On being a citizen of the arts in Napa County
Artizenship: Man Up
By: Jeremy Benson
1. We were discussing Robert Hass’ Time and Materials, and we talked about how his poems, especially
when dealing with intimately personal details, seemed to always look away, or flash to some Greek
myth, just as they were going to land, just as the cathartic break-through was within the speaker’s
reach. Some in the group didn’t like this technique, feeling his poetry was undeveloped, like they had to
fill in the rest. Me, I don’t know how I feel about it. As a man, a man who is trying to connect
emotionally, do that kind of work, I was disappointed, too, that he didn’t dig deeper, that he didn’t finish
the work he started. But as a poet I understood, that he was finishing the work, he was landing at the
catharsis and break-through—he was doing it through these extended metaphors and allusions. As a
poet I understood the struggle with and of language to get the job done in a satisfactory way. I kind of
thought that was the whole point of the book? To confront the asymptote of words.
2. I had chosen Robert Hass for the Poetry Club to read and discuss because he’s a Bay Area poet, and
many around here have studied with him or have seen him read in Point Reyes Station. Time and
Materials also won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, which I like as a sort of vetting process.
And I chose him because in the two and a half years of running this Poetry Book Club, I’ve noticed a
pattern: when we read work by male poets, then the male readers show up to discuss the book.
3. I want more men to come to poetry club. The same way I wish more men would like opera, or listen
to Janelle Monae, or want to dance ballet—selfishly, I wish more men did these things so I wouldn’t feel
so weird when I do or want to do them. I remember once meeting a woman at a bar, flirting with her,
and when I found out she did alterations and designed clothes, I told her of the laptop bag I had
designed and sewn, how I was keeping an eye out for a used sewing machine. Her response: “are you
sure you’re straight?”
I want more men to like poetry so we can all have an idea of what a man who likes poetry is.
4. I wonder why more men don’t come to discuss poetry? Is it because we’re not just discussing the rote
classics like Alfred Lord Tennyson, Shakespeare, or T.S. Eliot—the ones we read in our Sophomore year
literature surveys—and instead discussing contemporary and “political” writers like Tyehimba Jess,
Tracy Smith, CAConrad, or Solmaz Sharif, whom we must encounter for the first time?
Addendum to 4.“Political” in quotes, because to speak truthfully about one’s experience as a person of
color, or as an identity other than straight male, makes their words inherently political.
5. I wonder if men don’t engage with poetry because of poetry’s reputation as an emotional form. And I
wonder, if more men engaged with poetry, would it inform their emotional lives, would it enhance their
ability to empathize, to own their actions, to put themselves in the shoes of the Other? These questions
6. Robert Hass, and all you men, older and younger, I know you may be trying but I’m going to keep
holding you to a higher standard. Because I’m trying, too, and I’m looking for an example to follow.