January 28, 2008
It isn’t just about the poetry. That’s the message I take away from my conversation with Boston’s brand new poet laureate, Sam Cornish. Don’t get me wrong--he is certainly not downplaying the art he has been chosen to spotlight. Far from it. In fact, in the few days since his appointment was announced he has been busy responding to requests from news reporters and radio talk show hosts eager to discuss poetry. And, as a member of the Mayor’s Task Force that selected him, I know that he was chosen from a field of outstanding candidates because of his commitment to poetry and his impeccable credentials as a poet.
But the holder of this newly-created position has a broader view of the role that poetry can play in the life of the city.
“I picture a family thinking about what to do for entertainment and deciding to go to a poetry reading as a cultural event with meaning,” he says.
But, again, more than that. “I picture people carrying around a camera for recording visually what they see around them and a notebook to jot down lines about what they’re seeing and what they are thinking about. I want people to notice the ordinary things and see that there’s something more beautiful than a sunset.”
Cornish wants, in other words, nothing less than a city of noticers--people who can shake off the daily fog of routine, step out into the ordinary streets, listen to ordinary words and recognize them for the extraordinary experiences they are. He talks about seeing how people think of themselves as “quite ordinary” and “don’t realize how free and open and special they are.”
“The poet and Madison Avenue may both use the same language, but they have different intentions,” he says, noting that even learning enough about a presidential candidate to make an informed decision comes only after paying careful attention to the use of language.
Which brings us back to poetry. Cornish freely admits that people are sometimes intimidated by what he describes as “self-indulgent, convoluted poetry filled with self-regard that ignores what kinds of lives people live.” He encourages readers to trust their feelings.
“Don’t be put off by a book. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. Poetry is too important and gives such pleasure. Readers shouldn’t be prevented from enjoying it because of a few over-exposed and narrowly focused writers.”
That said, Cornish is the first to insist that understanding and enjoying poetry takes effort.
“It requires a commitment on the part of the reader. You have to take responsibility. You have to give the book your complete attention. You have to interact and pay attention the way you would in a conversation.”
Cornish laments that, because poetry is generally not reviewed widely in the media or displayed prominently in bookstores, it’s not always easy for people to find work they might want to read. He advises readers to search out work from gay and lesbian poets, racially and ethnically diverse poets, women poets, Irish poets.
“These are categories that might sound like political correctness, but it’s poetry people can identify with.” Cornish notes, though, that whatever its origin, good literature has universal qualities that transcend category. His own current bookbag holds three new books of prose: Tattoo for a Slave by Hortense Calisher, chosen for his interest in women writers and Jewish writers; Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, a novel about Native Americans in World War I; and Property, a novel by Valerie Martin, whom he likens to Alice Hoffman for prose he terms “inventive and magical.” His personal reading habits involve having four or five related books going at once so that “one book speaks to another.”
Cornish hopes his role as poet laureate will have an impact on the city. “Boston is a wonderful city,” he says. “Literature can give people something to talk to each other about.”
And it can help them notice the extraordinary world.
In the unemployment line
with those early morning
on my feet the president
said the economy is doing fine
(guess it’s just taking its time getting
down to folks like me)
Ohio After the Shooting at Kent State
We enter the mountains,
The sudden trees are quiet,
Moonlight finds stones and dust,
The bones of slow animals in the grass.