Last week, I was struck by the fervent admiration of Jacob McArthur Mooney’s championing of Deanna Young’s book Drunkard’s Path published by Gaspereau press on his blog Vox Populism, especially his concluding sentence which compares Young’s book “like a gift to a friend, as secret and personal as handmade soap. You remember such a gift, you feel compelled to.”
I found this idea of particular interest because I was already planning to do a post about the “gift economy” of poetry as described by Robert Hass in the video below which has had me thinking for well over a year now and has inspired at least a few poems in my new manuscript.
More than just another incarnation of the media-fueled bromide “paying it forward”, which suggests by its own words an economic exchange, a tallying of obligations based on what a person receives from others, the gift economy of poetry Hass is talking about in the video suggests there is no counting. No tallying. Poets simply write because somewhere along the line they were “gifted” even if they do not remember the exact circumstances.
It is this idea that put me in the mind of Mooney’s post, but also of a poem by the American poet Gerald Stern called "The Red Coal" from his book of the same name (and which you can see and hear him read here). As the poem is rather long, written in iambic tercets, and as I wish to keep my blog within the boundaries of fair use, I will quote only excerpts from Stern’s poem starting with the first section:
The Red Coal
Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember
what it was like in the spring of 1950
before the burning coal entered my life.
I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one
below the grease line consisting of four feminine angels
and one crooked broken masculine one
and the right one lying on top of the white porcelain
with skin wrinkled up like a chicken’s
beside the razor and the silver tap.
I didn’t live in Paris for nothing and walk
with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks
thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire
and I didn’t save the picture of the two of us
moving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmen
and put it beside the one of Pound and Williams
unless I wanted to see what coals had done
to their lives too.
I think this first section of Stern’s poem is interesting for a few reasons. First, it invokes the growing burden of personal mortality as the poet examines his own hands in the kitchen and sees what both time and poetry—that catalyzing agent of change and knowledge represented by “the red coal” in the first stanza—have done to his life.
Secondly, the idea of poetry's gift economy is also woven into the poem’s dialectic here through Stern’s inclusion of Hart Crane and Apollinaire, Pound and Williams, who were gigantic figures in the younger poet’s imagination, and via their legacy the poet suggests “the burning coal entered my life”.
What is fascinating about this first section of the poem is that Stern acknowledges, yes, poetry is that rarest of gifts, as when he describes his lifelong friendship with Jack Gilbert, but he also seems to be asking himself whether he and Gilbert have been “gifted” in the sense Hass means it. Or is something else going on? He answers this question in the middle of the poem:
The coal has taken over, the red coal
is burning between us and we are at its mercy—
as if a power is finally dominating
the two of us; as if we’re huddled up
watching the black smoke and the ashes;
as if knowledge is what we needed and now
we have that knowledge. Now we have that knowledge.
In these lines, poetry is certainly a gift but it comes at the price of knowledge, and as our oldest surviving stories and myths can attest to, once knowledge is gained, we sometimes feel wretched for it can never be returned. In this sense, poetry or “the red coal” as Stern calls it, a clever reference to the classical Prometheus myth, is both a gift and a consequence. It is the language beneath language. What gives us a brief glimpse of the underlying pattern of our lives. It has the power to shape our experience providing us with exuberant joys but also well-deep sorrows for in the concluding lines of the poem Stern maintains it is the tears he is left with, most of all, as if this is what poetry had in mind all along:
what all along, the red coal had
in store for us as we moved softly,
either whistling or singing, either listening or reasoning,
on the grey sidewalks and the green ocean;
in the cars and the kitchens and the bookstores;
in the crowded restaurants, in the empty woods and libraries.
As Wendell Berry reminds us,"To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound". This poem reminds us of that scar. If you like Gerald Stern’s poem "The Red Coal", you can find it in his book This Time: New and Selected Poems published by Norton.