“Could you also provide a synopsis of the book?” or, Why My Poems Are about Nothing

By David Kirby

“It’s like trying to pick a lock without thinking about the lock.”—Tom Stoppard

Photo of Chuck Berry circa 1958, first appeared in Billboard in 1972.

To use two lines from Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” as the epigraph to Help Me, Information, I had to go down the rabbit hole of song rights. Ever try to get permission to quote somebody’s song? You can use snippets of books and poems pretty much at will, but if you want to use more than a few words of someone’s song (I wanted to use nineteen), you have to not only get permission from whoever owns the song but also pay a fee that might run as high as several hundred dollars.

Song licensing is lucrative, in other words, which means that the licensing companies are often bought and sold faster than cryptocurrency. Figuring out who owns the rights to a song can take time, especially when the song you want to quote has been around since 1959. At any rate, after several months, I finally emerged into the sunlight again and crawled figuratively onto the desk of a very nice man named Daniel Higbee, vice president of Synch Licensing, a division of Dualtone Records, which is part of a conglomerate called Entertainment One. Mr. Higbee said that he’d be happy to contact the estate of Chuck Berry on my behalf. And then he asked, “Could you also provide a synopsis of the book?”

Naturally Chuck Berry’s family would be wondering if Help Me, Information was defamatory or said that Chuck was not as good as Fats or Little Richard or Buddy or Jerry Lee, so I had to say something. But the problem with my books is also the problem with my poems: They’re not about anything.

This is because I never start with anything in mind except to have fun with words and see where they lead me. These days, a lot of poets do that, but as many or more have an agenda. I’ve heard poet after poet say, “I write about masculinity” or “I write protest poetry.” I do, too, actually, but I never begin that way.

Here’s an example. At one point I was reading the journals Lewis and Clark kept as they trekked across America in search of the Pacific and was taken by their boldness and also by what lousy spellers they were. Here’s Lewis’s description of the elation the men felt when they finally reached the coast: “Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian, this great Octean which we have been So long anxious to See.” (In addition to the creative spelling, the caps and italics are Lewis’s as well.) I’m not entitled to point out other people’s mistakes, but I can’t help remarking on Lewis’s ability to misspell “ocean” not once but twice in a single sentence. Two lines of my poem “Lewis and Clark Can’t Spell” (in Help Me, Information) are, “What have you got to say for yourself, America? / You can’t spell, either.” These lines are part of a poem that includes a rueful consideration of the fact the two explorers didn’t know they were opening up the West to a country whose policies included dispossession and genocide, and it concludes, “What have you got to say for yourself, America?” It also concludes, “America, we’re still writing you, every day.”

What do you know? I’m as topical as anyone else. But I began with poor spelling rather than politics. I let the poem figure out what it wanted to say. I was just the secretary.

Writing is “a sacred mystery,” as playwright Tom Stoppard said once in an interview:

I simply don’t believe that writing plays is a craft you can pick up. I don’t know how I write plays. At the moment (I hope this changes by the time you’re reading it) I’m failing at getting into a new play, and I’m not aware of any technique that might help me. It’s like trying to pick a lock without thinking about the lock.

Wittgenstein, too, described the philosopher’s pursuit in terms of safe-cracking. “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock,” he wrote, and “each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing; only when everything is in place does the door open.”

And Adam Zagajewski is talking about something similar when he offers his favorite definition of poetry:

I’m partial to a very old definition articulated by an Italian Jesuit poet and philosopher at the turn of the 18th century [Tommaso Ceva, as it turns out, who was also a professor of mathematics]: “Poetry is a dream made in the presence of reason.” I adore that, as it contains two elements—something wild connected to imagination and dreams, yet still kept in order by reason.

I thought about how I could summarize Help Me, Information to Mr. Higbee of Synch Licensing, and finally I said that my poems are about everything: food, love, death, religion, even politics. “Really,” I said, “they’re as different from one another as the records on a jukebox.” A few weeks passed, and then he wrote to say that the excerpt from “Memphis, Tennessee” was mine to use as I pleased and that the estate would waive its usual fee. If poetry doesn’t pay, at least it doesn’t cost you, either.

Poetry is fun, poets. At least it starts out that way. If your poem decides it wants to be serious, don’t worry—it’ll let you know. But the poem should decide, not you.

David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award. His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches English at Florida State University.

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Help Me, Information is propelled by the speed and motion of the poems that define earlier acclaimed books by David Kirby, poems that move the way the mind does on a good day, puddle-jumping from one topic to another and then coming in for a nice soft landing.

Colloquial in tone, balancing narrative breadth with precise detail, Kirby’s poetry displays his voracious curiosity about history, science, literature, and popular culture. Yet here he also reinvents himself with poems that recall the compactness of Jack Gilbert, the sweep of Allen Ginsberg, and the introspection of Frank O’Hara. Help Me, Information presents a fresh Kirby, familiar yet new.

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