Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ozymandias on Bissonet

I'm just a little cotton-headed today from last night's hoopla -- a reading at Brazos Bookstore, Houston's independent/literary bookshop on Bissonet Street-- and a party afterwards celebrating my National Book Award and the end of my ten years here in Texas. I drank enough red wine that I don't feel like such a sharp-witted blogger today, but I did want to write about a lovely thing that happened at the reading. There's a poem in my new book called "Apparition: Favorite Poem" which describes an evening a few years ago at that same bookstore. I'd been in a bad mood about the fate of poetry, "the old books turning into dust and sleep." Who was reading this stuff, why did we lavish such obsessive energies on its making? Then I went to the Favorite Poem event at Brazos, one of those occasions organized by Robert Pinsky, when civilians (i.e. non-poets) read or recited their favorite poems. It was a diverse crew of citizens, and a great night, but there was one young man who stood out in my memory, because he read, with great conviction, Shelley's "Ozymandias." It seemed so of another age, that poem, and yet here it was with us in the room, alive and breathing.

So, a while later I wrote my poem describing that performance, and who should appear in the audience last night but the same fellow, Craig, now maybe eighteen or so, and luckily for me he was happy with his representation in my piece, and so were his parents, who proudly introduced him and bought copies of the book for their friends. Here was something of the gift-giving nature of art: Shelley gave Craig a gift,
Craig gave one to me, now I've given something back to Craig. The giving is not direct and not even really personal; Shelley gives him poem to anyone, Craig read to anyone who was there that night, I wrote my poem for whoever to read. But the very impersonality of it somehow enables the gift to be received personally, to matter to the recipient in a way the giver doesn't usually know. That's where the odd, sweet generosity of poetry resides.

6 comments:

Collin Kelley said...

I love "Apparition: Favorite Poem." I almost used that on my mini-review of Fire to Fire on my blog.

Nancy Devine said...

that is the delight, often. "the giver doesn't usually know...." i think you've described teaching. typically the giver is the teacher; she or he doesn't always know what has been given or what has been received.
sometimes the giver is the student and she tells you, as she takes your order at taco bell, how much she loved that book you read in ninth grade english....

Peter Kent said...

Sometimes something happens to make us believe we're in a circle of serendipity, and that everything is alright and will be alright. Thanks for sharing this example.

BarbaraS said...

That's a great story about what a gift poetry can be sometimes, espcially when you're feeling poetry-low. Thanks x

Dogpoet said...

I've been reading "The Gift," by Lewis Hyde with much appreciation, and either you have read it too, or you are surprisingly close to his theories on art and giving. Longtime fan here, congratulations on your well-deserved National Book Award.

Mike
dogpoet.com

David L said...

Thanks for your account of how you came to write "Apparition (Favorite Poem)."
-- David Lehman