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.


			

Writers Awake

Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.

 So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.

I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.

AND READ FOR EQUALITY

LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

Commited?

For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.

How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.

 

The Distraction Factor

This summer I spent a week in the company of Marge Piercy and twelve other talented and dedicated poets. At the end of our week Marge asked us to commit openly, in writing, to our writing, to keep it first on our to-do list. My promise to myself has two parts: get back to submitting work regularly and reduce outside commitments. This week I have done a lousy job of keeping that promise. Too many outside events have drawn me away from my desk.

And what have I done? Chastised and berated myself for my slothfulness and wailed like a three year old about what a failure I am as a writer. Well, wake up, child. This past week I’ve attended a day-long poetry festival, taken part in a public reading to celebrate National Translation Month, volunteered as  writing coach at our local mental health service, taught two classes on creative writing, attended a talk on cliche at a local library and today I’m off to the first seasonal meeting of CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers’ Assoc.) Oh, and spent a valuable hour yesterday with one of my writing partners. This, my dear self, is not sloth.

It’s distraction from the individual aspects of writing. So right here in front of everyone, I forgive myself for losing focus, dropping the reins, wallowing in remorse, all those things that would, if I let them, keep me mired in regret. I’ve just put three little stickies on the edge of my monitor to remind me that here, at the desk is my next destination.

Read for Equality

Poetry, Music & Theater, Oh, My

Poet and critic Dana Gioia advised in Can Poetry Matter that poets Scanshare the stage with musicians and offer the audience work by other poets, more than the single focus drone of a conventional reading. Last evening the Denver Puppet Theater hosted a significant event featuring live poetry and music. The poets performed original material, as well as selections from Shakespeare, Sandburg, Williams, and other well-known writers. The musicians played and sang soulful blues and provided musical commentary and reflection to the poetry. Because there is no such thing as bare stage at Denver Puppet Theater, the audience had hand puppets to hold, play with, cuddle if they wanted. So our senses were well served: eyes, ears, touch, taste (there were refreshments available at the adjacent Zook’s Ice Cream and Coffee).

This presentation served up poetry in a way that was more than palatable. It was delicious, designed to woo an audience with well-directed, well rehearsed art that connected us like a web, a tapestry, a hand-knit sweater: music to poetry to performance to audience. Ah! And what’s more, it was a gift. There was no commercial agenda, no one promoting a new book or an upcoming event. No solitary, outsized ego being touted. No admission fee. The performers and director gave us the hours they had spent rehearsing, Zook’s gave us a unique venue with ample seating, and we gave back our attention and applause. Bravo, let’s do it again.

Merci to musicians Dave Greenwald, Mark Lane, John Rasmussen, director SETH, and poets Cyndeth Allison, Kathleen Cain, Cathy Casper, James Steel (aka The Man of Steel), Jacqueline St. Joan, June Shurrock, Roz Taylor and Marleine Yarnish. Applause, applause!

Finding Words that Matter

Like many people I know, I was  struck dumb by recent national news. Words could not say what I felt, so I just sat with that sadness for days. Yesterday two friends came to my house for a writing session and today I feel better. We did what we usually do, let the conversation wander where it wanted to go, and then we set a timer and wrote about whatever had substance in that moment. I wrote the words “accomplishment, what does that mean and how do we measure it?” Bingo! Synapses resumed their little sparks of electricity and I thought about the way culture works (no, not opera and ballet or big books and art films). Every talent matters, whether it’s one singer, one poet, one essayist. Collectively, we enlighten each other and mostly we do this locally. As Lewis Hyde wrote, the gift must move on.

Sorry to say, I cannot heal the wounds of the people saddened or killed by guns. I cannot wrest progress from a government that cares more about business and power than about the people they were elected to serve. What I can do is be open to opportunities to treat others with respect, share whatever skills I have and “keep the faith.” Not faith in a distant god or a strict regimen of prayer. Keep the faith that we are not all bad, meaning none of us is worthless, but then, none of us is saintly. There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching  that I lean on (# 9 in the Stephen Mitchell translation). It’s impact changes depending on where I put the stress: “Do your work, then step back.” If I come down firmly on your, it’s a clue to pay attention to whatever I have to offer. And then get out of the way. And expect others to do their work.

Revise and Let It Loose

Many hours this past week I prepared to keep a promise to my writing group from Wellfleet that I would be more proactive about submitting work for publication. I have a pretty hefty publications list already, but it’s stale. Prior to the workshop in June I had concentrated on writing new material and didn’t have the energy to attend to what already existed. Well, advice I heard in the workshop was to take risks, send the work out. Writing needs an audience. Yes, I know that. I believe that. So why would I hesitate?

Fear of rejection, fear of exposure and fear of inadequacy: all play a part in the urge to hide my writing under a big rock. But it is also true that offering work to the world makes me a better writer. Knowing that a reader, editor or publisher will cast a mean eye on my work leads me to question the piece before I hit send or drop the submission into the mail box. Have I done my best to make the writing clear, fresh, and worth the paper it might be printed on? Is the title intriguing, inviting, wacky enough to make someone read on? Does it have substance and endurance? This challenge keeps me polishing when it would be easier to stuff it in a notebook and let it rot.

Exposing my work to others can have a down side: I’m guilty of people pleasing and can be overly sensitive to the taste of other writers. One of Marge Piercy’s rules for groups is to respect each other’s style and substance. I know I’ve been writing under the influence–not of Irish whiskey, though that’s appealing–and I’m trying to be more confident that the work I produce, poems or fiction, has to be my choice, my responsibility. After listening and considering any advice I get, I have to trust my intuition and my intention when to call a piece done.