I felt then, and still do, that American poetry was suffering a bloodletting from theorists because the recent practice of free verse, as displayed in poetic styles, was often weak or mandarin. It bears repeating that free verse is not a form, nor an absence of form, but a method for inventing new forms, and it must therefore reinvent itself with every poem. But much of our verse is the invention of those who engineered a coup détat long ago and whose children use inherited modes unquestioningly. Some profit from employing the methods exactly as they were when inherited. Others revel in the neutrality of an easy free verse line that permits them to strike a note of seemingly unartificial substance or, in other cases, to quiver up top.
Hence, I couldn´t resist throwing a fist in the face of current practices by making the line of the dead man poems identical to the sentence. In other words, I redefined the free verse line by discarding most of its material particulars. Others had done it previously in works I thought not totally dissimilar: Smart and Whitman will come to most minds, and "wisdom books" to the minds of others. If some readers could not see poetry absent enjambments, I was ready to call the book simply "a work of the imagination." What is William Carlos Williams´ Kora in Hell? What is his Spring & All in its entirety?
I knew, too, that dead man poems would not seem to some to be poetry in its usual Aristotelian lyric-epic-dramatic modes. For the dead man is alive and dead at the same time, which throws a monkey wrench into discussions of voice and point of view. The dead man is not me, not a persona, not a mask. Nor is he Joyce´s omniscient author, coolly paring his nails behind the passionate actors. Rather, his is an overarching consciousness that can be at a distance and still participate fully. To do so is the groundwork of philosophy, is it not? His is the heart that is both hidden and worn on a sleeve. He is the body that is the soul.
Dead man poems come in two parts. The parts are not meant to signal life and death, nor here and there, nor now and then, nor any so matched a pair. There, too, I could not resist the idea that material never ends, that what we call "closure" is the work of retrospection or the consequence of will and force: in any case, an illusion and a wish. Exhaust for now a form, an area of thought, a figure or a trope, and one can yet return to it. Calling a poem complete is merely an announcement bearing aesthetic and philosophic implications. And the dead man section titles, which usually begin with the words " About..." and "More About..." are only a way of saying, " Come closer." For to live as if one is already dead is not merely to live as if one might die tomorrow.
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review