Reflections a poetry reading by Henri Cole,23 October 2017, University of York.
Poetry readings are in the ascendancy, yet no one can quite agree on what we get out from them. Unless you happen to have incredible powers of recall, it is likely that you won’t remember the poems—or really what is going on at all—save for a few choice phrases. For people like me, this means that a habitual part of reading is gone! When the sense of a poem can hinge on a pronoun or an adverb missing out on either can be disastrous.
On the opposing end, if all we’re attending a poetry reading for is a recitation of poems we love then the question that inevitably follows is: why go through all that trouble and not recite them oneself? It is also wrongheaded to say that the presence of the author is needed for, or somehow completes, the poems—what about all the dead poets? Are we really so critically stunted that we need poets to physically ‘own up’ their work? These questions have been on my mind as of late.
Case in point: Henri Cole. Among the many literary events held in York over the final few months of 2017 perhaps the most pleasant of all was the American poet’s reading at the homely F.R. Leavis room. Scanning the room all I could see among the attendees were gazes of attention; it rendered my surveillance somewhat invisible. Henri Cole’s poetry demands this kind of attention—like many of the best American poets after the war his poems are built from a plain-speaking register that seems to hold, by contrast, some deep meaning. But this is a trick in a sense; the poetry isn’t a code but is all there. If anything needs laying out he will do so for you. In Extraordinary Geraniums—one of the poems he read—he ends with:
these geraniums, with their fragrant leaves,
and this gritty sugar sandwich make me feel my whole body
and my whole mind superimposed at once.
It’s the opposite of self-obliteration.
If I think, Where am I? I immediately feel, I am here!
To go back to my original question then, what we (or at least I) got here was a pleasure of relief. Sure, the poem began simply enough (‘Eating a sugar sandwich, I sit at the kitchen table’) but as characters and unexpected turns of phrase began to pile up (‘American as Martha Washington’/‘leaves are frilly like genitalia’/‘like Paris or Rome’) the ending comes as an abrogation of one’s interpretative work. The nice thing about it is that you know exactly what is going on but do so against simultaneously not knowing at all what is going on. It’s a pretty good example of the way poetic sense sheds a light—contingently, incompletely and provisionally—on the deep structures of the self, or our world.
Sure enough, I read the poem a few days later and realise that it’s a transparently gay poem. What else could be made of the arc of paired geraniums returning to normality in the morning, after a night of mixing ‘glamour with the gutter’? What else could the urban coordinates, the ‘backstroking, or upstroking’ motions mean? This surface obliquity, the playful double enjoyment of multiple readings—or getting two messages at once—are the stuff of queer poetry. It is a sensibility across most of the poems he read at York.
But did I need any of that second reading to enjoy Henri’s live reading of it? No. I hope you will agree with me, reader, that if not the reason at least a good reason to go to a poetry reading are these small joys, the unexpected dissociations, the small pinches of relief, the sonority of someone else’s words and the live sense that each of those contains within it the promise of other words, both borne out of what you already know and what you’re coming to know at that moment among others.