Stephen Massimilla’s When We Fell In Love

When I first started to fall hard for poetry, I was excited by everything from Shakespeare’s secretly ironic injunction to “love that well which thou must leave ere long” to Eliot’s strange invocation involving the evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” What I was witnessing and feeling verged on witchery and mysticism. I intuited that, with its strange and sonic landscape, its leaps and possibilities, its allusiveness and wondrousness, its channels of signification, its power, humor, thrills, and mysteries, a poem is holy. Like the restless light and dust sifting about in the wind, it might seem to arise from the numinous or perhaps more squalid details of everyday life, but also to exist beyond them.

I have long loved stories, literature, philosophy and the search for meaning they entail, and have long considered thinking and writing almost one in the same. When it came to poetry, it was largely its language that I loved. Even as a child, I was taken by the way certain terms, such as “soup spoon” and “sewing machine” (which I called “maswing chine”) sounded. I thought the word “hippopotamus” was hilarious and used to say it over and over. When I later found my great aunt Gertrude’s turn-of-the-century editions of the collected works of Donne, Shelley, Tennyson, and others, sounds and images came together in syntactically intricate ways, and I was hooked. In my princox phase, my mantras became everything from “saucy pedantic wretch” to “murmur of innumerable bees.”

That said, I don’t think I came completely under the spell of this art until I went to Williams College, where I took a poetry course with Larry Raab, who loved the uncanny, followed by a writing workshop with Louise Gluck, who was such a smart reader, authoritative and fiercely encouraging. Derek Walcott was my mentor in the Graduate Writing Program at B.U., and his emphasis on concrete, sculptural imagery and sonics had an impact—though his lovely work reminds me of a tropical jungle, with all the leaves and fruit hanging very low to the ground. Lucie Brock-Broido, whom I studied with in the Columbia MFA program, was almost the opposite: a mystic who embraced the voltage of startlingly intuitive leaps. She had a big influence, too.

Anyway, I sensed early on that, while one may wrestle with its meaning like a dog chomping at a shank, a poem goes on with more than that doggy life, engaging the psyche and the soul on a subliminal level. Poetry is therefore far more than a tangible or academic matter, and more than just an art form or a genre. It is a lover who can change our lives. It initiates us into new sacral rituals; it seduces us into joining with it in intimacy; it can precipitate secret rainstorms of feelings; it expands our capacity for understanding and love.

In recent decades, I have simultaneously enjoyed writing about and teaching poetry. Teaching entails holding forth about how a poem means, the significance of its synesthetic music, the rite of reciting it repeatedly, awakening not only one’s ears but one’s tongue and one’s nose and one’s eyes and one’s mind—and one’s feet and one’s hair and one’s shadow—to its sensual field, its figuration, the methods and madnesses that it enables and that enable it. And let’s not forget the voice: who is speaking to whom, and why, and through what mask.

Insofar as I am rhapsodizing about the sorcery and wonder-work of poetry and writing, I should admit that the muse has remained a mysterious matter. I fell in love with discovering what generates life and electricity: what objects, what emotions, what phrases and juxtapositions, what ideological objectives. My favorite pieces often emerge from more than one source of inspiration, including: the time of year as it reveals itself in the thawing fishpond of live opinions, or in the rattling leaves, or the vanishing sky; or a luminescent mood; a word, or phrase; an overwhelming question; or even another work of art—a Bach cantata, an oil painting, a sad sepia photo, a documentary film, a novel. And dreams are inspired and indelible, since it’s as if we have none unless they are memorable—a model for approaching our waking experiences.

To this day, I love poetry as the realm of the magic audiovisual gesamtkunstwerk inseparable from and yet uncircumscribed by ideas about poetry, given that such notions are spinning out endlessly. It was Stevens who suggested at one point that poetry was a “supreme fiction” and at another that money was “a kind of poetry” and at another that poetry amounted to a new religion and at another that “poetry is a pheasant that comes to dry sticks.” The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind: There are so many ways to write, and I am responsive to a vast panoply of forms, styles, approaches, influences and attitudes.