David Romtvedt, “Poetry and Intimacy”
One of the great beauties of poetry is its insistence on direct contact between two human voices. It is perhaps the most intimate of our arts, attuning itself to the communication of deep feeling. It is a low-tech art form—no machinery, no screens, no big dollars necessary for production, no great buildings housing the work, no necessity for participation in a global network of diffusion. It happens person to person, the poem traveling its circuitous route from the poet to the reader to another reader and yet another. Maybe it takes years and finally the poem arrives where it is fully received.
Most of what happens in a poem happens in the mind. From a few words entire worlds arise. The poem is oddly concrete though it has almost no material presence in the world—it names trees and seas and umbrellas and waves rolling onto nonexistent shores.
One of the most compelling aspects of the poem’s intimacy is that we are given the opportunity to wonder about things we might consider dangerous or controversial. We can meditate on issues we might be uncomfortable speaking about in a social setting. When the reader picks up a book of poems there is no one else there—just the reader and the far away poet. No one need know what we are addressing. Perhaps we want to talk about something that troubles us. Perhaps we want to speak about what is unspeakable or forbidden.
This is not the same as saying that poetry is a form of pornography though the two may be shadows of one another. Czeslaw Milosz put it well in his “Ars Poetica:”
There was a time when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from
It is quiet in the darkened room with the lamp shining above us. We open the book and there are words offering us a way into a life we might not have known before. Maybe it is a secret we have kept. Maybe it is a longing we must bring to light.
Before I go any further, I want to introduce a poem that shows some of what I’m talking about. It’s called “Fuck You, Patriotism” and appears in a book of mine called Some Church. The eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson, often known simply as Dr. Johnson, was once in the hazy mists of a discussion on patriotism when he burst out with, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He meant not so much to criticize love of one’s homeland as to note that patriotism is often a mask for self-interest or cruelty toward others. This is the kind of patriotism I wish to rail against, too. But why did I choose to use the obscenity, the famous and forbidden “F” word?
At the time I wrote this poem I was serving as the poet laureate of Wyoming. The governor and I were scheduled to speak about cultural affairs and the role of the poet laureate. In our meeting, the governor said to me, “You know that if you use
this kind of language in a poem, there will be some people who cannot read the poem.
They will refuse to read it, considering it offensive. If you have to use such language in order to make your point, then haven’t you simply revealed yourself as a mediocre poet?”
Let’s look at the poem and see what its intentions might be in terms of privacy, intimacy, and the imagined definition of mediocrity:
Fuck You, Patriotism
I have apologies to make.
First, for the obscenity in the title
of this poem. I utter words
in heat then feel embarrassed.
I try to withhold such hot
feelings but sometimes they
come out, like pimples
no matter how old I get.
Or like my political opinions
that are at odds with those
of my neighbor, a man
whose car bears bumper stickers
reading, “Annoy a liberal,”
“Gun control means being able
to hit your target,” and “Charlton
Heston is my president.”
At least my neighbor knows
who his president is. I wish
I didn’t have a president.
My second apology—
the more serious one,
the one I can’t quite make—
is for writing a poem
whose subject is the nature
of being in the state, that is,
the politics of citizenship.
All my life, I have been told
that the political poem is a betrayal
of both poetry and person.
As a poet I should be whispering
to you of the breeze on your wrist
and leaning close to take your hand,
turning it palm up, brushing
my lips across your skin,
blowing gently enough for you to know.
But the gentle wind becomes a gale
and though I would hold you
with all my might, something
beyond us intrudes.
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda
maintained that it would be difficult
for predominantly rational people
to be poets and just as difficult
for poets to be rational.
Still, it is reason, Neruda claimed,
that holds the upper hand,
and reason that is the mainstay
of justice and so must govern
the world. But I am unconvinced
that reason has shown its ability
to rule and, moreover, what
does it mean to say,
Neruda himself wrote poems
of both politics and love and
was elected to the Chilean Senate.
I understand why they told me
political poems were oxymoronic.
I too hate them and, like many
Americans, have read plenty
of polemics disguised as poetry.
I’ve sometimes felt disgusted by poems
about racism and oppression,
about military spending and war,
about hunger and AIDS and poverty
and the strange irony that my country,
the richest in the world, I’m told,
though my income provides only
tangential evidence of that wealth,
anyway, the strange irony
that my country has no
national health insurance.
I long for a poetry
of husbands and wives, parents
and children, lovers, flowers,
sowing and reaping, contentment,
even middle-class contentment.
There is enough pain
to fuel a rocket to the stars
and it takes no poetry
to help it on its way.
A poem that makes
a single human being happy
for a single moment is worth
all the rational words ever uttered,
all the protests,
all the bills passed in Congress,
all the debates,
all the national anthems and pledges
of allegiances and Ten Commandments
posted in public buildings,
all the governing
and the welling up of patriotic tears
on behalf of the nation we love.
In this view--God Bless America--
patriotism is so much din and clatter.
Damn--that’s a milder word than fuck.
And happiness--that’s the poem,
no matter how badly made.
In this poem the speaker has been driven to the end of his rope. He wants to say in the strongest terms possible that this use of patriotism to further certain political ends is a bad idea. He feels he should be socially responsible as a writer but also feels that the one true job he has is to write a poem that will give people a chance to feel happy, no matter how slight and brief this happiness might be.
Here we come to the reader—my mother. For my mother the word piss was deeply troubling and she considered all such slang to be unacceptable. These words were never to be used. That, of course, is their power. By not using these “bad” words often, when we do use them we are expressing a high level of frustration and we signal to the reader that we have crossed a boundary we didn’t want to cross. We ask the reader to accept our sense of frustration, perhaps despair, at the state of things. Of course we don’t always talk this way, but sometimes, yes, we do. And this is the moment of intimacy. The reader is invited to listen without being asked to agree. Maybe the reader too has experienced something that is maddening, that it seems impossible to deal with. Reader and writer are one for a moment.
Let me offer another couple of poems that invite the reader into another kind of intimacy with the writer—the simple longing for grace. One poem addresses love, sex, and aging. The other evokes parenting:
Once Strangers on a Train
When the poles clatter past,
the years fall away, a spider drops
from the petals of a flower, space
is ever more empty the larger it grows,
the steel wheels chunk-chunk-chunk
on the joints of the rails, the friction
making sparks, stars crushed
and invisible to us inside.
There is a distance that diminishes
as the point of departure recedes.
I fall asleep and my head drops
onto your shoulder. You let me
rest there so that when I awake
I can smell your foreign skin and feel
the wet spot on your blouse, my mouth open.
I hold you in my arms again,
harder than I did that first time,
harder than the glass holding us
inside the compartment, our bodies
inside our skin. I am only and forever
that man and you, that woman.
I whispered some word
and you held your hand up, shushed me.
We could hear a traveler turn in the dark,
uncomfortable, a slight groan or sigh,
all of us third-class passengers, our souls
sleeping on hard benches.
When you drop your hand to my lap,
I realize our lips are so close.
I feel your breath, then touch.
Where are we?
Where are the swallows
who bank and turn as we enter the tunnel?
The dust that rises as we pass?
The lips? And again, the kiss.
One winter morning I get up early
to clean the ash from the grate
and find my daughter, eight, in the kitchen
thumping around pretending she has a peg leg
while also breaking eggs into a bowl—
separating yolks and whites, mixing oil
and milk. Her hands are smooth,
not from lack of labor but youth.
She’s making pancakes for me, a surprise
I have accidentally ruined. “You never
get up early,” she says, measuring
the baking powder, beating the egg whites.
It’s true. When I wake, I roll to the side
and pull the covers over my head.
“It was too cold to sleep,” I say.
“I thought I’d get the kitchen warm.”
Aside from the scraping of the small flat shovel
on the iron grate, and the wooden spoon turning
in the bowl, the room is quiet. I lift the gray ash
and lay it carefully into a bucket to take outside.
“How’d you lose your leg?” I ask.
“At sea. I fell overboard in a storm
and a shark attacked me, but I’m fine.”
She spins, a little batter flying from the spoon.
I can hear the popping of the oil in the pan.
“Are you ready?” she asks, thumping to the stove.
Fork in hand, I sit down, hoping that yes,
I am ready, or nearly so, or one day will be.
David Romtvedt bio: I was born in Oregon, raised in Arizona, and have lived for many years in Wyoming. I’m married to the potter Margo Brown and through her have become a part of Wyoming’s Basque community. I am what in Basque is called an euskaldun berria—a new Basque person for having learned the language in adulthood. I teach one semester each year in the University of Wyoming MFA program for writers. I also perform dance music of the Americas with The Fireants whose recordings are Bury My Clothes, Ants on Ice, and It’s Hot (About Three Weeks a Year). My books of poetry include Some Church, Certainty, and A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know. The University of Nevada Center for Basque studies will publish my novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space in June 2015.