In the spring of 2000, The Paris Review published an issue dedicated to poetry—dubbed, in fact, the Poetry Issue—including a series of prompts for poets and an essay by Robert Pinsky, who was then the U.S. Poet Laureate. Pinsky is seventy-four today; an excerpt of his essay, “Occasional Poetry and Poetry on Occasions,” follows.
What does it mean that so many distinguished and gifted poets responded to the somewhat goofy games and assignments suggested by The Paris Review for this issue? Not just willingly, but with spirit, they have composed poems to strange titles like “An Empty Surfboard on a Flat Sea” and “Lavatory in a Cathedral,” written commentaries on worksheets—written, in other words, to suit the occasion.
Occasions have elicited poems throughout history: coronations, birthdays, weddings, victories, executions, seductions (successful and unsuccessful), births, and deaths have their genres and great examples. Poems responding to specific circumstances have ranged from the agonized majesty of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to the humblest good-humored verses produced for benign laughs at the office retirement party or a family anniversary. Donne wrote “the Anniversaries” on assignment and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” is the most gloriously entertaining in-group, after-dinner speech in the language.
Does this play of talent in response to occasions and assignments tell us anything about the art of poetry? Many poets have been unwilling or unable to write on assignment, in response to circumstance but even their work has been used after the fact—quoted in speeches, inscribed in stone, read at the graveside or after the victory. (Anyone who writes or studies poetry can remember being asked for something suitable to be recited at a wedding or a funeral.)
Occasional poetry is a reminder that poetry is related to speech a little bit in the way dance is related to walking: it is more playful, as well as more serious. Poetry’s medium is not merely light as air, it is air: vital and deep as ordinary breath.
The title of Poet Laureate, always dangerously inviting to comedy and satire, more than a little absurd, may be linked to the idea of the occasion: just as there is for some reason no Photographer Laureate or Novelist Laureate or Choreographer, we do not speak of occasional photographs (unless they are called “snapshots”?) or occasional novels or occasional dances.
There is no occasional acting or dancing because performance is itself an occasion. But a poem creates or calls for an occasion: the re-creation of its words in the reader’s voice. The poem makes the occasion of its reading, its invited taking-place in the reader’s actual or imagined breath. This creation of occasion can be described as both playful and formal.
A poem is something that happens. It is not words or characters on a page, and it is not a performance by the artist: the artist makes the means or occasion for the poem to happen in the reader, an action spirited into being. This process from maker to work to recipient, a process so ancient it seems natural, is itself a human creation, like any other social form.
Expectation is created artificially, in a way, by rhythm and rhyme. The rhythmical crooning or rocking of the miserable or abandoned child is described by psychologist as self-stimulation: the cadence creates a kind of homemade Other. Occasional poems may recognize or manifest something like this principle: they tend to be formal. The world occasion has its root in the Latin word for falling: the assignment or situation falls to a certain person, or across someone’s path. A certain sound falls to a certain meaning, and from the chance association of grunts and idea, art can be made …
The occasion, the challenge of a reality that falls into one’s path, offers something like collaboration—between the external world and the self, between language and intention—in the hoped-for event of a poem.
Read the whole piece in issue 154.