For many years I have read and reread Jeffrey Skinner’s poem “Living Poets,” originally published in the September 1989 issue of Poetry and later appearing in his collection The Company of Heaven. I was an undergraduate at the time, a year away from entering graduate school, and the poem, I suppose, came into my life at a time when I was attempting to formulate my own rationale for the value of poetry, given that I came from a background where poetry, essentially, served no role and was even, at times, openly mocked.
The poem explores the dilemma of poetry to compete with the “intimate desires” of people otherwise involved in their day to day existence. The speaker of the poem laments the lack of an audience that poets have despite attempts, as he says, to “please [their] readers.” The poem’s central thrust explores the example of a mother with her children, an image of what we might think of as a typical American life defined not by what poetry offers but by what “the mall” offers. The mother in the poem is described as “harried” and “stuffing hot dogs into three miniature faces,” yet the speaker wonders “what poem could change her life.” Essentially, Skinner asks how to make poetry a “living” thing, a nourishing thing, in the lives of typical Americans. “Give us this day, is the answer,” the poem says, implying that most Americans are simply too frazzled, trying to meet basic needs, to pay attention to any nourishment that a poem might offer.
One characteristic of “living” that the poem emphasizes is intensity. In lines three and four, for example, the speaker states, “Strange,/to be here so intensely, even in the mall//where I am touched by the harried blond/mother with three kids.” Poetry is often thought of as pointing us toward “intense” moments in life, revealing truths or understandings that then give us new perspectives concerning our lives, “harried” as they may be. The speaker expresses surprise at feeling such intensity, his use of the word “strange” acknowledging, perhaps with a tone of awe, the unexpected, the extraordinary, and the difficult to explain—all ideas that apply to the example of the mother. In other words, part of the intensity of “living” is that the most basic encounter—even at a mall—can take us out of the realm of the expected and place us in the realm of the unexpected. Thus, even a “harried blond/ mother” can become extraordinary. Even so, the sudden love the speaker feels for this woman and then just as quickly forgets must be counted among the difficult-to-explain mysteries of how we live. Perhaps Skinner wants us to consider the idea that part of the intensity of living, or of poetry, or of “living” poetry, is this capacity to put us in touch with that which we can’t fully explain.
The poem obviously values intensity because Skinner’s descriptions of the mother and her children emphasize these characteristics. For example, in the third stanza the children are said to “entreat/with such passion.” Within the word “entreat” we find the ideas of urgency and of pleading. The prefix “en-” calls to mind the generative impulse, the active agency within the children to cause to be that which they desire to happen. In short, they are intensity personified. In addition, they “argue with unwrapped/genius for French fries and CDs,” the word “unwrapped” implying that they have fully given themselves over to the activity, holding back nothing. Furthermore, not only does Skinner’s use of the word “genius” bring to mind the children’s extraordinary intellectual and creative power to influence their mother, but also the word reminds us of their own animating spirit, their “genius” in the old definition of the word. The speaker of the poem celebrates this intensity, and his recognition of it becomes his own intense being in the mall.
In the center of the poem, though, the speaker acknowledges that, despite intensity, despite “living,” we nonetheless “live and die, small smudges in the immediate/family, the local history.” In one moment we can be in the mall, entreating and full of passion, as the children are; and then we can be as easily forgotten as the mother is once the speaker leaves the mall. Earlier in his own life, the speaker’s intensity reveals itself in the use of exclamation points and his insistence that no one could have convinced him of his own mortality. He exclaims, “I thought we were all going to live forever!” In fact, a rejection of mortality lurks behind all the poem’s words, suggesting the desire of poets to achieve some sense of immortality through their words. What does this desire, this “intimate” desire, mean in a world where poets lack an audience, especially if poetry, as many poets believe, gives us the chance to experience life more fully?
Though the speaker laments that the mother will “never/read a poem,” he celebrates her life and its own intensities. For example, after describing poetry as being “past care or change,” (in essence dead), he turns his attention to the beauty and validity of the woman’s daily concerns: “That woman//wants baked ham for Sunday, a new lunch-box for the middle girl; maybe, if the bonus/comes, a weekend at the shore with her husband, alone.” Perhaps, in the last line, when describing this woman’s desires, Skinner’s use of the word “intimate” reveals the empathy that has supported the poem from the beginning, an empathy that reveals the woman enacting through the day-to-day desires of her heart the very presence of a poem. She will "be" a poem, wanting something finer than French fries ("a baked ham"), something practical and useful ("a new lunch-/box for the middle child"), and something intimate and separate from her usual existence ("a weekend at the shore with her husband, alone")—in short, all the things that poets believe we might turn to poetry for.
Finally, for the speaker of the poem the word “living” becomes more of a question directed toward poets than a description of poets and their work. In fact, references to poetry lack the kind of intensity given to the mother and her children. The speaker even says, about his poet friends and himself, “I’m nervous about my poet friends, and me./We write so well our lines may lift/into a thick paste of clouds…” One thinks of “paste” as having a consistency somewhere between a liquid and a solid, and the suggestion here seems to be that poets’ lines lack the kind of vibrancy that is able to “compete with such intimate desires” of the average American. Poets’ lines lack the kind of animating spirit of the audience they are trying to reach. On the other hand, in these last lines, surely Skinner is also working a little irony, given the fact that, through this particular poem’s lines, we are given the image of a woman’s life in all its unexplainable uncertainty, and perhaps, as we read, we even “love her,” as the speaker does, and hope that her “intimate desires” are met. We may walk out of the poem, so to speak, but chances are good that we won’t “forget her,” and in that way she has become what “living” poems become: part of our own deeper connection with the world, sometimes even “intensely” intimate.