PROLOGUE

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In September 2013, I visited a village 30 minutes by car from Bayonne in southwest France. One day, declining an excursion to the coast, I stayed behind and began writing sonnets that I called, from the start, “The Barn Partitas,” both in homage to Bach’s clavier partitas, a favorite, and to acknowledge the shed in Berkeley, the “barn,” where I usually write.

A poet friend of my daughter dismissed the sonnet form, saying that he and a colleague used to compete to see who could compose them faster. There’s that—anyone can write them, and I’ve written many that went nowhere. But the sonnet is a way to contain what’s on your mind, give it a specific form, and a sonnet series is way to gather these small harvests as something like a feast. The unstructured poems I’ve written are longer and, in unedited form, messier. Reading through them this weekend, I found one—“In Memory”—that felt in the spirit of “The Barn Partitas,” so I’ve included excerpts from it.

Proust noted that life provides the raw material of literature, and Croce added that poetry reflects the poet, not simply her material. Memory, as Nabokov observed, suffers from the fact that the camera is dodgy and the filmmaker often distracted. According to Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche believed that the world is text, so everything we write about it is an interpretation. This aligns with Hayden White’s assertion that history, since it’s conveyed in narrative, is inherently or inevitably interpretive. And I would say, with Heraclitus, that not only is the river new each time we step in it, but we who step in it are also new. I write from experience, but ultimately I write from the experience of being human, addressing others who are human, too.

Along with correspondence, poetry is a medium that lends itself to personal discourse. Unlike correspondence, poetry involves what Nikos Kazantzakis noted as an almost alchemical process by which the personal is transmuted into art. Whether this is art others can judge.

— Berkeley, 30 November 2014