Another favorite item in this year’s BestAmPo is “Four Addresses” by Peter Davis. The “addresses” are diected at 5-year-old boys, “People Who Are Tired, Hungry, or Horny,” “People with Certain Expectations About Poetry That Are Not Fulfilled in This Poem,” and finally prisoners.
Here is the first part, which I think is probably not quite like anything in previous Best American Poetry collections:
This poem can turn invisible and it can beat up bad guys! When people read this poem it is like a laser shooting bad guys right in the stomach! This poem knocks bad guys on their bottoms! And if you need a force field you can get one from Dr. Defense who lives in this poem and makes a number of bad-guy-fighting tools and weapons. Sometimes giant robot bad guys try to kill this poem by bopping it on the head, but this poem doesn’t allow that and sends ninjas and wizards out to reverse time and destroy the robots. Dr. Defense jumps up and kicks everyone in the face and he, like, flies through a window and then, like, this poem explodes!
This pretty much speaks for itself, but I’d like to mention the way that he uses “like’ toward the end, as though his excitement and enthusiasm had finally overpowered his sense of propriety.
Just foregrounding the audience in this way would be strange, even if it were not such a wildly improbable one. We are used to thinking of linguistic messages and having an intended recipient: this is obvious with text messages or e-mails, but also true of advertisements, editorials, and romance or sci-fi novels. But to ask a poet “Who did you write this for?” seems somehow indecorous, beneath the dignity of high art, and Davis is spoofing this pretension.
An even more dangerous question to ask of a poet is “What is this poem supposed to do in the real world for real people? One possible answer, of course, is “Nothing! That’s how you can tell it’s art.” But people, including poets, have often been uncomfortable with this; William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there.”
That certainly sounds promising, and I would like to believe it, but it would help if WCW had given an example. Who exactly died of hypopoetremia? What are the symptoms? I honestly can’t think of anyone who has died for lack of what is found in poetry. Now if he had said “every day men express themselves tediously” or “every day men get so bored they watch NASCAR”…
Anyway, Davis provides just the answer we are looking for: if you are being assailed by evildoers, this poem can save you by zapping them in thrillingly explosive ways. Sadly, you can’t always rely on an audience of gullible 5-year-olds (unless you’re Bill O’Reilly, I suppose), and Davis has to retrench to an offer of a shot at transcendence, and finally to a nicer prison. You don’t often see a poet who is this honest.
I’ll close with another take that is more serious than Davis; and more realistic than Williams’, from W.H. Auden’s elegy for W.B. Yeats. (The whole poem is at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544):
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.