Poets in the Park 2005: Opening Remarks

The following is my welcome speech given at the 2005 Poets in the Park conference, for which I was the founder and director. The conference took place at Clise Mansion in Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, 19–20 March 2005. A previous conference took place 3–4 April 2004 (see its opening remarks). After my speech, Pulitzer-nominated poet Madeleine DeFrees came up to me and implored me to publish its Pope story somewhere. Time has passed, and that never happened, but here it is now. Originally written in February or March of 2005, and expanded to provide more detail in February of 2014. See also British Listed Buildings.

I spent a year of college not too far from Reading, England, on the eastern outskirts of London, where I used to go for walks in the surrounding villages and countryside. One crisp autumn day in 1983, near the village of Binfield, I walked upon a large and derelict three-story mansion. It was three centuries
old, and though it was being remodeled, it appeared almost abandoned. It was not fenced, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore. I wandered around inside, up and down the rickety staircases, into various rooms, some of them stripped completely bare, down to the sometimes crumbling bricks or the feeble wooden framing. Each room had high ceilings, and the many rooms made it clear that this was once a very comfortable estate. A few rooms were open to the elements, with some parts of the roofing in midrepair, or with windows missing. The sky was overcast but no rain was falling.
         As I worked my way through the house upstairs, from one end toward the other, I was startled by voices. I immediately felt guilty, because I was trespassing, although I figured the lack of fences would be my excuse. I wanted to investigate what I’d heard, though, and moved to the window of the room I’d just entered to see where the voices were coming from. I was even more startled by what I saw. In the courtyard below, there was, of all things—fully suited and dripping wet—a scuba diver.
         This was too much to resist. I didn’t care if I was trespassing. I had to find out why on earth a scuba diver was flopping around in the courtyard of this old estate. I found my way downstairs, went outside through a doorway missing its door, and across to the courtyard, to one side of a brick utility building. One man was holding a rope and some instruments in his hand. The other man, in scuba gear, was now sitting on the edge of a well, his flippers immersed in dark water that made it almost to the top. Some of the red bricks that circled the well’s edge were crumbling or missing. The opening was not more than four or five feet across, and the water was brown and soupy.
         It turned out that the two men had been hired by the estate’s developers to investigate a rumour. They had no problem with me being there and said I could stay as long as I liked. They had been tasked to search the old well for a stash of gold. It was said to have been left by the poet Alexander Pope, or perhaps the poet’s father, whose old manor house I had been blithely invading. I watched as the scuba diver adjusted his mask and regulator, and put the oxygen to his mouth. He slipped into the well silently and immediately disappeared. An occasional bubble rippled the reflection of the clouds overhead. Pope had lived in the house from the time he was a child. The house was sold when Pope was at the age of nearly 31, in 1719 (he lived from 1688 to 1744). The manor was then called Whitehill House and was later renamed as Pope’s Manor. I’m not sure how deep that well was in Pope’s old home, but I’d guess about 15 or 20 feet. The diver found nothing but old scraps of metal in the stagnant and murky water. After methodically probing each brick from top to bottom with his fingers, and searching around in the silt at the bottom, he came up one last time and stripped off his gear, and I left to finish my walk. Later, the well was drained and sealed over. For many years the house was used as offices for a construction company. [As of February 2014, the ten-bedroom manor is now available for purchase for £4.4 million.]
         For the moment, this story serves only to introduce the following poem:

                Sound and Sense
                by Alexander Pope

                True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

                As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
                ’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
                The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
                Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
                And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
                But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
                The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
                When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
                The line too labors, and the words move slow;
                Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
                Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
                Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,
                And bid alternate passions fall and rise!

Moving ahead two hundred years, here’s a poem by Marianne Moore (1887–1972), which I’ll quote in full for the pleasure of reading it again, though you may know it well.

                Poetry
               
by Marianne Moore
               

                I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
                      all this fiddle.
                   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
                      discovers in
                   it after all, a place for the genuine.
                      Hands that can grasp, eyes
                      that can dilate, hair that can rise
                         if it must, these things are important not because a
               
                high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
                      they are
                   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
                      unintelligible,
                   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
                      do not admire what
                      we cannot understand: the bat
                         holding on upside down or in quest of something to
               
                eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
                      wolf under
                   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
                      that feels a flea, the base-
                   ball fan, the statistician—
                      nor is it valid
                         to discriminate against “business documents and
               
                school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
                      a distinction
                   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
                      result is not poetry,
                   nor till the poets among us can be
                     “literalists of
                      the imagination”—above
                         insolence and triviality and can present
               
                for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
                      shall we have
                   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
                   the raw material of poetry in
                      all its rawness and
                      that which is on the other hand
                         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Let me move ahead an additional half century, to our recent United States poet laureate, Billy Collins, from his 1988 book The Apple that Astonished Paris:

                Introduction to Poetry
               
by Billy Collins
               

                I ask them to take a poem
                and hold it up to the light
                like a color slide
               
                or press an ear against its hive.
               
                I say drop a mouse into a poem
                and watch him probe his way out,
               
                or walk inside the poem’s room
                and feel the walls for a light switch.
               
                I want them to waterski
                across the surface of a poem
                waving at the author’s name on the shore.
               
                But all they want to do
                is tie the poem to a chair with rope
                and torture a confession out of it.
               
                They begin beating it with a hose
                to find out what it really means.

These poems cannot sufficiently represent the great sweep of poetry over the last three hundred years, but they may serve to indicate differences of form, if not of content. John Hollander, in Rhyme’s Reason, his own heuristic update to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” counters Pope by saying that “Technical mastery should not astound— / The sense must seem an echo to the sound.” Thus Hollander reminds us of the great variety possible in poetry.
         As for my story of the gold in Alexander Pope’s well, I believe each person who aspires to poetry has the capacity for unique and compelling expression and poetic communication, and that each of us has a stash of gold in the wells of our experience and personality. Perhaps the scuba diver at Pope’s Manor never found the stash of gold because Alexander Pope had already found it, in writing his poems. I hope that each of us here at the Poets in the Park conference will find new stashes of gold wherever we may go in our poetry.

                Young Poets
               
by Nicanor Parra
                (translated by Miller Williams)
               

                Write as you will
                In whatever style you like
                Too much blood has run under the bridge
                To go on believing
                That only one road is right.
               
                In poetry everything is permitted.
               
                With only this condition of course,
                You have to improve the blank page.