I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.
Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.
But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.
Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.
It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?
Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.
While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:
ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.
Editor Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent has recently called for a fresh approach to Colorado news. She has created a section called News Poetry. On Saturday seven Colorado poets met with Susan and Poetry Editor Jacqueline St. Joan to explore at the possibility of adding poems to the discussion about current issues. The contributors will include more than the seven poets present on Saturday.
As poet Edward Hirsch says, “Poetry is a mode of associative thinking that takes a different route to knowledge.” (Best American Poetry 2016, xx) We expect to take this different route to understanding the complex issues that face Coloradans. Make no mistake, the poems and editors involved in the News Poetry project will not be preaching or ranting. Our charge is to be fair and accurate as journalists, but creative and nuanced as poets. This is a challenge that will take us beyond the frequently published lyric poems that engage personal experience. News poetry harks back to the beginnings of poetry, to poets as witnesses to the world, to poetry that chronicles the life of a community, in this case the state of Colorado.
How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.
According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.
Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.
Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess. What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.
Given all the static this past weekend, public and personal, I chose not to post on Saturday as I usually do. But that doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been churning. It has, and here’s the big idea, not new, but worth repeating: writers have a unique opportunity to engage in the public debate. We can apply the same four words that I preach to other writers: commit, discover, create, connect.
How to be heard in the uproar, to add our voices to the millions? The four words can clarify our beliefs and our ability to contribute to the health of our communities. We begin when we COMMIT ourselves to the causes that raise our hackles and our blood pressure. We DISCOVER our strengths and talents to change or to preserve what matters most. We CREATE a clear statement of our own beliefs, and we CONNECT through our writing with friends, colleagues, and the opposition. We listen, and we “keep calm and carry on.” This worked for England during the horrors of war; it will work for us.
Now that the marchers are safely home–and I thank all of them–we have an even greater responsibility to use our gifts wisely. We are better than name calling and outshouting the haters. We are better than ridicule and unfounded accusations. We are better than ignorance and mindless complicity. We are even better than pink hats. We are not lightning strikes. We pull the plow the whole length of the garden plot. We are parents who know that the job of raising a democracy is a life’s work. This I believe.
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.
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