How ambitious should a poet be? I think I would be very concerned if the corporate ladder were crammed with poets, other than the versifiers and prose monsters of the marketing maelstrom. And yet ambition is the true focus of the poet. Why speak of a rose if you do not long in some way to stick it, thorns and all, under a nose?.
A couple of days ago I fell upon a poem by an American writer – Jo VonBargen, the scope of which had me taking a deep breath. Quite simply it is a look at human history with a view to providing the opportunity to those ahead of us in time, to do better. We start in the mud of non individualised atoms and molecules of pre-consciousness (My phrase) and follow through to the conscious manipulation of atoms in the mud of money and politics. It would have been very easy to get this wrong and as I read the foreword I was nervous. I would have taken one look at the tightrope and gone to the bar for a long think, followed by another drink. Then I would have called a cab and gone home.(Actually poets can’t afford cabs but sometimes drive them).
Words are dangerous to art. They are the succubus, the half eaten tray of chocolate. A few more could not hurt could they? Jo VonBargen, I just know by guessing, has been through that cloying land. This poem is not written, it is speared and pruned.Where you could throw more words, she has spiked the one she wanted from the tempting glittering shoal of extra adjectives. It is light and lean, a thin blade, a jab. In a sense it is an old fashioned epic poem but without any grandiosity. The selection of history is from the catalogues of genocide, division and greed. Happily the lusts and delicious passions receive, I suspect, the compassion of the humanist and largely escape the the list.
A poem is for the reading. Poetry read aloud cannot just be folded back into the book (or switched off on the e reader). For a poem to live on beyond its return to silence it has to stick in the mind and this for me is where this work is very special. Short phrases expressing wisdom jostle with sudden sparks of imagery. There are too many to quote but here are a few. “A glissando of slow subterraneans” – as life evolves,(I could hear Wagnerian trombones). “Do you not see separate gardens?” as property and tribe divide us. “Plowmule of the dragging days” takes us to apartheid, racism and slavery in an inspired brilliance of insight. When the poet looks rather sadly at the Rule of Law, she gives us a left hook of wisdom “No law can transform what the soul hasn’t learned.” These are just a sample. You could not read this poem without taking away a phrase or two or without pausing to reflect. Luckily as a European, atheist, Buddhist, lighter of cathedral candles, mumbling coin thrower at wishing well grottos and crosser of fingers, I have no sacred cows except for wanting quite often to kiss them for their gentleness and weep for their innocence.
Bref: “From This Far Land” is the mature work of a deeply intelligent mind. It is wonderful to know that there are folk out there who actually think. It is always tempting to wave the flag and shout the slogan. Once upon a time, the world of published poetry was controlled by just a few editors. Most poets seemed to me to be professors of poetry. Now the savages storm the orchard and all may gorge. A new nobility will arise. Jo VonBargen wields a sword.