The American public does not know poets exist. That Americans have no
knowledge of nor appetite for poetry is symptomatic of the impoverished
prosiness of their lives.
On other shores it is a different matter. Being identified as a poet
in France or Denmark or India one is greeted with gracious respect. When
my landlady in a Neapolitan village learned I was a poet, she insisted I
have the best room in her house and forever addressed me as “Dottore
Today the U.S. is farther from being nourished by poetry than it was
a hundred years ago, when books of poems were best-sellers. On her
sewing table, my grandmother had copies of Tennyson, Longfellow, Omar
Khayyam, et al., in soft leather bindings with bookmarks for favorite
In the world of poetry there are would-be poets, workshop poets,
promising poets, lovesick poets, university poets, and a few real poets.
There are poets with leaden feet, tin ears and tangled syntax. Rarest of
the real poets are born poets. They are the oddballs, not the
I have never taught poetry. I never wanted to dilute my private
passion for the art by airing and arguing it in public. I remembered
what Professor Albert Guérard at Stanford said years ago: “The best
job for an author is to be a postman. It has nothing to do with writing,
it gets him out in the air, he sees what is going on in his community,
he can read everyone’s postcards, and he comes back to his desk
refreshed, not weary of words.”
Yet everything that I have taught insisted on a poetic view of life.
I taught the arts of ritual, myth-making and magic, individual
soul-making, avant-garde cinema. I tried to stir the imagination and
enthusiasms of students to take risks, to do what they were most afraid
of doing, to widen their horizons of action.
As for feedback, what I learned of value from students over the years
is embedded in my book, MAKING LIGHT OF IT, which
purports to be about filmmaking but is really my aesthetic of poetry and
the poetic life.
A born poet knows in his cradle that a poetic life is the only life
worth living. He is born with divine sparks in his head. His favorite of
all games is the play of words. He expects to be dismissed as a fool, a
black sheep, or a threat to society. But he can’t help writing
memorable lines. Glorious oddballs: Hopkins, Rimbaud, Rumi, Lear, Lao-Tsu,
to say nothing of Blake, Whitman and Jesus. None of these took a course
in creative writing, but they can make shivers go down your spine.
The literary establishment fears originality, oddity and outrage.
An excellent poet wrote a book
And an excellent book it was.
But nobody gave it a second look
as nobody often does.
But as Noel Coward said, “We must try not to be bitter.”
I have found my most support within literature’s unestablished
corners, among a few fellow poets and a few editors of obscure
magazines. I owe special gratitude to Jonathan Williams, Andrei Codrescu,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Paul Mariah. Above all I always had the
support of my angel, who is my ideal reader.
And acclaim? What would I do with it? Wear a rhinestone tiara?
Acclaim is a distraction. Adversity is a stimulus. I prefer the response
of one reader who truly listened to me and suffered goosebumps, heard
bells ringing in his head, or took a deep breath and yelled, “Wow!”
Most poets, like most people, try hard to be like someone they admire
or they are possessed with an image of what they ought to be. Trusting
your individual uniqueness challenges you to lay yourself open. Wide
open. Some artists shrink from self-awareness, fearing that it will
destroy their unique gifts and even their desire to create. The truth of
the matter is quite opposite. Consciousness is the glory of creation.
And remember Gertrude Stein’s comment, “It takes a lot of time to be
a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing.”
The quietest poetry can be an explosion of joy. True delicacy is not
a fragile thing. The most delicate and yielding of our necessities,
water, can be the most powerful destroyer, swallowing everything.
True delicacy is indestructible. Take Shelley, Dickinson, Firbank,
Basho. I like things which appear fragile but are tough inside. In the
long run the dandy can outmaneuver the brute, the bird is more
resourceful than the rhino.
This reminds me of an encounter at the beginning of World War II. A
burly fiction writer from Berkeley taunted me for delicacy and called me
“The Venetian Glass Nephew.” Before 1945 he
went off his nut and had a lobotomy.
My major aim in writing is to set out flags and issue wake-up calls.
Life is adventure, not predicament. Amazement awaits us at every corner.
If you don’t fill your days with love, you are wasting your life.
I have always been a passionate spokesman for love, even before I
knew what it was. My earliest poems sing of the absolute necessity of
allowing love to invade and pervade one’s life. That can make the
miracle happen in reality. Try it.
For me, prose walks, poetry dances. And to Shakespeare I owe my
vision of the world as a theater, wherein all humans are acting out
their parts. The theme of my film, The Bed, I phrased thus:
“All the world’s a bed, and men and women merely dreamers.”
Dance, vaudeville, drama, movies – as a child I loved everything
that went on in a theater. I loved the scenery, the music, the
magicians, the slapstick clowns, and the whole play of illusion. I had a
toy theater and a magic lantern, and when I was eight I built a stage
for theatricals in the attic. At the age of twelve I wrote serious
imitations of Eugene O’Neill, at the same period when I began writing
a sonnet a day. So it is not surprising that my first book, years later,
was a verse play, “The Playground.”
My films are an extension of my poetry, using the white screen like
the white page to be filled with images. I consider my films to be poems
that are all as personal as my writing and as hand-made. Hence, like
poetry, they have no commercial value.
Work in the theater sharpened my verse and my cinema. One learns
especially the value of timing, and above all, the necessary
ruthlessness to excise any word, sentence, or entire scene that does not
advance the magic. Over my desk, a sign reads: “When in doubt, cut.”
I often start writing in order to excite an expansive emotion.
Feelings are springboards for creative swandives. If bitterness wants to
get into the act, I offer it a cookie or a gumdrop. The most astonishing
joy is to receive from the muses the gift of a whole lyric. Here is an
example of a poem which gave itself completely to me, rhymes included:
God is my Beloved
God and I are lovers
He lifts me in tidal embraces
That turn the world on end
God is my Beloved
the ultimate in lovers
We ride through timeless spaces
a rapture without end
God is my Beloved
from first to last my lover
I surrender to him praises
and never ask the end
For me a poem has to sing out of itself and the lilt of it carries
the magic. What Stravinsky said about music is also true for poetry: if
it strays too far from its roots in rhythm and melody it loses its human
connection. Rhythm and melody emanate from the body, the heartbeat, the
voice of the soul. I concur with Nietzsche, “Light feet are the
primary attribute of divinity.”
I’m happy to report that my inner child is still ageless. He takes
his cue from the impudent play of the universe. For him, poetry is the
greatest form of play; playing the way the gods play, and playing with
the gods. Unless you are playing around with serious matters, you are not
a serious artist. Juggle the verities, dance with the mysteries. “Only
when I glee / am I me.”
I think I am happiest being a “laughing man of God.” I enjoy the
company of gods and daimons. They drive my green fuse forward. My ideal
model would be someone like Hotei, the Japanese god of happiness who is
fat, untidy and giggling. In the West where is any haha-ing god of
Poetry for me is as much a spiritual practice as sexual ecstasy is.
Since I know that spiritual practice is an upbeat devotion, I find it
more apropos to celebrate existence than to deplore it.
Everything that ever happened is still happening. Past, present and
future keep happening in the eternity which is Here and Now.
but it doesn’t
Some of the time
Much of the time
In the long run
matter a lot
Most poets in their youth begin in adolescent sadness. I find it more
rewarding to end in gladness. However there is lingering regret that
limitations of daring and energy prevented the completion of the
masterpieces one imagined for years. Advice: Be true to your madness
throughout your life.
Everything is Song. Everything is Silence. Since it all turns out to
be illusion, perfectly being what it is, having nothing to do with good
or bad, you are free to die laughing.
A summer party was held in 1994, welcoming me
to Santa Fe and the United States. James Broughton had flown in with
Joel Singer from their home in Port Townsend, Washington. Topped by one
of his collection of embroidered poet’s caps, eyes shining, moist lips
fluttering for a kiss, James was able to whisk new acquaintances into a
place of great intimacy and keep them there.
The material for Free to Die Laughing came from an interview I
conducted with him in 1997. He agreed to the
interview on a visit I made to his home that summer, but chose that it
should be in writing. I spent a week in the south of France, reading his
work and composing my questions, and mailed them off. When his answers
came, I recognized them as a personal gift. James showed me how
creativity could keep on springing from a source of joy … one of the
names friends gave him was Big Joy … and that it was not necessary to
keep looking for recognition from the literary establishment. Through
many decades James wove creative dances around the literary
establishment as though it were a maypole and he held all the ribbons.
In May 1999 I heard that James was dying. On
May 17th, as he was passing away with
the taste of champagne dropped onto his tongue, I spent the day using
those interview answers to compose Free To Die Laughing from his
own words. This was my way of staying close to the dear man. It was a
treat to read the closing pages of this piece at his memorial
celebration at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught for so
many years. At the end of that afternoon we crossed the Golden Gate
Bridge and stood on the shore as a young man whirled naked around the
beach, coated his body with James’s ashes, then danced into the ocean,
sending the rest of James’s remains billowing above the water in
handfuls that spread into silver clouds.
In November 1997 PACKING UP FOR
PARADISE, SELECTED POEMS 1946-1996 was published by Black Sparrow
Press. As a compendium drawn from 50 years of
publishing poetry, it’s a good place to start. James received a
lifetime achievement award from the National Poetry Association, and
another from the American Film Institute, for there are 23
films for you to search out and savor too. The philosophy behind this
film-making, and a companion testament on creativity to the piece
published here, can be found in his book MAKING LIGHT OF
IT. His first gift to me was a copy of THE
ANDROGYNE JOURNAL, which is a finely honed, very brave and
personal book about breaking creative boundaries. To get to know him
still better, read his autobiography COMING UNBUTTONED.
James was a tremendously good friend. I’ll leave you with an
aphorism of his:
Crazy old men are essential to society.
Otherwise young men have no suitable models.
© 2000 Martin Goodman.