Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jim Moore on how reading Kenneth Rexroth changed his life

Jim Moore, whose seventh book of poems, Invisible Strings, was recently published, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. He writes on how discovering the right poet at a critical time can be a life-changing experience.
People sometimes ask, especially parents of aspiring writers, “What does it take to become a poet?” From my own experience I would say four things matter most:
1)A broken heart.
2)A sudden dislocation which results in you living in a new place, not really knowing why you are there.
3)A welcoming bookstore floor.
4)The luck of stumbling across a poet whose work seems written as if just for you; whose poems feel as if they are saving your life, stanza by blessed stanza.

Everything else takes care of itself.

A broken heart at nineteen is not hard to come by. But if you need a suggestion on how to go about it, try falling in love with your roommate's girlfriend. It's a surefire method. Then in desperation—it is winter, it is Minnesota, you are majoring in philosophy at Carleton College and the philosophers have no useful answers—you flee to Norman, Oklahoma. An old friend takes you in, you get a job selling hot pies door-to-door at the university's fraternities and sororities (should you need a refresher course in the permeable boundary between humility and humiliation this is particularly recommended), and—most important of all—you go to a bookstore with an upstairs attic-like room. For some reason you stumble into the poetry section, sit on the floor (this is a store where you are welcome to stay as long as you want if it is books you care about: it is not a coffee shop, a music store, a place to buy anything but books).


And, oh yes, you pick—blindly and with miraculous good luck—a book off the shelf by one Kenneth Rexroth called Natural Numbers. All these years later—forty-seven to be precise—I still have that book, published in 1963 by New Directions and costing, new, $1.75. I sat there all evening, drenched, I am sure, in the smell of stale hot pies, reading the book from cover to cover. Then, reluctantly ($1.75 was a lot of money), I bought the book, drove my old Buick to the nearest streetlight and sat in the car reading it again.

Here was a man (and it was important that he was a man in my case, someone who had a clear sense of the vagaries of the male heart) who understood absolutely everything I was going through; a man who was not afraid of passion and passion's first cousin, love; a man who was not afraid of political anger (his poem about discovering the Chicago stockyards at age nineteen--exactly my age—stays with me still). Here was a man who gloried in travel, in dislocation. And most of all: here was a man whose life had been transformed by two things above all: nature and poetry.

Perhaps the most well-known poem from that book of new and selected poems is "The Signature of All Things," written in 1946, soon after the end of World War II. It is a poem in three sections, a total of some eighty lines, each written in seven or eight syllables, with no regular meter (he turns most often to iambic tetrameter when especially moved). The poem is triggered by the speaker’s reading the mystic Jacob Boehme's book, "Signature of All Things". Boehme was the seventeenth-century German mystic who believed in something he called "the law of signatures," a concept that suggested that every object in the real world has a hidden meaning.

Near the end of the poem's first section, in which Rexroth has been describing a beautiful July day, high up in the California mountains ("The wren broods in her moss domed nest"), he writes:
. . . The long hours go by.
I think of those who have loved me,
Of all the mountains I have climbed,
Of all the seas I have swum in.
The evil of the world sinks.
My own sin and trouble fall away
Like Christian's bundle, and I watch
My forty summers fall like falling
Leaves and falling water held
Eternally in summer air.
These were, it turns out, exactly the words I needed to hear: if you opened yourself to the natural world it might be possible to let go of your own "sin and trouble," and even of the world's evil (if only for the space of a July day), and connect to a much larger world, a world that still contains life and death, loss of love as well as its pleasures, but a world in which you are not, mercifully, at the center of things and your own small triumphs and failures move discreetly into the background. This was the promise of the natural world as Rexroth described it, but even more important, this was the promise of poetry: to read it and to write it could serve as a bridge that would lead to a kind of eternity, an eternity whose "signature" is our very own world, the one which swirls around us.

I was hooked.

And forty-seven years later, still am.
Reviewing Invisible Strings for The New York Times, Dana Jennings wrote “Jim Moore’s poems are an artful amalgam of humor and fierce attention, suffused by a passion for ancient Asian poetry. Like his sage poet-teachers he grasps the quiet power of white space, knowing that what is unsaid is often just as crucial as what is.” Michael Klein in The Rumpus detected a Boehme-like quality: “Moore can write tantalizingly about the hidden code of the domestic ritual.” Moore has received numerous awards and fellowships from the Bush Foundation, The Loft, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He teaches at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs, as well as online through the University of Minnesota Split Rock Arts Program.

Also of interest: 
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson (contains seven poems by Rexroth including “The Signature of All Things,” which also appears in American Religious Poems; An Anthology by Harold Bloom)

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