What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.

 

Reader’s REvision

magusSince my first year in grad school I have read John Fowles’ The Magus repeatedly. I’ve read the original version and I’ve read the revised version he published twelve years later. There’s no counting the copies I’ve owned, including at one time a first edition and a signed paperback. They have all gone away, sold or donated or lost. I think with each reading that I’ve sucked out all the juice and don’t need the book anymore. And I’m always wrong. After a year or two, I drift back and realize that I want to read it again. That happened within the past couple of months, so I picked up a used paperback with ugly, forbidding cover art and opened it. Immediately I realized that the font was too small and that I had to hold it at arms length or suffer the consequences.

Because here’s the rub: pulp paper in newspapers and cheap paperbacks triggers asthma-like attacks where I cough uncontrollably. I got about ten pages into the book and had to give up, wrap it in a plastic bag and vow never again to be careless about buying a book. But I needed to read The Magus again, so I ordered a hardback, used but in very good condition. It’s on my coffee table with a book mark at Chapter 16. I’m going slow, savoring it. And making this copy uniquely my own. And finding new things to ponder and admire.

Back in love with the story and the style, I have penciled in an asterisk where Fowles quotes a brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That bit of poetry is crucial to the arc of the story. I’ve adding underlinings, squiggles in the margins, and dots to mark phrases I like. No one else will want this book. There’s a stain on the first page of the introduction where I dropped salad dressing. I think I’ll keep this copy. It’s still juicy and feeds the reader/writer in me.

Please, Read for Equality: catalog of unabashed gratitude by Ross Gay

Lies & Disbelief

I like to believe that I’ll write best selling books for a decade to come, that money and health will last until I die suddenly in my sleep, my obit featured in the NY Times. I tell myself that one more burger with fries won’t hurt me. Electronics are made by sweetly smiling fairies in cloud castles, and they build happiness into every app. Pine trees applaud their fallen pulp-paper heroes. Corn is always picked by hand and sold by children at family farm stands. An oil well releases the souls of dinosaurs trapped too long in mucky graves. These ancient beasts crave sunny beaches where sea birds use crude oil for sunscreen. Mule deer hold meetings to study the long asphalt meadows filled with herds of speeding creatures. “How fast,” they say. “Could we learn to travel there?” And break their legs trying to emulate Cougars and Mustangs rushing past, though not like the breeds they’ve seen before. I could go on, but my imported French roast coffee is cooling and my musical phone needs a sip of the energy that flows freely from the wall.

Time’s UP!

There’s a song from the 1950s, “Little Things Mean a Lot.” I agree. Little words mean a lot. Comedian George Carlin (may he rest in peace) once said that rather than get on the plane, he would prefer to get in the plane. Think about it.  So the little word for today is up. Campaigning recently, President Obama told a rowdy crowd, “Hold up! Hold up! Listen Up!” Like a barnacle this little preposition gloms onto other words and slides into writing and conversation almost invisibly. Almost ubiquitously. Consider this list: wake up, get up, rise up, screw up, f*** up, the acronym SNAFU, throw up, put up or shut up, what’s up? Rain lets up, protestors speak up, cowards give up. Business picks up at this holiday time of year. Some of us put up the Christmas tree. We light up that tree. We stand up for our beliefs. Or we throw up our hands. Police order “hands up.” They’re up to something, but I’m not up for it.

 It’s not as if we don’t have other choices to relay these ideas and images. We can stand, speak, make mistakes, vomit, contribute, be silent. So why do we put up with up? Why tolerate its intrusions? These word combos are conversational. They keep us from sounding pretentious, stuck up. My intent then is not to banish up, discard all of these little suckers that keep appearing, popping up, in my writing or conversation. I want, instead, to be aware, to awake to the usage rather than giving in to automatic phrasing. I want to clean up my verbal mess.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

Colon Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Black Books Galore! AALBC.com’s November 2016 eNewsletter

My City Follows Me Around

thumbnailYesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.

Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.

Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.

Cowardly Reader

I admit it, I sometimes start books but set them aside before I finish. Right now LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, has been on my coffee table far too many days. Erdrich is a talented novelist and her work is important, illuminating as she does the lives of Native Americans when they fray from contact with the white establishment. I feel guilty letting this book go stale. I preach “Read for Equality,” yet I have not finished this important novel by a Native American writer of great talent. On the other hand, I listened compulsively to an audio version of Louise Penny’s newest Inspector Gamache mystery, A Great Reckoning. Penny too is talented and I took in every word.

My different responses to these books lies in my attachment to the characters. I become immersed in their lives. I care about them. And when their lives get too hard to bear, I back off. In LaRose awful things happen to the characters and I feel their suffering, abhor the cruelty and injustice, fear for their survival. My filter fails.

Both writers are capable of murder. Murder is, of course, Penny’s stock in trade, but she writes a series, and main characters in series survive to appear in the next book.  They may be wounded, troubled, or abused, but they live on in my imagination, and I know that as I open the next book. I mean, Ann Cleeves would no more kill off detectives Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope than she would poison a neighbor’s barking dog. I doubt that Penny will off Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The reader is safe if the character is safe.

Erdrich has no such obligation to her characters. Her obligation is to truth. She does not write gratuitous gore, but given that truth some scenes are powerfully graphic, and I know that not all of these people will survive. I close the book, slip it back into the library bag, make a silent apology,, and slink off like a frightened child.