Issue 154, Spring 2000
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 assign ments tell us anything about the art of poetry? Many poets have been unwilling or unable to write on assignment, or 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 as 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.