Binge reading Edward Hirsch’s books about poetry, in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, I found the origin of his introduction to poetry. As a boy he was, on a rainy day, looking for something to read and found in one of his grandfather’s books a poem, handwritten and unattributed. Seems his granddad habitually copied poems that he liked into the blank pages of his books. Edward, at eight years old, was captivated by the evocative rhythms of the poem and caught a severe case of poetry. The poem—Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound.” An apt title.
I was, by comparison, late to the party. As a teenager, I clipped John Lennon’s poems from a magazine and taped them to the wall in my dorm room. But that was more a part of the Beatle Mania that infected millions of girls our age. Later, much later, in the process of continuing my nursing education, I took an elective course in literature, the source of contagion. And I read Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” OMG! I remember being alone in my living room and wanting to jump up and run around the room, to show someone this amazing poem. I still revere Uncle Walt. Then there was another elective course in creative writing, and then Intro to Lit, and my first attempts to join the tribe of scribblers.
My education did lead to a BS in Health Science, but it was almost derailed by my fascination with literature. I fell so in love with the written word, that I strayed, promiscuously, into a graduate program in English, and taught comp and lit. And, reader, I wrote poems. Way went on to way and I earned an MFA in Poetry.
So here I sit, in a hotel in Denver, one of the 150 or so poets who will devote the next four days to poetry. It’s a chronic condition and I so hope there is no cure.
Almost at the end of National Poetry Month, browsing a library display, I found Abide/Poems by Jake Adam York. York, now deceased, has been widely admired, especially by Colorado writers and readers. An associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, he edited the journal Copper Nickel (http://copper-nickel.org/).
Abide, says David Wojahn in his cover blurb, is “an intricately layered threnody for the martyrs of the civil rights movement …” In the author’s afterword, York says that this book is both elegiac and ethical. He grew up in the US South, a white man writing about the ugly divide he had witnessed between his kind and the people of color who suffered, and who still suffer. Often the poems are couched in the language of the blues, honoring the birth of the genre in black culture.
York’s poems comfort and distress me, turn by turn. The beauty of his language draws me into the horrors of our history. His loss is great, but I am beyond pleased to have his work to sustain the movement toward equality.
READ FOR EQUALITY
I’ve been reading David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem: Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015. Orr’s style and substance are fine, and he goes deep into issues that concern me. Circumstance or synchronicity, not sure which, drew me to copy into my journal the question of whether or not a “bad man” could write “good poetry.” Well, my answer is yes. I think.
Within hours, though, I was blasted by NPR with the news that one of my favorite poets has been accused of sexual misconduct and has apologized, a whiff of guilt. I’m not happy about this. The rise of the MeToo issue matters; so does the character of writers in this wretched stretch of public life where we need more than ever to rely on our best talents.
The poetry books on my shelf still mutter, “Read me, read me.” But I don’t know how to read them today, given this unhappy news. The words still line up; they do not blush red-lettered from shame or embarrassment, but my relationship to them has changed. What felt like shared truth feels–oh, icky. If I read the books, am I endorsing his bad behavior?
And what about the idea of forgiveness? I was not a victim, so it’s not my place to tell others how they should feel. But divisiveness and everlasting castigation isn’t going to help us learn to respect each other. I’m puzzled and caught in a moral dilemma. Maybe I need to read the poems again in the light of this development. We don’t live in a New Critics’ world where nothing matters but what’s on the page. Neither do we live in a world where biography alone determines the value of creative writing.
One of my life-long props is wobbling. Poetry is not always beauty and beauty is rarely truth, no matter what Keats would have us believe.
After much thought, I’m changing my ways. I’ve deactivated Twitter and LinkedIn, tried to get rid of my personal Face Book page (not a simple task, but I’ll keep trying), all in the interest of using my time better. I’ll leave my Karen Douglass Author page intact, as it might be useful to those who see my blogs through that lens. I mean to spend less time staring at a screen that tries too hard to sell me things or services I don’t want, that reTweets obnoxious political rants, fills my hours with cute puppies or cats, when I have in residence a gorgeous cat and three fine canines. Much better to watch their antics than flat screen analogs. Maybe I’ll unhook the dominos and solitaire apps from my phone.
Instead of enduring a barrage of useless information, I plan to spend more time here, blogging, something that I enjoy and that just might be of use to someone else. I returned library books this morning through the drive-up, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to check out more books. I have, oh, more than a hundred books here at home. I think I’ll reread them from Allende to Zagagewski. These books live here because they please me. I’ll start with my top-twenty shelf.
I hope to be more active on Goodreads, where, again, I might connect with people in a useful way. I’ll be more attentive to Colorado Independent and the News Poetry there. The poetry of witness has been an interest, almost a compulsion, for me for at least a decade, since I took part in a workshop with Allison Hedge-Coke at Naropa University in which Allison asked us to put our art in service to an issue. And do we have issues! Better to attend to them than to admire the shoes or widgets or casual conversations all too present online. Most of all, I will pay much more attention to poetry. I’ve spent years grappling with the art and use of it, so why not get, finally, all in?
There, I’ve said it, so now I’m committed to a better use of my time. We cannot know how much time we each have. No point in wasting any of it.
So, last blog I said I would this week reveal my writing plan for the future. First, regarding the future, Fate is in charge. What I intend, though, is this: I’m rejoining my tribe, poets, and now my mornings pages are full of old words and new insights. I’m mining for prompts two books, Tremor by Adam Zagajewski and The Notebook by José Saramago. The first is poetry, the second a collection of blog posts by a Nobel Prize winner from Portugal. I need their ideas, images, vocabulary and syntax now to be of use in a ragged world.They lead me deeper into dark and difficult places, but I manage to come out of those caves (think Plato) with sharper sight, or so it feels. Maybe I’ve mentioned a hundred times that I admire depth as well as the other joys of poetry.
Poetry should be of use, not to preach, but to connect the writer and the reader to a shared world. Ten years ago or so I took a weeklong workshop at Naropa University with poet Allison Hedge Coke. Her assignment was to put art in service to a cause. At that time my cause was our endangered food supply. I was fired up by the writing of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others who highlighted the risks of taking food for granted. The result was my poetry book The Great Hunger, or in Irish An Gorta Mor. (No, I don’t speak Irish; a generous student in Galway once tried to teach me, but this short-stay visitor did not learn much Irish.)
Over coffee yesterday, I talked with Jared Smith, an excellent and experienced poet, about reconnecting to poets. He encouraged me and suggested what to read, where to go, who to know or know about. I’m also involved in writing News Poetry for Colorado Independent, a progressive online newspaper. And I have widened the lens of current events to include concerns over climate, homelessness, and racial inequality. The news is full of inhumanity and I don’t plan to preach–preaching is not the same as poetry–but I mean to put my words in service to the sad unfairness of the world and find some peace in the making of poems.
This weekend many of us will look over our shoulders and see what’s behind us, not what’s stalking us, but what we have accomplished, other than staying alive. Mostly, I think of the work I’ve done. Keeping a positive attitude so that I don’t shred myself to tatters over what’s left undone. So, let’s see what I have accomplished:
Finished and launched a third novel, Invisible Juan; had eight poems published in a variety of venues; coached an enduring group of eight other writers; maintained my poetry output with the help of a weekly critique group (thanks, Gamuts); led a workshop or two, one for the News Writers of the Colorado Independent; participated as an invited guest in the seasonal poetry reading at the Loveland CO Museum; read more good books than I can list; posted a few reviews on Goodreads; wrote regularly with two groups of friends, one the Free Writers, the other a women’s group; maintained this weekly blog; had Providence reviewed in Publishers Weekly; spent many productive hours in libraries and coffee shops with my pen in hand; started yet another novel (what am I thinking?) and met regularly with my climate fiction partner to share ideas and information on writing and publishing.
Thanks to my followers for sticking with me here, on FaceBook, and on Twitter. I’ve learned from you, taken your presence as encouragement, and your discernment as a measure of my skills. Feel free to jump in here and let me know how your year of writing has gone. Next week, let’s set some goals for 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR.