I was recently asked :"What’s the shortest and most impactful poem you have heard?" My response began with a smart- ass riff, quickly got away from me as I continued to type away.That’s two questions actually. As phrased, the shortest poem I’ve heard and the most influential poem I’ve heard exist as separate items. The shortest poem that has had an impact on me, that is , has influenced the way I view modern poetry, is this:
I KNOW A MAN by Robert Creeley:
*As I sd to myfriend, because I amalways talking,—John, Isd, which was not hisname, the darkness sur-rounds us, what**can we do againstit, or else, shall we &why not, buy a goddamn big car,**drive, he sd, forchrist’s sake, lookout where yr going. *
This poem, with its terseness, interruptions, seeming overlap of conversations, was important in college because it got me away from the verbal excesses of beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg. Not to lecture on Creeley but rather to stick with the method of this poem and his poetry in general, the poet prefers a more taciturn approach express what is perceived in the world he finds himself in. There is more flavor and variance in Creeley’s poem than the latent punk rock crash this poem suggests, but here we observe that the writers is aware of the limits of speech , that rather than consisting of beginning a thought and developing it until a point is reached, verbally, often times speech, transcribed speech, as we read off the page, is discontinuous and disjunctive, resembling less a dialectic toward which a final synthesis of ideas emerges but instead a series of preliminary statements that begin and are rapidly derailed. The poem is jittery, hard edge in the way it breaks off from one statement to another, giving evidence of a speaker constantly backtracking to something said earlier that would be the key to an original statement one wanted to make but which only adds to the series of deferments that make a parse-able sentence come to being.
Everything is about to be said, a big question is about to be asked that would challenge the premise under which we conduct our lives in bad faith, a distraction is proposed, a big car is purchased, but the thrill of the highway joyriding veers too close to fatality for our narrator cares to experience. Again, there is a nervous, jacked up quality here, a jump-cut element that would remind those who have familiarity with various stages of being under the influence of high powered stimulates and the consequences therein will recognize, meth-heads, potheads, hooch hounds laying around some sorry den waxing and waning , yammering away with plots, plans and brilliant ideas that quickly circle the drain. Creeley’s creates this but splicing the evidence of what was heard together in a fast, jagged mosaic of speech, effectively giving us a poem that provides a structure all the same, a narrative that has the old fashioned ingredients of a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a monologue of a kind, with huge gaps of logic, a string of non-sequiturs, but what was made an impression on me in trying to bring order to this seeming random vocal spasm wasn’t what was being talked about or the logical connection between the tangible bits of the poem, bur rather how it was said. We have a voice narrating a sequence of things that are obscured, but the telling makes one wonder, ponder , what exactly is at the margins of this narrator’s world.
My grandfather once allowed me to have his 8 mm camera when I was nine or so during a family get together, a 1st Communion Party I think, and the result of me running around with the camera, stopping and starting the camera to film random activities around the back yard— my brother jumping from a tree, a neighbor’s dog snarling through a cyclone fence mesh, a swing-set with all the chained seats twirling by themselves, blinding shots of the July sun, my sister with chocolate stains on her confirmation dress, many shots of drunk aunts and uncles inexplicable happy to see me—seemed to me, seeing this decades later at another family get together after my father pass on, to be as edgy , purposeful and beautiful as I had imagined it. And that’s how I KNOW A MAN struck me back on that fateful day in a poetry composition class taught by Paul Dresman; instead of trying to play every note you know or are still trying to hit because you think the amount of things done equates with quality, play just the right notes,the ones that serve the moment of perception. Miles Davis said something like that, or so the story goes. Creeley ignored the larger vocabulary and went instead for sentences and that sounded interesting, that intrigued him when they were stripped of context . Form,logic, coherence? That was for the reader to bring to the work.