How To Write A Preface

How To Write A Preface To A Posthumous Poetry Collection (Not!)

from Ode To Sunset, A Year in the Life of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan

“My only fear about what critics say about me is that they might be right,” Granahan had confessed shortly before he passed.  That was when Dick had asked Wendt to oversee the publication of the posthumous collected, maybe write a preface. UC Press had already contracted to publish it, and an honorarium had been set aside to pay for his effort.

Jane, Dick’s ex, had gone along with Granahan’s choice, saying, “Carl, I never liked you.  I don’t think that will ever change.  You brought out the worst infantile tendencies in Richard.  However he was confident in your ability to do right by him with this collection, and I respect that.”

There was also a big kerfuffle with Marguerite “Kay” Sayrah over his being appointed editor of the collected.  The compromise was Jane’s doing.  Marguerite would get to write the introduction since he was contributing the preface and determining the contents.

Needless to say, Kay’s introduction to Granahan’s collected, There’s Always Something, like her poetry, was incomprehensible.  Her ideas of what constituted the esthetic behind Granahan’s poetry were a convoluted mess of postmodern jargon and academese. The text acted as an off-putting barrier to anyone curious about but not familiar with Granahan’s work.

He had complained to Jane about it to no avail, and there was no talking to Kay because communication between her and the planet Earth was virtually nonexistent.  To him this was yet another instance of the grannyhand’s unintended consequence rearing its pointy pink head, and on top of that, the rumblings about the correctness of publishing the work of a known sexual predator.  He felt that he should somehow redeem his old friend’s reputation, but that would only call to mind his own repute for unsavory behavior.  In the end, it looked like old Dick was going to have to shoulder most of the weight with his own words.

He’d found a letter Dick had addressed to him among the box of manuscripts for the final edition.  He figured to bracket the letter for the preface with a little biographical material and praiseful assessment of Ganahan’s importance to American literature.  The letter pretty much spoke for itself. 

Dear Carl—

            Some time in the latter decades of the past century, I realized, like many of my contemporaries, that poetry, as it was written in the US, had lost its identity and consequently its efficacy in making any impact on contemporary culture.  The fractiousness of the various schools of poetics had stretched the art so thin that it became transparent, the invisible art.  Vain attempts (pun intended) were made to reinstate poetry in the pantheon of cultural darlings.  They failed because they all tried to make poetry what it was not. Attempts to redefine poetry in the modern trappings of popular entertainment or intellectual faddism missed the point. Poetry is archaic, and its appeal is to the archaic in all of us. It is the original joy of language, the play of words.

            To think that the poet is some kind of highly sensitive antenna tuned to the deepest sensibilities and secrets of the heart is a romantic notion.  The man or woman with the talent for words, the ability to string them together with lyrical fluidity is just as likely to be blind and deaf to the motives that their words reveal.  What’s to guarantee that they are not hollow instruments, an empty metal tube? Yet there is a possibility that if such a pipe is positioned in such a way that a breeze or light wind coming from the right direction might blow across one end and produce a sound that causes both awe and fear at the realization of our tenuous hold on the moment, a haunting haunted breath, and a match for the resonant frequency of being. “The unconscious cannot be civilized” as Bachelard states, hence the primitive anti-social attitude of the true artist and poet.         

            To that end, participation in the art becomes a very personal and at times private practice for those who accept this perception. If the art is invisible, then the practitioners are unseen as well.  Performing on stage, construction-(or deconstruction)-isms, or braying from the podium doesn’t amount to a blip on the culture radar.  Invisible is as invisible does.  Even as I write this, the paper crinkles smugly and the ink giggles that I have not abandoned my conviction that the work alone should be judged, not the mitigating influence of the writer as salesperson.

            If poets and their milieu are essentially non-existent to a large part of the public to the point of being obscure—this applies to some of the best and better known writers of the day—then imagine what it means to be obscure and nonexistent to that set. The poetry pie is very small, a tart in fact.  Some will never even taste a crumb. And they are the most vulnerable, ripe pickings for all kinds of products and scams from workshops to self-publishing to poetry apps. Poetry is a gated community with a surplus of gatekeepers.

            The role of the poet in this country has been relegated to teaching at a college or university while writing innocuous verse and staying away from politics.  Academics are a cheap investment.  They’re happy just to have sand in their sandbox. However they are notorious about not sharing their toys. Academics poets are corporation poets, agendized by the mere fact of their employment. Today’s poet is as never before under pressure of academic attention and expectations. Consciously or not, numerous poets begin to write a type of poem that will reward the structural analysis of college and university classes.

            The other option is to belong to the marginalized majority of unaffiliated ineffectual poetizers whose sole aim appears to be at war with each other. North American poets because of their manic quest for visibility are always looking for the latest fad, diet, cause, camp, school, or program.  They are pulled in a thousand different directions at once, shredded to tatters, unable to fashion coherence if their poetic lives depended on it. The literary world, especially the poetry scene, is one of tormented and agonized beings who only contrive to exist by devouring each other, and in which every ravenous writer is the living grave of thousands of others, its self-maintenance a chain of painful deaths in which the capacity for feeling decreases with knowledge. But the guardians of language and literature, what are they but ineffectual banks trying to contain the raging unruly stream?

            It should come as no surprise that there are three classes of writers: the working class writer, the middle class writer, and the aristocrat.  Working class writers tend of be utopian while also keenly aware of convention and their abject adherence to a hackneyed ideal.  The middle class writers are the ones with the greatest interest in keeping the particle board ceiling in place and making up the rules as they go along.  Middle class writers are bifurcated into two general groupings that consist of the successful (i.e., professional) and a much larger grouping, critics (also professional) of conventional achievement.  What they inflict on each other is only amusing from the sidelines.  Those sidelines are populated by aristocrats, by nature bored, looking to dabble in a little decadence. Some write, quite well at times.  They inhabit a closed world similar to that of the working class writer but with a better view.

            The authorship of literature has pulled away from addressing an audience on any common communicative level that is not fraught with code for obviously limited consumption and the assumptions of elitism. At some point literature becomes abstruse, it leaves off the reader and becomes entirely the province of the writer and specialist as an ornate rococo that assumes the guise of the mock discursion of science employed by modern philosophers, and yet even while it advocates the equanimity of humanity, it distances itself from the rabble by its use of obfuscating language.

            True, there are still a few pockets of informed intelligence in the poetry world but most of it is unmitigated dreck, a squirming field of half formed and unrealized egos on the rotting carcass of a deathless idea that the right word or combination of words will guarantee immortality. The poetry path is a gauntlet lined with people greeting you with smiles and handshakes as you approach but backstabbing and spitefulness as you pass. So with the obvious exception of those still in the fray, shadowy narcissists that they are, poetry and poets have faded into the woodwork.             

What comes off as interesting, in the final analysis, after all my eager efforts to gauge and disseminate the worth of my writing in comparison to anyone else in the field, the adjustments and fine tuning, the practice all the while compulsive, passionate, fiercely engaged in its output within the parameters of an uncommon aesthetic, is the realization that a return to the original impulse to set words down on paper has occurred, fleshed out but essentially the same, and that, looking over my shoulder, looking over someone else’s shoulders, standing on the shoulders of others, I end up back to where I started from.

            I forget who said it originally, but I must, before I die, find some means of leaving behind the essential thing which is in me, that which cannot yet be said, a thing which is neither love nor hate nor pity nor scorn but the very breath of being, shining and coming from afar which will link to human life the immensity of the frightening, wondrous, and implacable forces of the nonhuman.

            This must be where these pages come from. The acts and events I can tell you about, and the reasons for them, are mine because I made them.  And because they made me.  What I am is that agent whose life I can tell you about.  I can tell you, and I can tell myself.  The process of self-description begins in earliest childhood and includes a good deal of fantasy from the outset.  It continues throughout life.  It is what I do, it is what I am.

            Poetry, it turns out, is not for the casual reader.  Nor is poetry knowledge.  Poetry is revelation, a revelation brought about by random language.  Poetry is now the art of reading the equations of existence, the art of being read.


Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, two novels, and an online serial fiction.  His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017)  So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018), and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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