Eleanor Hooker: my day in DC with Don Share, Charles Wright and Charles Simic

The Irish poet recounts her trip to the Library of Congress to meet and listen to two US poet laureates in conversation with the editor of Poetry magazine

 

Input #poetry to Twitter’s search engine, and it will unfasten a scroll of global commentaries and debates – some incendiary – on poems, poetry and events. It’s all there and immediate.

When Don Share tweeted last October that he would be in conversation with poets Charles Wright and Charles Simic at the Library of Congress, I was immediately curious.

Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center, replied to the enquiries I made through the Library of Congress website. Over a series of emails, in which he was extraordinarily accommodating and generous, Casper said that should my husband Peter and I travel from Ireland, he would reserve front-row seats for us and invite us to the reception preceding the event.

Charles Wright, 20th poet laureate for the United States, is coming to the end of his tenure. In place of a concluding lecture, he invited his friend Charles Simic, the 15th poet laureate, to join him on stage for an event entitled In Conclusion: A Poets Laureate Conversation. Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, facilitated the conversation.

I met Don Share at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival earlier this year, when I attended his five-day poetry workshop. I also heard him read his own work at a memorable reading with British poet Liz Berry. Share is a modest, unassuming man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry and a delightfully wicked sense of humour. As is often the case with tireless advocates of other people’s work, it can be overlooked that he is an accomplished poet and writer in his own right. It was a pleasure to hear him read again at Upshur Street Books in Washington DC, the evening before the laureate event.

In the reception room of Library of Congress, I immediately recognised Charles Simic; he was surrounded by people, gesticulating heartily and smiling broadly as he told a story. Charles Wright was standing apart, solitary in a room full of people, his expression one of keen, quiet observation, I thought.

Robert Casper introduced us to Charles Wright. He asked why we should travel so far for this event. I told him I was a fan and it’s what fans are obliged to do. He eyeballed me, waiting for the loose screw to reveal itself, then smiled after he satisfied himself I might not be unhinged. In our brief conversation I found him warm and engaging, almost shy.

Don Share opened the conversation by asking both men what they thought the role of US poet laureate meant for them. Wright joked that it meant people knew his name and bowed to him as he walked down the street. More profoundly, he said that it meant he was loved, and there was nothing better than being loved. Both Wright and Simic agreed that if being laureate entailed writing commemorative poems to command, as is sometimes expected of the British poet laureate, then neither would have taken on the role, stating that in their opinion writing to command rarely results in good poetry. Both applauded the fact that they could interpret the role of laureate as they pleased.

Share asked about the dichotomy between the private act of writing and the demands for a public life in poetry. Wright deferred to Simic, who talked about the success of the Beats in bringing poetry into the public domain and teasing others out from their lives of monastic solitude. Simic added that poets got paid for their public appearances, an altogether welcome incentive.

Wright admitted that he is a creature of solitude, and that his writing enables him to express what he cannot say aloud and, increasingly, to strive to mean more by saying less.

One should never conflate a person’s character with that of which they write. Simic is a man bubbling with laughter, mischievous and in love with joy, in marked contrast to the dark, phantasmagorical landscapes in his poetry. In comparison, Wright is a reserved public figure, measured in his pronouncements, while his poetry turns its gaze insistently on all living things in a meditative and vibrant search for truth. Wright’s comment that though for him writing poetry is a private affair, the best private poetry will find its way into the public domain, reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s words that “If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out”.

To Simic’s delight and Wright’s great amusement, Share mentioned the recent article in The Irish Times by Maureen Kennelly, Director of Poetry Ireland, in which Simic was quoted as saying: “the recipe for happiness is six words long: ‘For starters, learn how to cook’”. After some back and forth banter between the poets, Simic decided that it was indeed a very good recipe for happiness.

As an event, this conversation was informal. As an observer, it was plain to see the enormous intellect and integrity of these advocates for poetry. Peter and I were included with such great warmth and hospitality, that I am convinced no one is a stranger when poetry is present.

Eleanor Hooker’s poetry collection, The Shadow Owner’s Companion, was published by Dedalus Press

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