Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Djelloul Marbrook: The Poet is a Luthier

A poem is a musical instrument. The way its author plays it is not necessarily the way others will play it. The poet is a luthier. He uses certain materials in a certain way. He may come up with a serviceable Gibson of a poem or an Ibanez or Wildwood.

Fortunately, the making of a poem is not subject to a statute like America’s Lacey Act, which prohibits the use of ivory and certain woods and other materials in manufacturing unless their provenance is demonstrable. So the poet-luthier is free to make a Miltonian symphonic poem or Ashberian chamber music.

The poem will never sound again as it sounded to its maker. The finished poem will never sound as it promised to sound when it was begun. Sonics were crucial to Edgar Allan Poe. The French, having savored Gerard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, were prepared to hear them, but to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s austere New England sensibility poems like “The Raven” sounded like jingles.

There are guitarists who loathe the idea of playing a green guitar. There are guitarists who loathe acoustic guitars. There are poets who think some poets shuffle sentences into forms that resemble poetry but are not poetry.

But when all such matters are said and done the mystery remains of what went into the instrument. What sweat, what tears, what oils, what thoughts, what dreams, what conversations, what dramas, despairs, joys. The luthier dreams of a James Taylor or Jesus Silva playing his instrument. The poet dreams of all the things his or her poems will experience, all the lives that will be moved.

The luthier and the poet are alchemists. They must seek and find that one nameless element, that elixir, that ennobles all the other elements. And they know it loses its power and its truth when it is named. So in a sense they don’t care if the critic and scholar say this is made of iambs and that of spondees, just as the luthier doesn’t care if the kind of wood and string is identified, because the elixir is what the poet-luthier brings to the task, not the materials at hand.

The luthier finds such ideas as the Lacey Act an abomination because he treasures materials he inherited, perhaps from his mentor, and he may no longer remember how he came by them. The poet similarly has long since shut the door on what the critic is talking about. It no longer concerns him. He knows that he will be challenged no matter what he says he brought to the task. If he talks about the oil of his fingers or the scent of his soul the critic will want them analyzed. So the poet-luthier moves on. He doesn’t want to discuss what he did. To discuss what he’s doing may jinx it. To discuss what he plans will disfigure it. He must shut the door and work alone.

A poem is not an end in itself, not a finished manufacture, but rather a door flung open in each reader’s mind. The German Hugo Ball, Dadaist poet and writer of a Dada manifesto, believed the poem is always the beginning of something, not the completion. The Dadaists, responding to the mindless violence of World War I, wanted us to see art as a process, something ever coming to be, not a fait accompli. In that sense, the reader of a poem is always a participant in its making.

Copyright © 2015 Djelloul Marbrook

One comment on “Djelloul Marbrook: The Poet is a Luthier

  1. Hope
    March 23, 2015

    My father-in-law is a gifted luthier, and my father a woodworker, so this caught my eye. What a beautiful and perfect analogy for writing!


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This entry was posted on March 22, 2015 by in Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , .

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