A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The interview room cold, the angles softly hardened against sound.
The inevitable question arises:
What makes a good poem? I’m never prepared.
On radios across the country,
silence pulls a “Saturday Night Special.” The microphone points
in every direction I turn.
I take a deep breath, submerge a third time into resignation,
then ask forgiveness
for an answer I haven’t yet given. I could be glib and ask
what doesn’t make a good poem,
and not be glib at all but mean it, or resort to cliché: It’s not
the wave or the surfboard
but the surfer who sculpts the ride. Too quickly I’m a sun-bleached
describing the ball tossed within a circle of people kicking imaginary sand
on a stage
in front of a packed auditorium. The crowd’s murmur the rush of high tide
as flood lights flood
swamp the stage. The audience is asked to count the times the ball
is thrown as the abacus
of waves rattles along the shore, watchers sure to be lost within
the churning sussuration,
the wind salting their eyes as a loose line of pelicans wing-pumps past.
If the audience wants to complicate the task, prove their prowess,
how far out they can stretch
their attention, swim beyond lifeguards and safety buoys,
they can sum the catches
within the circle of throwers. When asked for totals,
a few people crying like gulls over a washed-up dead seal. When asked
if anyone noticed anything else,
there are a few tentative hands raised who perhaps recall
Lowell’s definition of poetry,
a controlled hallucination, and though maybe they’d drunk
one too many complimentary glasses
of wine. They confess to seeing a person dressed in a cheap gorilla suit
run through the middle
of the circle while the ball was tossed back and forth.
The crowd turns into gaggling geese migrating between consternation
Dropped from the ceiling, one great white wing of an egret, the video screen
replays the action.
Truth trembles, variations of misperception and blindness,
what we can’t see
a matter of visions and revisions. Is that what Blake meant, imagination
is not a state but the essence
of human existence? And so I answer the question, a good poem
is one that is looking
for the gorilla running across the shores of our lives.
Copyright 2017 Walter Bargen
Walter Bargen has published eighteen books of poetry. His most recent books are: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009), Endearing Ruins (2012), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (2013), Quixotic (2014), Gone West (2014), and Three-corner Catch (2015). He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). His awards include a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1991), Quarter After Eight Prose Prize (1996), the Hanks Prize (1996), the Chester H. Jones Foundation prize (1997), the William Rockhill Nelson Award (2005), Short Fiction Award– A cappella Zoo (2011). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in over 300 magazines.