Originally published in Willow Springs 65
From the author
Notes on “They are Bidden”and “Memoirs”
“They Are Bidden” had its genesis in an event that occurred some years ago in a small Idaho town. A group of teenagers committed an atrocity against a small domestic animal. The community was, of course, appalled, as was everyone who heard about it. Theirs was an act of gratuitous cruelty, unforgivable, really. Everyone’s sympathy, as you might expect, was with the animal. And yet, what stayed with me was less the fact of their crime, brutal as it was, than the possible motivation for it: boredom must have been part of it, and maybe some sense that what they might (and did) do was a kind of assertion of power in a world in which they saw themselves as otherwise powerless. It was, of course, senseless, even a stupid thing to do; it was certainly vile. But poetry—and the power of poetry—has always seemed to me to lie in the way it is able to examine, even to interrogate, the deeper complexities of human behavior.
Among those behaviors is also that of the poem’s speaker, who comes upon the evidence of a similar brutal act and, even though he finds it unimaginable, nevertheless finds himself imagining not only what the perpetrators have done, but why. The poem does not mean to offer any sort of justification for the unjustifiable; rather, it means simply to travel, by means of imagination, into—as far as is possible—the psyches of those who would commit such an act. It’s not simply, as Hannah Arendt put it, that evil is banal. It’s also, sadly, ordinary.
The aim of “Memoir” is, I would suggest, far less serious. In part, it’s simply a kind of send-up of bad memoirs. By which I mean the sort of memoir that does not engage with penetrating thematic concerns, the sort that does not attempt to examine why things occur in a life, but, instead, merely offers a recitation of what happened in the life that is under examination. The poetic mode the poem works is probably closer to the kind of soft-boiled surrealism and comic disjunction that poets like Dean Young and David Berman are so consummately skilled in. I don’t go there very often myself, but sometimes that particular mode is not only useful, but fun.
Notes on Reading
When I go out to my study, I almost always begin the writing day by pulling a book down off the shelves—usually at random, whatever leaps to my hand—and I start by looking for a word or a phrase that starts something in me. In other words, my writing life is inextricable from my reading life. I can’t imagine that it’s much different for anyone else who’s serious about putting words on paper.
Dick Hugo used to tease us, those of us who studied with him, when we didn’t know the work of a particular poet, by talking about the character in the comic strip Pogo, who could write but not read. It’s not possible. You just need to read it all, everything you can, repeatedly. This has made me, in a way, an awfully picky reader. The world’s full of great books. I will not waste my precious reading time with a bad book.
My sense of what the art of poetry is and does expands continually. If I ever get to the point where it doesn’t keep expanding, I’ll probably be done. More important than me, however, are the poems themselves: the best poems you never get to the bottom of, ever. They just keep revealing more and more that is there, that was always there, but which—regardless of how many earlier readings we’d been through—we simply did not see or feel. This is, or ought to be, why we read poetry and why we write it.
Who I read repeatedly (it’s a long list; it just is): James Dickey, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C.D. Wright, Philip Levine, B.H. Fairchild, Richard Wilbur, Cesare Pavese, Richard Hugo, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, E.A. Robinson, Louise Bogan, Wisława Szymborska, C.K. Williams, James Wright, Etheridge Knight, G.M. Hopkins, Nancy Willard, Stanley Kunitz, D.H. Lawrence, Byron, Roethke, David Wagoner, Maxine Kumin, Whitman, Dickinson, Borges, Berryman, Alan Dugan, Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern, William Matthews, Rodney Jones, R.M. Rilke; I could go on and on. I read a lot.
About Robert Wrigley
Robert Wrigley grew up in Collinsville, Illinois, a coal mining town. He is the first male member of his family in many generations—in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wales, and Germany—never to work in a coal mine. Wrigley attended Southern Illinois University and the University of Montana, where he studied with the late Richard Hugo, as well as with Madeline DeFrees and John Haines, and where he developed an abiding love for the western wilderness. Since 1977 he has lived in Idaho, teaching first at Lewis-Clark State College and later the University of Idaho, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing. He has also taught at the University of Oregon, in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and twice at the University of Montana, where he returned to hold the Richard Hugo Chair in Poetry. He lives with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes, and their children, near Moscow, Idaho.
He has published seven books of poetry, including What My Father Believed (Illinois, 1991), Reign of Snakes (Penguin Putnam, 1999), and Lives of the Animals (Penguin, 2003). His most recent book is Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006). He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as two fellowships from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Among his awards are the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, the Wagner Award from the Poetry Society of America, and six Pushcart Prizes. Reign of Snakes was awarded the 2000 Kingsley Tufts Award in poetry, and Lives of the Animals won The Poets’ Prize in 2005. Penguin will publish his new book, Beautiful Country, in late 2010.