06/06/2011 02:26 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2011

Varied Carols

Bob Holman, my friend, fellow poet and co-editor of Crossing State Lines: An American Renga is in Kathmandu. It is not at all unusual for Bob to turn up in exotic locations -- he spends a bit of his time documenting and recording "disappearing" languages for his ongoing study of orality in world cultures.

Now, though Bob is "broadcasting from a cloud" (Nepal) -- he has something to say about the "relevance" of poetry -- in particular something to say about the relevance of "Crossing State Lines," which is a collaborative "conversation" poem among 54 American poets, from Robert Pinsky to Adrienne Rich to Rita Dove to Paul Simon to Billy Collins -- just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Crossing State Lines: an American Renga is a book that came about because Bob and I signed on as "co-curators" of the poetry "wing" of America: Now & Here -- a national arts project dreamed up by Eric Fischl a few years ago.

Since Eric's primary goal was (and is) getting Americans to talk among themselves about art ("art trucks" loaded with art Inspiration travel throughout the U.S.) -- I suggested that the renga, the ancient Japanese linked verse form, could be just the right delivery system for the "varied carols" (as Bob describes them) -- of the chorus of participating poets. In a variation on the original form, each poet was allowed ten lines, some worked in syllables, as per the Japanese tradition, others did not. Robert Pinsky begins the renga on the Atlantic coast, lines written in October -- and Robert Hass ends the renga, signing off on the Pacific coast in "greeny April". In between: "Four time zones, oceans of prairies" -- Also in-between, a poetic relay race, as each poet receives and passes the word-torch to the next in line.

Now that the renga has been published to (mostly) approving press, Bob and I are chatting a bit about the "relevance" of poetry.

Bob: Dear Carol -- at 4:40am from my room at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu. Of course I also just want to get the Himalayas in here somewhere, and how the crew that brought me here, the Iowa International Writing Program in conjunction with the US State Department, is sending some of us on from here to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- I can't go because of visa and timing issues (I'll be in Dubai instead). But what I want to get at is the RELEVANCE of poetry in light of the publication of Crossing State Lines: An American Renga. So that's my first question to you:

Q: Is Poetry relevant? [NOTE: Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan just two days after Bob wrote the above.]

The thought came to me while listening to you, Bob Hass and Ed Ledford on NPR with Renee Montagne. (on a recent segment of Morning Edition) that since Ledford (one of the renga poets) is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army who was stationed in Afghanistan when he wrote his section of the renga -- (it seemed) to the four of you there was no doubt of poetry's relevance.

But today, in our culture, poetry's relevance is in doubt to many: look no further than the recent Tea Party flare-up against the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, the largest annual poetry festival in the country. It was as if the word "poetry" were a joke when considered against other more important budgetary needs, like bombs or health care, say, and even health care being seen as dubious by some.

But on April 22, 2011, a month plus after Harry Reid had the innocent audacity to say that "We need taxpayer funding for the Cowboy Poetry Festival," four US citizens (that would be Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Hass and Lt. Colonel Ed Ledford, who contributed to the Renga) discussed on National Public Radio, itself an institution in crisis: issues of foreclosure, birdsong, 9/11, Homer, and the fact that most Americans have lived their whole lives in a time of war, all in relationship to a single slim book of 63 pages, a book of poetry by 54 poets: Crossing State Lines: An American Renga. For 7 minutes 20 seconds this far-ranging conversation not only took poetry's relevance as a given but got strength from what they found there: "It's so's remarkable," said Hass of Ledford's poem, which includes the lines
"like/slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to/applause."

Carol: Indeed, those lines of Ed Ledford's have the hell-dark humor Bob is referring to. When the three of us were on Morning Edition (a week or two ago) Ed's reading of those devastating lines that end with the savagely apt "Heh heh heh, sure showd em, didn we, Dead-eye" rocked the airwaves.

Just to tighten the focus on "relevance" -- this segment of Morning Edition unwittingly lit some neo-cons pants on fire, bigtime. Their enraged blog response to the three of us, three poets reading their poems about foreclosure, war, "greeny April" -- and the lone lectern that Ed Ledford describes standing in the rubble of the Pentagon after it was hit on 9/11 (Ed was inside the building) -- ironically highlights the power of the word, the power of poetry to endure and prevail. On that lectern in the trashed Pentagon was a dictionary, untouched, unburned, pages open -- as if inviting a passerby in the chaos to (literally) find meaning.

If words and poetry can endure ("News that stays news" as a great poet said) and the expression of enduring ideas in poetry can piss off people -- and incite an extremist "reading" of the poetry -- then, yes, poetry is relevant -- as always.

D.H. Lawrence said, "Poetry is an act of attention" -- and poetry is that focused "eye of the mind" on its object, its meditation, its illumination. Only connect -- and only attend! DO pay attention to that man behind the curtain!

The "Man Behind the Curtain": How interesting that both Abraham Lincoln and bin Laden wrote poetry. The medium is the message?

Btw, my meeting with Lt. Col. Ed Ledford (and subsequent invitation to him to join the Renga) again seems, broadly interpreted, political -- as we met at West Point, in the 90s, where I'd been invited to come to read my poems to a sea of grey. (West Point's poetry reading series has now been shelved -- a pity for all these reasons.) The West Point cadets read the poems closely and asked and answered questions intently:

"Ma'am that is a metaphor in the fourth line, Ma'am!"

But they also spent time in class discussing literature and ethical questions related to war. The month I was there, an English class was focusing on the lines from Shakespeare, "Conscience makes cowards of us all." Feeling empathy for others makes us steer clear of war??

Then-Captain Ed Ledford had been assigned to my thirteen-year-old daughter, Annie, and me, as escort. (I wrote an essay about visiting West Point and meeting Ed for the New York Times Book Review -- called "Shakespeare and the Long Grey Line."

Ed was teaching English at West Point and although he was a warrior -- trained as a helicopter pilot and "jump master" (leaping out of planes) and although he'd seen combat in the Persian Gulf War, etc., poetry and literature mattered enormously to him. We have kept in touch ever since I met him -- he has just returned from his second tour of Afghanistan (our exchange, "Soldier to Poet" is archived here at The Huffington Post where they were originally published -- we meditated together on poetry and war.

Bob -
In a couple hours I will go down to 8am breakfast at the Yak and Yeti, with my fellow US writers, and we will meet the press, as they say, a gang of Nepalese journalists.
Poetry is relevant in bringing people together when used as a tool of self-discovery and community-building. If you don't believe me, go read the Renga. See how 54 of the most individualistic humans on the planet gave themselves up to a project of utopian collaboration on a scale heretofore unheard of. (Of course, there's also the wonderful poetic tradition of resistance, that poetry's purpose is to be purposeless: "not mean/But be" as MacLeish wrote; "Poetry makes nothing happen," Auden.)

I mean, honestly, Carol, don't you think that if this crew of poets can collaborate on a single poem, there's no problem that poetry cannot take on?

And after I finish poking my nose into international politics, I'll go teach some poetry workshops myself...

Carol, I know your work as Poet laureate of California, with the Get Lit program and others, has you dealing with poetry's relevance on a daily basis. Nepal's slammers call themselves Word Warriors (the irony that this is in English does not escape me), the same name that Iraqi vet poets selected when they read at the BowWow at the Bowery Poetry Club a couple weeks ago.

Q: How does a poet survive in an anti-poetic age?

Can it be divvied up into tweets? Since Jonathan Galassi had the vision to see the Renga not as a project but as a work of art and publish it at FSG, and since Jasper Johns had the generosity to give us a flag we can believe in for the cover,

Q: Can this BOOK be used to create change in the world?

Q: Is the Renga a sign?

Are we crossing state lines with lines of poetry? Is this the United States of Poetry: Now and Here?


I think that we should end this conversation with those questions of yours, Bob. That's Poetry's "job" isn't it? Math gives us answers -- Poetry leads us to ask questions, always. Right, Poetry?