Getting Ready to Read My Poems at Nicholls (10/23/13) and “Notes for the Perfect Poem” by John Finlay

 

I have been asked to read poems from my new book on LSU Press — The Fiddler of Driskill Hill (2013) — at my university, Nicholls State University, in Thibodaux, Louisiana. The reading will be 10:45 AM-noon in the Plantation Room of the Student Union with a book signing to follow (12:30-1:30 PM) in the university bookstore.

Reading my poems to others is always a privilege and a pleasure. Moreover, it is a special honor to read to one’s own colleagues and students. I try to select poems that are suited to the particular audience and occasion and that can be readily absorbed by listeners who probably have not had the opportunity to read the poems on paper. I also do my best to choose poems that others would find of interest and that reflect universal human experiences, even if locally rooted in my life as a Louisiana poet. I try very hard to avoid obscurity and unnecessary or excessive complexity.

     Those in attendance at a reading have made a choice to spend an hour or so listening to a poet, and the poet should respect the audience for giving of its time in the hope of receiving back something that may both delight and instruct. I never use a reading as a platform for self-display, nor I am seeking therapeutic affirmation or a “fan base.” Of course, like most poets, I hope my poems may please but only insofar as they affirm what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things” in human experience, things that we all share in common — love, death, nature, family, friends, questions from religion and/or philosophy, etc.

     Readers of my earlier post about my late poet friend John Finlay will know that I serve as John’s literary executor. Years ago, when reading through his journals, I found an entry he had entitled “Notes for the Perfect Poem.” Of course, neither John nor anyone else has ever written a perfect poem. Nevertheless, these characteristics of a poem that is, shall we say, of the first rank are my own touchstones as a poet, especially 6 and 11. These traits are numbered 1 to 14. Readers will notice that points 2 and 4 are the same. Finlay did this for special emphasis. The “Notes” were published in a limited-edition colored one-fold card some years ago

     Is there agreement (or not) that a single poem could (or should) contain all of these 14 characteristics? Are any of these traits contradictory on the deepest level of thought and feeling — or not? Are there other characteristics not on the list that should be?

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Notes for the Perfect Poem

  

  1. It must be about the truth. It must give truth.
  1. It must be literal, very literal.
  1. It must be symbolic, very symbolic, but symbolic only in terms of its literal “base” or narrative, not in terms not growing out of this literal whatever you may call it.
  1. It must be literal, very literal.
  1. It must be clean and lean and have the supple, yet firm movement, of pure muscle.
  1. It must be of the physical world, have winter mornings, summer nights, creeks, smoke, smells, the reflection of a star in a bucket of water, etc. in it so that the reader will say, “Oh yes, this is just the way it really is.”
  1. Yet it must also be abstract.
  1. It must come from a man who is mature and has mastered himself so that he is calm in the good knowledge he has of our mystery, our language and history.
  1. It must be rooted in a particular place.
  1. It must be whole in its beautifully compelling demand that the reader engage his wholeness, both his intellect and his emotion.
  1. It must be moral and cause the reader to make one of the three following statements: “I should and want to lead that kind of life.” “I should not and do not want to lead that kind of life.” “I should and want to have the patience to resign myself to these unavoidable facts about life.”
  1. It must have both the intensity of engagement and the detachment of judgement.
  1. It must be fully realized in language.
  1. It must be plain.

 –John Finlay (1941-91)

 

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