Originally posted on Jacar Press’s new online poetry review journal Browse.
Everyone has an opinion about what poetry is, and should be, with definitions of poetry as plentiful as those for ‘love’, ‘friendship’, and ‘family’. These viewpoints often stem from educational, cultural, and societal influences and, in the case of poets, we are afforded the opportunity to see if these beliefs successfully manifest in their writing.
In this, William Page’s fifth collection of poetry, In This Maybe Best of All Possible Worlds, he considers his relationship with the art in ‘Ars Poetica’.
I know what poems are supposed to be,
a reflection of a snowbird in ice, not
the bird’s feathers and hollow bones
that lift it up into the invisible air.
Not wind, but the likeness of wind.
Not the fusillade of kneeling pistons raising
and lowering themselves in raving prayers,
their exhaust gases pushed like thunder
back into the chambers of silence. The hint
must be subtle as sound of an unseen wheel turning.
There must be a slight lean into the curve of words,
nothing like rubber’s concrete squeal; the hard road
must be traveled with the gentleness of a light breeze.
Speech cannot be louder than a clear whisper.
Movement must be a single ear of corn’s silken tassel
faintly touching the down of a young girl’s arm.
But I must speak bluntly. I must direct this to you
while you’re here, must tell you the world is not made
of cotton candy. Even the bird’s soft sky is hard
to traverse, requiring strong wings.
Art requires the hammer become the nail.
Page uses the poem to dismiss the intangible, and at times absent, nature of poetry. Poetry, he tells us, should not be a diluted reflection of an abstract experience, a medium of mere witness and record. Page wants to communicate, in so far as art can (and here Page is clearly stating that it can), the actual, the experienced. Even when speaking ‘bluntly’ Page uses metaphor to explain himself, drawing an important distinction between the purple prose of the ‘ear of corn’s silken tassel’ that lacks purpose and conviction, and the striking declaration for artistic embodiment in ‘Art requires the hammer become the nail’.
By placing ‘Ars Poetica’ halfway through the collection, Page leaves the reader free to experience his earlier poems without this ideological input. Once ‘Ars Poetica’ is read, the desire arises to re-visit these poems, to ensure Page’s words express his artistic standing. By actively inviting this added layer of scrutiny, which continues throughout the collection, Page demonstrates true confidence in his work, and creates an engaging experiential dialogue with the reader.
Page is not interested in telling his readers what to think. This is made abundantly clear in the collection’s first poem ‘This is not’:
This is not
This is not about sad mothers.
It’s not about a swirling Roman candle’s
orange and blue balls of fire bursting
in crimson waves in a startled sky.
The small-boned boy does not float easily
in the blue water lapping against the white
pool’s sides. You may think of a tall privet,
weeping among green foliage of others.
This could be one that holds a nest
of speckled eggs whose fate may be ours.
But this is not our concern.
This is not about fathers. It’s not
of rasping steel of roller skates,
the smell of oil on bearings
or the sun glancing from such
rapid turnings many years before.
The translucent skin shed by the bull snake
sheds no light on this.
Sons and daughters don’t figure
in this. This is not about a hard birth
or an easy death, not attesting
to the snow quietly melting under its surface.
Not showing the deliberate flowing
of candle wax under the tongue of flame.
This is to show us the still fly resting
on the window, its wings miraculously thin.
The range of topics Page dismisses in this poem means that a single definition of what the collection is going to be about is impossible to formulate; the reader must simply read on. Page clearly wants us to consider what is not discussed; the ratio of what this poem ‘is’ and ‘is not’ about demonstrates his belief in the expansive, and inclusive, nature of the unsaid in poetry.
Page’s expectations of poetry may also be applied to the role of the reader: it is not sufficient for us to simply read the poem; he wants us to discern, through our own experiences, what his poetry is for; for each reader to find individual meaning in each poem, and, from there, to discern the integral unity or unities that bind the collection together.
True to form, Page speaks ‘bluntly’ in the collection’s final poem:
Standing on Edge
Once you get used to the idea
the world is a terrible place,
it’s not so bad.
I stand them in a circle
on the breakfast room table.
Copper and silver, little monoliths
of Mammon. Some days the world
looks so beautiful
I almost forget it’s only
a series of broken stones
standing on the boiling
lake of Earth’s core.
Every day is as precarious
as these pieces of change
I’ve stood on edge.
And we’ve no more
knowledge of the future
than falling coins’ prescience
of heads or tails. But dime
dumb or penny silly,
I count my life a fortune.
Throughout this collection, Page goes to great lengths to tell us what things are not; things that have not been thought or done, said or remembered. This concept becomes so ingrained that when Page declares ‘the world is a terrible place’, the reader’s first reaction is ‘No, it is not’. When he says that the world is nothing more than ‘a series of broken stones’, we think ‘No, it is not’. By the end of the collection the reader has learned, not to simply read the poems, but to read around them, to create conversations, to look for what is not being said. In that, this is a collection worth speaking with, and speaking about.