Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Important Looking Men (with a Note from Mairéad Byrne)

Late one October night I read all of Mairéad Byrne's Talk Poetry in one addictive sitting, greedily, as if it were a plate of hot onion and cauliflower pakoras, which it was.

I asked her to say a few words about her poem "The Important Looking Men," her crisp and spirited book or anything else that struck her fancy, and her comments follow the poem.

The Important Looking Men

The important looking men are not always the important looking men. Sometimes the important looking men are women. Sometimes the important looking men are the woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively. Sometimes the important looking men are not the important looking men but visitors from out-of-town where they are not important either. The tortured artist is not always the tortured artist. The tortured artist is not always the guy in the thin cardigan smoking a cigarette outside the studio. That might be the electrician. The tortured artist is sometimes the small priest who stands in the corner of the salon balancing his cup of tea. Or the woman nobody sees. The lover is not always the lover. The lover can be a liar, refracting images of himself back into infinity. The lover might be this beagle, this couch, this slipper, this child who shouts out to me this morning late for school tumbling from his father's car & again from the side-walk Clio's Mom! Or this other child, this evening, alone, walking home, who tosses his glorious hello across Camp Street to land at my feet.


Mairéad Byrne writes:

This poem was originally called "Appearances." You can see that's what it's about. Usually, poems begin with titles for me; this one oscillated between two titles. Ultimately, "The Important Looking Men" was irresistible.

Flat statement is very much part of Talk Poetry, even flat contradictory statement, as this early poem on my blog indicates:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I write every day.
But not really.
But really.
This is a new way of speaking.
Talk poetry.

Except for "the important looking men," who are generic, the images in the poem are all very specific for me. "The woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively," or "solicitously," as it once was, is a colleague. "The tortured artist" is glimpsed on my way to work. The small priest is Gerard Manley Hopkins, isolated at a soirée hosted by John Butler Yeats, when William was about 17, the star of the show. I guess the woman nobody sees is Emily Dickinson, although she was seen by many she loved. And that's how the poem goes. I didn't always find love where I looked for it but it sprung up around me nonetheless. The child tumbling from his father's car is a boy I know. When I taught poetry in my daughter Clio's third grade class, the children wrote list poems beginning "I wish." He wrote "I wish Clio was my friend." He wrote more than any of the other children. He had a lot of heart and was not afraid to show it. His father was sick at the time I wrote the poem. He was a single parent, his three boys lived with him. He died this year. The second child who shouts out to me in the poem is also a boy. A valiant, friendly boy.

The public schools in Providence and in all American cities probably are very poor. It really grieves me. The children are made grey. But I have faith that they are untarnishable.

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