Festival of Books: Poetry, from sonnets to the 'language of the street'

One poet was missing. Another wore a hat. Then there was the poet who wrote this: "We are dust and ash, and beauty is brief as a flower."

"Sorry I'm late," Alejandro Murguía said, arriving finally at a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel on Saturday. "It took forever to walk from San Francisco."


Murguía is San Francisco's poet laureate and two-time winner of the American Book Award.

He was joined by Texas native Gillian Conoley, who teaches at Sonoma State University and is up for a Los Angeles Times Book Award; Marilyn Hacker, author of 15 books of poetry, including "Presentation Piece," which won a National Book Award; and UC Riverside professor Fred Moten, whose new book is a finalist for the National Book Award.

The panel was led by moderator and Syracuse professor Bruce Smith; among his many questions about form  — the panel was called "The Shape of Poetry: The Anxiety of Form in a Shifting World" — was this: "Is the sonnet a technical solution to an emotional problem?"

Hacker, a prodigious translator from French and Arabic, said she views the highly structured poetical form as freeing, rather than a restriction or problem.

"It's a way of bringing in the unconscious," she said, invoking that writerly fugue state. "You push and pull against something that's making your mind and your vocabulary go someplace completely different."

Moten, meanwhile, talked about how our collective intellectual history thought it was a good thing to confine yourself. "You lock yourself up. You go away," he said. "Poetry is the place where imagination gets regulated …The lawless freedom of the imagination has to have its wings clipped."

Murguía, speaking forcefully, bucked against this idea, saying he preferred to write an "impure poetry," in which his was the language of the street. "Sometimes people want the story to be too perfect, too smooth. I don't mind some of the roughness."

This reminded moderator Smith about his time working at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., where some inmates were permitted instruments. There was this myth, Smith recalled, that if you got good enough at your instrument, "the prison walls would fall down."

The poets spoke quickly, as if they worried about running out of time.

In fact, when Conoley was speaking with some emotion about poets she read as a young girl, she recalled the surrealists, and the idea that poetry could shift consciousness and perception. "If rationalism was what brought us World War I, we had to find another way to look at the world."

Just then, life and art seemed to collide, and over the auditorium sound system came the laughing sounds of a children's song, played at full volume. The room fell quiet. What did this mean?

"I think I'm done," Conoley said.


Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.


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