Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Anyone who teaches, reads or writes poetry will eventually encounter the student, colleague, friend or family member who complains of poets, “Why don’t they simply say what they mean?” One way to answer the question could be to have them listen to Robert Hass read his poem “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is Dmitri.”
Those of us who expect poetry to follow a clear narrative form or linear progression could be temporarily thrown by a poem that might appear to be free-associating. Yet, even at a first listening, we notice repetition. The speaker of the poem returns, as if compulsively, to images and ideas that are almost unbearable to contemplate. Just as frequently, the speaker makes repeated allusions to other literary works, to history, to the fancifully imagined lives of Dmitri and his relatives.
Consider what it means to say “you can get an adolescent/ Of the human species to do almost anything,” or “human beings/ Will do anything they see someone else do and someone/ Will do almost anything.” What images do these assertions conjure?
The generation that lived through the Vietnam era now sees their children or the children of their friends, relatives or neighbors dying in another largely unpopular war. If we contemplate how quickly tragic history repeats itself, or the waves of suicide bombings, or 9/11, the mind reels.
As does the mind of the speaker in Hass’ poem.
The answer to the question, “Why don’t poets simply say what they mean?” is that their subject matter is the unsayable. If they could simply say it, there would be no reason to write the poem.
Poetry begins where speech fails. What happens to normal speech when we are overwhelmed by any emotion, experience or insight? We stammer, we repeat words, phrases, even whole sentences, sometimes to the point where our pleas, explications or curses fall into a chant-like rhythm. We use colorful, metaphorical language, rich with simile and metaphor. When speech fails, we break into poetry.
With repeated hearings, we may discern the interconnecting patterns in this intricately crafted poem. But even a single hearing puts us directly inside the experience of how a human mind makes endless associations as it grapples with its own perceptions. While that simple, direct statement–“a human mind makes endless associations as it grapples with its own perceptions”–is easily forgettable, poems like Robert Hass’ are full of images that won’t let us forget.
The text of “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is Dmitri” can be found in Robert Hass’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection, Time and Materials. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Robert Hass.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye and others.