KWRS invited me to come on the air. I'd told one the students working there that I would like to pretend I had made Muriel Rukeyser's comment, "“If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day.For there would be an intolerable hunger.”
Here's the transcript.
KWRS: We'd like to thank you Profess--
Bill: I'm not a professor. I'm an instructor.
KWRS: Sorry. We'd like to thank you Dr. --
Bill: I'm not a doctor. I hold a masters degree. Don't hype me. I'm Bill Woolum, Instructor of English at Lane Community College and I have a masters degree.
I've never been a professor.
KWRS: Okay. You did teach at Whitworth, right?
Bill: Yes. But not as a professor. I was hired as an instructor and paid as one.
KWRS: Oh. But didn't you do what professors do?
Bill: Yes. But I wasn't working toward tenure and I wasn't a professor elsewhere, so I was hired as an instructor.
KWRS: Okay. Well it's good we got that straightened out. Thank you for coming on with us.
Bill: You're welcome. Anything to keep Christian music off the air.
KWRS: You don't like --
Bill: Hate it.
KWRS: OOOkay. Now, Mr. Wool--
Bill: Call me Bill.
KWRS: Now, Bill, you said you'd like to pretend you had said, as Muriel Rukeyser actually did, that "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day.For there would be an intolerable hunger.” Why did you want to pretend to say this?
Bill: Well, it takes the onus off trying to figure out what Rukeyser meant and just lets me reflect upon this quote as if it were mine.
KWRS: Okay. Well, dig in.
Bill: For starters, had I said this, my emphasis would be on the hunger, that poetry nourishes a hunger, and second of all, had I said this, I would not be talking about poems only, but poetry in general.
KWRS: Wait. Are you saying that poetry happens outside of poems?
Bill: Definitely. I think poems are a fairly small, though significant, slice of the poetry pie. Poetry is what occurs when language is used musically. Poetry is first and foremost music. It's the making of music with language that we seem to hunger for because we do it all the time.
KWRS: We do?
Bill: Yes. Gosh. Where to start? Nicknames. That's a great place to start. Nicknames almost are fun to hang on people as much for the way they sound as for what they say. Take Willie Mays. He was called the Say Hey Kid. Say, Hey, Mays all sound like and and baseball fans and people on the streets of New York loved to call out to Mays: "Hey Say Hey!" There's no logical reason for my friend Jake to call me Billy Boy. I see him and he says, "' 'sup Billy Boy", but it sounds good, the "B" sounds, the balance of it, it's great.
KWRS: So poetry is everywhere?
Bill: Everywhere. Poetry is language made memorable. It's funny what we remember, maybe even against our better will, because the poetry is so good. The pollsters who did this study weren't interested in poetry, but how secular we'd become, but they found out that a way larger number of people could recite that a Big Mac was “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun” than knew the 10 Commandments. It may have to do with better marketing, but definitely, the Big Mac jingle is more memorable, more muscial: it's better poetry. But, when the Bible's poetry works, well, almost no one ever forgets. For example, it's not what it says but how it sounds, I think, that makes "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" memorable. When I was a kid, I loved just saying that to myself, but I didn't know what I was saying. I loved the sound.
KWRS: But poetry is more than sounds, right?
Bill: Yes, it sure is and we love the figurative elements of language, too. In fact, sometimes with the figurative the music follows right behind. For example, my friend Ed drove logging trucks for over thirty years. One day a fellow log truck driver nicknamed him Rooster and proclaimed over the CB Radio: "Hey fellas, Rooster's bringing in a load. He thinks he's the cock of the yard." And it stuck. The image worked. The metaphor worked. And so did the great sound of "he's the cock of the yard." I think Yeats might wish he'd written as fine a line as "he's the cock of the yard"! One other example. Cars. Ford wants us to think we are riding a young wild pony while behind the wheel of a Mustang and just think of how sleek a wild feline the Jaguar is and then you know why that car has its name.
KWRS: How about the Pinto?
Bill: Hahahahahaha! Not very good poetry is it! I felt the same way when I drove a Gremlin. But a Thunderbird. Powerful.
KWRS: So it sounds to me like you are saying poetry almost comes naturally to us.
Bill: I think I am. I don't really know, but human beings seem to take an untutored delight in rhyme making, creating figures of speech, using profanity in colorful ways, creating slang that sounds just right, and on and on. Of course, some of the tightest, most muscial, and most figurative use of language is in jokes. Jokes kill when the music, rhythm, meter, etc. is right. Likewise, Cockney rhyming slang. And rap. Whether raps are spoken without music or rapped to music, the ingenious rhymes, the folding over structures, rap is poetry and it feeds a hunger to take delight in the sounds and rhythms of language and to make figures.
KWRS: So there's a lot of poetry going on that never makes it to the school classroom.
Bill: Infinite amounts. And once we bring schools into this discussion, we are talking about poems. I'm very wary of the power institutes of higher learning exert in determining what is good considered a "good poem", what is "worthy of study" and I'm even more wary of how students seem to be taught to read poems.
KWRS: You are?
Bill: When I teach Intro to Lit.: Poetry, my biggest task is to try to persuade my students out of these sorts of ideas they have about poems: First, that poems are about hidden meaning; second, that they have to read between the lines (I tell them don't bother...the lines are a lot better); that poems have to be deciphered, like they will need to send in boxtops and get a poetry decoder ring; that (and this is the biggest absurdity) poetry is abstract. Abstract? What? Sure, there are a small number of poems that deal solely in the realm of ideas, but the vast majority of poems are picture books. Poems, more often than not, are a feast for the senses. Abstract? Who tells them this shit? Oops. Sorry. Not on KWRS. Hope you are on tape delay...
I mean what's all this mystifying of poems? Maybe it's T.S. Eliot's fault. Maybe students first tried to read poetry by reading The Waste Land...but, by and large, except when poets are experimenting with breakdowns in language or purposely writing obscurely, poems are accessible.
When Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate he started the Favorite Poem Project. People up and down the class ladder from every part of the country and people of all ages shared their favorite poems. His book "American's Favorite Poem's" helped Pinsky document that poetry has a strong presence in American culture, not just in the academies.
Oh I could go on and on. I just want to make sure I make the point that all of us who love poems have got to find access to the great poetry that doesn't get published by University run journals and University run publishing presses and by Publishing Houses whose editors often share the prejudices of the University toward poetry.
In the 1996 edition of Best American Poetry, Adrienne Rich went out of her way to give attention to poetry that had appeared in the smallest of presses, that was not the kind of poetry produced in University Creative Writing Programs.
She defied the gatekeepers. She pissed off (whoops, sorry KWRS) one of the chief gatekeepers, Harold Bloom, who, like many who teach literature and regard themselves as the protectors of taste, sanctimoniously lambasted Rich.
Rich's Best of 1996 collection reached deep into the many pockets of the USA where poetry is made and so the poetry worked in various ways and not all of it worked in the ways that Harold Bloom and countless others like him think poems ought to work if they are to be deemed to be a part of the world of high minded poems.
KWRS: So is there a hunger for the poems taught in college classrooms and published in journals and by publishing houses?
Bill: It's interesting. About every time Atlantic magazine or some other august bugle sounds the death knell of poetry, someone like Pinsky comes along and discovers the funeral should not be scheduled just yet. Or Garrison Keillor comes along and makes poems readily available every day through his Writer's Almanac. I think the more people realize that a person doesn't need special powers or even a college class to have a really wonderful experience with poems, the more poems will flourish. I think Keillor helps that idea along really well. So did Ted Kooser when he was Poet Laureate, as did Billy Colllins. Kay Ryan is headed in a similar direction (and she's headed to my place of employment in May!)
KWRS: Well, thank you, Bill. I'm not sure you ever said what you think that quotation means, but you certainly have a lot on your mind.
Bill: You are welcome. And could you wait a few minutes until I've had a chance to get out of the building before you put on Amy Grant.