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In his workshop at Wake Forest University, Philip Levine warned us “not [to] compete with the movies. The poet is limited to words. [The poet] should not try to tell too much.” Poets have no monopoly on the presentation of accurate and complete detail (although certainly one may be the only eye-witness to a given event) nor to the response of the reader (viewer) that follows the presentation. In an age where disclosure is trendy, modern technology has created a nightmare for the self. Nothing is private. The video camera events records events with startling completeness and lack of regard for privacy, and viewers express strong opinions toward the material and analysis that they see.
It seems to me that Alberta Turner has explored a slightly different aspect of this same concept (as expressed by Levine) in her essay, “Not Your Flat Tire, My Flat Tire: Transcending the Self in Contemporary Poetry.” She uses the term “selective seeing” (Field Guide, p.166) as she demonstrates (through examples of poems that are both successful and unsuccessful) the use of the poet’s private experience to evoke a universal response in the reader. She challenges contemporary poets to use more descriptive detail and less interpretation in their poems. Perhaps she is on to something here.
We’ve all heard the saying: “Confession is good for the soul.” Although I agree with this statement, at least in given contexts, I wonder if confession (and often explanation and interpretation are just that) constitutes adequate material to write a poem with universal appeal? I am presuming, of course, that modern poets want to write poems that truly transcend the personal and lead their readers toward realization that their own experiences are similar to those of the poet. The poems that will live on after their writers have died possess such qualities.
Craft is enough if one merely wants the title: published poet. The accurate recording of somewhat unique, but understandable details written in accepted modern poetic forms will allow one to get by in an age of mediocrity. But such poetry cannot be accurately described as universal for the poet is too much the subject of his/her own poetry.
Alberta Turner writes that poets (even known talents) often fail to write universal poems because they “fail to perceive deeply enough in the first place” (p.168). How often do we begin to record our perceptions before we have fully comprehended the situation at hand: before we have envisioned the universal in the specific? Poets are often impatient (although not uniquely so), foolishly fearing the lost of precious detail. Thus, we often begin to write too soon. Detail, especially the wrong detail, does not immortalize either the poem or the poet.. Will one more fact (or just the right word) make the reader understand? Understand what? Will the reader understand what the poet has failed to know because he/she is not willing to experience the deep?
People are often afraid of the deep for it is a dangerous place where we cannot be sure that we will like what we see, especially those things that involve our own character weaknesses. Entering the deep, we relinquish self-control, a trait that is highly valued by our society. We want to use our minds alone to draw our conclusions concerning our experiences, rather than to seek the truth of a given situation through a wider range of intelligences, including the imagination, intuition, and keen sensual perception.
Perhaps both Philip Levine and Alberta Turner have verbalized something that we would rather not hear (and certainly rather not admit or deal with): hours of revision cannot replace vision. A poet must see before he or she can show: one must look in, out, and around. One who wishes to write the universal must not shy away from the deep, but he/she must dare to immerse him/herself in experience even though there will be criticism and misunderstanding as he/she does so. It takes time to prepare the self show what one learns because sometimes the world does not want that which is evident only beyond the finite limits of reason. If one interprets a situation correctly (by looking deeply enough), one is more able to select details that will allow the reader to envision his/her own experience as similar to that which the poet has described.
Words that evoke a universal response reveal more truth than a poet can possibly know without looking beyond the self. Truth is like that. Truth is bigger than any one individual. A poet dares not begin with mere description and certainly not with analysis. First, a poet must go where he/she has not yet gone. Upon return, he/she will know something that was previously unknown. Only then can the poet begin to select the appropriate detail to write a poem of universal appeal. After the ecstatic (in vision and revision), one can seek to recall the proper details and the best words to immortalize the experience, one can hope that the experience went deep enough beyond the self to recognize universal truth. If so, a poet can begin to write a poem that will, after much work, sing a cappella.
I recently made the acquaintance of Sherry Chandler, another poet who has a chapbook in FootHills Publishing’s “Poets on Peace” series, along with my own. Sherry’s chapbook, My Will and Testament Is on the Desk is available from FootHills and sold in a few bookstores. (see Sherry’s blog.)
In beautiful, terse language, Sherry paints a bleak and lonely picture of our nation, as, following 9/11, our leaders prepare to go to war. In her poem “September 22,” “I’d given up the practice of prayer/ god snatched from my lips/ by flags in town square,” she mourns. “If I had a flag,” she says in “Interstate,” “it would be furled.” And then, finally, in “Sunday Night Before the War” (after the vigil), “We blew the light out and went inside.” Sherry captures the haunting sadness of all who oppose war for this, our nation.
On her blog entry today, Sherry quotes William Stafford, who wrote Every War Has Two Losers in October 1966. (A different war.) Check it out.
“Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.”
– William Butler Yeats
Now enter child-ballerina,
in pink-long-leg ribbon-wrap,
stretchy tights & leotard:
entendre before plie,
then en pointe:
but will she rise
to try floor-skim: bourree,
or opt, once again,
for just running and jumping
away? Allegro! Slender girl
climbing a trellis—
beside the climbing roses,
and looking in the mirror—
sees American Beauty
& a rookie at the barre.
Today is our (my and Bill’s) thirty-seventh wedding anniversary. It’s not a biggie, and we have not yet decided what we will do to celebrate. We have been blessed with two sons, Troy (age 31) and Victor (age 20). Today is a day of joy.
Courage is connected with taking risks. Jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorbike, coming over Niagara Falls in a barrel, walking on a tightrope between the towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, or crossing the ocean in a rowboat are called courageous acts because people risk their lives by doing these things. But none of these daredevil acts comes from the centre of our being. They all come from the desire to test our physical limits and to become famous and popular.
Spiritual courage is something completely different. It is following the deepest desires of our hearts at the risk of losing fame and popularity. It asks of us the willingness to lose our temporal lives in order to gain eternal life.
“It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men. When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.”
From Introductions East & West. The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton (Unicorn Press, Inc. Greensboro, NC 1981) Page 105.
filters through church-window prisms,
striking the cross—
the hungry one crying out of the dark,
words to the Sacred.
In the dark, no one remembers the sparrows.
An old man dreams
about a cheeseburger and hot fries.
Where will he lay his head?
Left half dead outside in the cold,
perhaps, through some oversight,
shivering and naked,
with no bowl of hot soup
to warm his belly. Might as well be dead.
Holy candles flicker as they burn.
The old man dreams a valid dream.
Dirty children line blasted streets,
sucking babes who cannot cry,
their parched throats
swelling amid the rubble.
Have they no homes, no mothers?
And, oh God—the men.
Yes, the men. Are they so guilty
as to die for those who govern with
trumped-up creeds, pitting brother against
brother, maiming for life, stealing
The world must lock the door to
keep war out, the people safe.
A woman rises from a third row seat
with stomach churning
and lungs that will not fill.
She’s a Pillar of Fire
who wants to burn like
God’s voice at midnight. But ice crystals
cast thin shadows in the place where she’s going—
a room filled with strangers.
There’s no make it plain in the buzz of this crowd.
The woman’s dream divorced from the cross,
small embers in fallen leaves,
the Promised Land in the incensed air—
and all she totes are borrowed words.
For some time now, I have kept a list of quotations that I like—for one reason or another. Some came from newsletters, some from the signature of e-mail messages, one from another poet's blog, one from a list server. Following is a paragraph composed completely of quotations. To avoid plagiarism, I have included the author of the quotations in parentheses. See if you find any truth therein.
If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. (John Irving) You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. (Jack London) There are two ways of knowing, under standing and over bearing. The first is called wisdom. The second is called winning arguments. (Kenneth Rexroth) I prefer to turn to poetry to give utterance to the profound contradictions of life. (Czeslaw Milosz) [One] who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. (Friedrich Nietzsche) A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. (Roald Dahl) [But w]hatever part of the dream you remember is exactly what you need, like the grain of sand at the center of the pearl. (Gwynne Spencer) [Thus, i]n the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. (Albert Camus) And …in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both. (Christian Wiman)