Poetry’s For The Ages
By Paul Smart
For years I had a favorite line from William Butler Yeats that I liked repeating. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” it read, although I somehow mixed them up into the best being passion, and the worst being a lacking of conviction. I was young and not yet ready for the Irish poet’s caustic post-war vision of an even worse war a century ago.
Recently, I’ve started realizing that our divided times call for a different approach to lyricism, as well as to anything even the slightest cynical. Yet we need the poetic the way we have throughout history—to tie ourselves back to both the epic and the utterly personal, be it through a Billy Collins, a Bob Dylan, or Kendrick Lamar.
How to find what matches our times? One can start by defining those times, or simply look at some of the voices that have established themselves in our region, a fount for poets seemingly eternal.
Consider Bernadette Mayer’s “Beware of the Killer Dog:”
Today I’m just like
A person with a device
My mind jumps from place
To place, I’m doing karaoke
I make the screen go up
To another thought, oops
I don’t like this one oh
My! Let’s scroll down to
A more Hallmark moment I
Have an app for waterfalls
No I’ll go to my sex app
Mayer’s now in her 70s, a lifetime poet, who is gaining new recognition as a beacon for younger poets, whose very approach to language, and the complexities of life, speak to the modern condition. Plus, her book-length poem Midwinter Day has become a major solstice event focus throughout the region of late.
Then there’s Omar Perez, who’s been reading around the area since late summer, and has just published Cubanology with Station Hill Press, which also publishes Mayer. The son of Che Guevara, who was gunned down when his son was but two, Perez has been moving from written and performed poetry towards something more musical and interactive, all in an attempt to better reach modern audiences.
“The verse, the poem, even the rhyme, the melody of poetry are the tip of the iceberg, they are just one familiar aspect of a huge reality which we call consciousness,” he has noted. “Poetry is a natural function, like god, or DNA, or rain. The fact that we can give notice of it does not mean that we make it.” Omar’s considered one of Havana’s great forces.
Albany’s Victorio Reyes, who teaches at UAlbany and served as head of that city’s Social Justice Center for years, is one of our area’s great treasures as he engages hip hop’s relationship to literature, and settling into popular consciousness. His work has a new directness that’s refreshing, and looks to new futures just over current horizons. Consider the work he wrote after Ferguson: “Poems Can’t Revise.”
I can’t write this poem for you Mike.
Cause I’ve realized
I won’t say this poem
is for others,
I can’t write such an ignorant poem.
I can’t write a poem that can prevent
future, unarmed black men
from being killed
and I definitely
back in time…
Reyes, as with Perez and Mayer, is all about the honest reach we must make, as empathetic humans, beyond battling truths into deeper eternities. It’s what has kept poetry with us longer than anything. It’s also why we need it more than ever, now.