The Poetics of Peter Gizzi

Words, in the hands of a poet, create a sensory experience more akin to music or art than literature. "Poetry is a tactile medium," says Peter Gizzi, widely recognized as one of the country's most powerful young poetic voices. "Look at a painting. What we admire about a Van Gogh sunflower is how he pushes yellow and green together along this rough, three-dimensional surface. We're admiring his brush strokes, what he does with the actual paint, not the flower.

"In poetry it's the same thing. We aren't struck by what Shakespeare has to say but how he says it. What 'takes the top of our heads off,' to quote Emily Dickinson, is the gesture of language--a lyrical moment that weaves together cadence, sound, and syntax."

What are those sounds in the dark?

       --Another Day on the Pilgrimage

Most of us think of language in a utilitarian way--we use it to scan the aisle signs in our search for cereal or to reflect back on the events of the day with a loved one. A good poem, Gizzi says, disrupts such everyday usage.

"Poetry is not about information; it's about communicating messages in a more ecstatic way. We know the distance between the sun and earth is 93 million miles, but we can't comprehend such a vast space. The act of the poem is the act of trying to define that space."

Gizzi, 39, has been defining poetic spaces for 11 years now, both as a writer and a promoter of the work of others. An assistant professor of literature at UCSC for the past three years, Gizzi edited several critically acclaimed projects, including the poetry journal o*blek (pronounced "oblique") and The Exact Change Yearbook. In 1994 he received the prestigious Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets and, last summer, a coveted Howard Foundation fellowship. The latter award came on the heels of the publication of his two latest books, Artificial Heart (his second collection, published by Burning Deck) and a critical work on poet Jack Spicer titled The House that Jack Built (Wesleyan University Press).

Inside the song, it's weird

glue tears, and a trail of crumbs


Poetry scares most of us. We think we don't get it. But "getting" a poem, Gizzi explains, is often as simple as reading it. "Poetry is not like a puzzle that you have to figure out; there's no sum total that's quantifiable to every reader. What you get out of a poem is what you're supposed to get."

For a poem to touch its reader, Gizzi says, it must leave spaces between the words. He notes that stanza is Italian for "room"--readers step into the poem on the words the poet furnishes, but are given space to inhabit the room and find personal significance in what they encounter there. As important as what is in the poem, Gizzi says, is what's left out.

Like any work of art, a poem is meant to be experienced more than once. "My students often tell me they're done with an assignment after they've read a poem once, and I say, 'What do you mean you read it? I've been reading this poem for the last 20 years, and I'm still not done with it.' "

. . .to wander the tired stones again

and worn teeth we remember to hold onto a world

              --Tous les Matins du Monde

Detail Of Tripoli By Trevor Winkfield
Detail Of Map By Jasper Johns

Some poets drink, some scowl, some ride boxcars. It's not easy baring your soul for a living. Gizzi manages the act with a balance of self-effacement, humor, and devotion to the poetic past. "Poetry is an ancient practice, and when you write you are participating in a tradition," he says. A poet, Gizzi adds, writes in the company of the ghostly voices of past poets. "Poems are incredibly haunted. The act of writing a poem is a form of possession."

Gizzi has myriad approaches for writing, but a complete work rarely pours out all at once. There are even times when he realizes a stanza he has just finished belongs with one he wrote six months ago. In many cases, the first element he conceives is the title, from which the rest of the poem flows.

An idea for a poem can strike while he is on the phone or watching a movie or drifting off to sleep. The words Gizzi hears become detached from their context and take on the cadence, sound, and syntax that make a poet's heart beat faster.

His poems range from playful to desolate, from rough to sublime. They can confound and they can make a reader double take with sudden recognition. He enjoys ambiguity, juxtaposing seemingly opposite sensibilities. In many of Gizzi's works there is a sense of the writer as a wanderer, traveling in a landscape rich with imagery, emotion, and memories.

"Poetry is finally about attention to detail," Gizzi says. "To be holy in small things. Everything is animated, singing all the time--if we just look."

--Barbara McKenna



Goodness is hard on the body,

a distracted mind unable to doze in fitful sleep.

The dove rattles the mind into thinking

it has a body of thought--complete

& symbolic--the gray feathers perched

outside the pale cut square of silver.

Say then, we belong to that window,

that warble, and suddenly we belong too,

the silver car in the yard, even a tiny silver hammer.

All vehicles of travel

disclose the mind's need to wonder in perfect forms.

Even if the skiffsman don't come to this bed

to rock me to sleep--to wander the tired stones again

and worn teeth we remember to hold onto a world

for this life might not take us the whole way.

That shape of an idea, the concept, or donnée

travels farther than the instrument can register.

The spindle whirs beyond its order.

Something must be moving at incredible speed.

With pure speed I address you, reality.


Poems reprinted with permission from Artificial Heart, (1998, Burning Deck)

for Elizabeth Willis

Given the baby bird crisis, what if
each child were delivered a bird

having tumbled from its nest

Two major problems evolve
One is feeding it

another preparing it for the wild

But before you build
a home of newsprint and yarn

try putting it back where it came

Remember its fear, think of its shock
to not be dead

beset in a hand
not yet full grown

moving through space
doing the best it can

Peter Gizzi   Photo: Elizabeth Willis


Detail of Son by Francesco Clemente

Photographs of sunflowers, details of artwork, and other personal objects in Peter Gizzi's home by R. R. Jones


Return to Winter '99 Issue Contents