can count on more battles ahead.
I looked up the word “Orchis” and found out that it means orchid. I would have been completely lost without knowing that the title meant orchid. Why not use the word that most people know instead? Why make it obscure? I’m sure there is a poetic reason for it, but it’s beyond my grasp. I read these poems with my husband, who is an artist with solid knowledge in art history. I would say I have a good grasp on theater history and dramatic literature. We have three master’s degrees between us, and I prefer not to think that it’s a devastating shortcoming on my part not to recognize the word. In any case, I really loved the epic family drama that took me to New Guinea and Costs Rica (Costa Rica?), and to the 1800s. The troubled uncle in Yunnan “who won’t stop fertilizing himself” makes me recall the endless fields of sunflowers I saw on my way to Xian. Then I end up in my backyard, at Union Square Park, at the Farmer’s Market. I enjoy the journey and the rich combination of the images and emotions, but who am I exactly? I lose the key all together when the dream of Greece begins.
I suspect these poems are sophisticated metaphors for something. Perhaps not all of them. I come back to my original question—do poets keep secrets—and go a step further and ask if they invent secrets. Do poets imagine that their poems are a gift to the readers? Do they imagine taking a bow to the readers after their poems are read by them, as actors do? I love beautiful words, odd combinations of words, invented words, imagistic words, revolting words. I love language. I love sharing language. Do poets share it or do they keep it to themselves? In a play, when part of the dialogue is in a foreign language, I appreciate what those lines communicate by specifically preventing the audience from understanding the meaning. Do some poets purposefully write poems that the readers would not comprehend? “Bowling is a sport by default.” – I love this line from “Theory of Escape from the Old Country”, and enjoy the whimsical adventure, but exactly where am I going next? Being an uninformed reader, I have questions but no answers.
In the end, I would say I’m in awe of all the complex and imaginative language that is presented to me. I think the poets whose keys I cannot access are smarter than I am. But do poets want to be smarter than everyone? One of my favorite poets has in one of his poems the lines “….discovering on my own what I know, what I don’t know,/and seeing how one cancels the other./I’ve become a scholar of cancellations.” I realize that presenting these lines out of context is suspect at best. This poet’s journey of becoming a scholar of cancellations is heartbreaking. But what I want to say is that in a perfect world, one should not have to become that.
These are the ramblings of a single playwright. I humbly take a bow to anyone who has spent the time to read my words and to all the poets who gave me the opportunity for this contemplation. I will take it back to my playwriting.