The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet

Lynn Emanuel

 
     Jill's a good kid who's had some tough luck. But that's
another story. It's a day when the smell of fish from Tib's hash
house is so strong you could build a garage on it. We are sit-
ting in Izzy's where Carl has just built us a couple of solid
highballs. He's okay, Carl is, if you don't count his Roamin'
Hands and Rushin' Fingers. Then again, that should be the
only trouble we have in this life. Anyway, Jill says, "Why
don't you tell about it? Nobody ever gets the poet's point of
view." I don't know, maybe she's right. Jill's just a kid, but
she's been around; she knows what's what.
     So, I tell Jill, we are at Izzy's just like now when he
comes in. And the first thing I notice is his hair, which has
been Vitalis-ed into submission. But, honey, it won't work,
and it gives him a kind of rumpled your-boudoir-or-mine look.
I don't know why I noticed that before I noticed his face.
Maybe it was just the highballs doing the looking. Anyway,
then I see his face, and I'm telling you—I'm telling Jill—this is
a masterpiece of a face.
     But—and this is the god's own truth—I'm tired of
beauty. Really. I know, given all that happened, this must
sound kind of funny, but it made me tired just to look at him.
That's how beautiful he was, and how much he spelled T-R-
O-U-B-L-E. So I threw him back. I mean, I didn't say it, I say
to Jill, with my mouth. But I said it with my eyes and my
shoulders. I said it with my heart. I said, Honey, I'm throwing
you back. And looking back, that was the worst, I mean, the
worst thing—bar none—that I could have done, because it
drew him like horseshit draws flies. I mean, he didn't walk
over and say, "Hello, girls; hey, you with the dark hair, your
indifference draws me like horseshit draws flies."
     But he said it with his eyes. And then he smiled. And
that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying
as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn't one of
them. And here is where I say to Jill, "I just can't go on." I
mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all
happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep-
tual storyteller. In fact, I'm a conceptual liver. I prefer the
cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That's why I
write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the
reader and say, "Reader, you go on from here." And what I like
about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I
mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They
pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in
a dark alley, I'd want it to be a poetry reader. They're not like
some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, "Put this
foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button
your coat, wipe your nose."
     So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I
feel, deserve something better than they're used to getting. I
do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself,
who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some-
body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every-
thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange,
are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something.
And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the
form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the
average reader likes ideas.
     "A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross." I
said this to the poet Mark Strand. I said, "I could not stand to
write prose; I could not stand to have to write things like 'the
draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown.'" And
he said, "You could do it if that's all you did, if that was the
beginning and the end of your novel." So please, don't ask me
for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the
bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, al-
though you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the
very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for
the rest of it.
     I don't think many people do. But, like me, they're either
too afraid or too polite to say so. That's why the movies are
such a disaster. Now there's a form of popular culture that
doesn't have a clue. Movies should be five minutes long. You
should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange
draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, "I'm having a
hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the eleva-
tor." And, bang, that's the end. The lights come on, everybody
walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experi-
ence. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get
Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had
to do boring, dogged work. Everyone has lived a life that
seems to inflict every vivid moment the smears, finger-
ings, and pawings of plot and feeling. Everyone has lived un-
der this oppression. In other words, everyone has had to eat
shit—day after day, the endless meals they didn't want, those
dark, half-gelatinous lakes of gravy that lay on the plate like
an ugly rug and that wrinkled clump of reddish-orange roast
beef that looks like it was dropped onto your plate from a
great height. God what a horror: getting Raoul into the ele-
vator.
     And that's why I write poetry. In poetry, you don't do
that kind of work.
 
From Then, Suddenly--, by Lynn Emanuel. Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Available at local bookstores or directly from the University of Pittsburgh Press:
c/o CUP Services
Box 6525
Ithaca, NY 14851
Phone orders: 607-277-2211
Fax orders: 607-227-6292

Poems by This Author

Dream In Which I Meet Myself by Lynn Emanuel
Even the butter's a block of sleazy light. I see that first
Homage to Sharon Stone by Lynn Emanuel
It's early morning. This is the
inside gertrude stein by Lynn Emanuel
Right now as I am talking to you and as you are being talked
Inventing Father In Las Vegas by Lynn Emanuel
If I could see nothing but the smoke
Item: by Lynn Emanuel
I strolled through the neighborhood of beautiful houses
Sonnetesque by Lynn Emanuel
I love its smallness: as though our whole town
The Burial by Lynn Emanuel
After I've goosed up the fire in the stove with Starter Logg


Further Reading

Related Poems
Untitled [20 November]
by Amy Newman
More Like This
On Poetry and Craft [excerpt]
by Theodore Roethke
All She Wrote
by Harryette Mullen
An Exhortation
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Anybody Can Write a Poem
by Bradley Paul
Dawn
by James Laughlin
Dear J.
by Kazim Ali
Ephemeral Stream
by Elizabeth Willis
Epistle: Leaving
by Kerrin McCadden
Friend,
by Jean Valentine
From Trance Notebook #2 [nerdy questions about exact pitch]
by Wayne Koestenbaum
Hospital Writing Workshop
by Rafael Campo
In Portraits in Seasons
by Danielle Pafunda
In the old days a poet once said
by Ko Un
Inert Perfection
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Language
by W. S. Merwin
Leo Said
by Eileen Myles
Light (an Ars Poetica)
by Michael Cirelli
Lines on Nonsense
by Eliza Lee Follen
Night School
by Micah Ballard
Night Theater
by Meena Alexander
Poetry
by Monica Ferrell
Poetry
by Marianne Moore
Poetry
by Alfred Kreymborg
Poetry
by Amy Lowell
Poetry is
by Emilio Villa
Potentially Interesting & Secretly Devastating
by Tina Brown Celona
Q & A
by Terence Winch
Render, Render
by Thomas Lux
Scandal
by Lola Ridge
Sky Burial
by Ron Koertge
so you want to be a writer?
by Charles Bukowski
Te Deum
by Charles Reznikoff
The Bear
by Galway Kinnell
The Gift
by Chard deNiord
The Language of Love
by Rodney Jones
The Novel as Manuscript
by Norman Dubie
Time Study
by Marvin Bell
To a Young Poet
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
What He Thought
by Heather McHugh
what it means to be avant-garde [excerpt]
by David Antin
While Writing
by Noelle Kocot
Why Poetry Can Be Hard For Most People
by Dorothea Lasky