some thoughts on poetry and life
As I have said before, to me, poetry and drama are twins. I have translated poetry and written/write it. It is for many a fearsome form, but I think it is only because over the years poetry has much of the time been set aside in culture (outside of spoken word, where it is/has been in culture) and made to seem an "elitist" form. Quite the contrary. Poets ask the deep questions of and about our culture, histories and world. The demands of language - formal or in the vernacular- are bountiful. Novelist and essayist Jeanette Winterson talks about how when she visits small towns in her country of England, she often encounters amongst the older generation in particularly folks who can recite poems from memory at the drop of a hat, and these are not poets but just, you know, "regular" folks like or me. Winterson has remarked in her writings that the generations that were taught in school to memorize poems - to put them to heart- on a fairly regular basis, and thus came to poetry as a living, breathing form, made poetry part of their lives. It was not an elitist practice from a writer or readers perspective. It's when poetry was made "special" (again to paraphrase Winterson) that it became the nearly exclusive province of the academy and academic poets, which is a shame indeed, for poetry belongs to us all because it teaches us to face the tough world with language that is precise, muscular, sharp, and laser-focused.
In our everyday lives, poetry is most often experienced, unless you move amongst the world of arts and letters, through ceremonies: the Presidential Inaugural, elegies, weddings, songs of praise, hymns, and sometimes, song lyrics (though not ALL song lyrics are poetry). The public art movement has initiatives for poetry in the streets, most often through the posting of poems on subway cars and other publicly transited areas.
When I write poetry, it usually stems from a desire to articulate something about the condition of the world that I cannot articulate in any other way but through a poem. It couldn't be an essay or prose piece or dramatic scene. It has to be a poem because the intimate quality of the poetry allows for a different expression of thought and feeling. Eminent poet Mark Doty talks often about how poetry "is feeling." Its pure expression in abstract terms, because of course, as we all know, language is a system of signs and already an abstraction. Poetry crystallizes emotion. It distills it. Down to the bone. And sometimes, if you are influenced by William Blake, Rimbaud and more, toward the ecstatic, feverish and rhapsodic. New Jersey's own Patti Smith talks about that in her memoir Just Kids.
The songwriter and musician Lou Reed passed away recently. While many of us in the world of arts and music mourned his loss and recognized the impact of his legacy, it is also true that part of that legacy is a poetic one. Not all of his wide body of work, of course, was poetry, but some of it was, and the ferocity and sharpness of his approach to the lyric (influenced by his own love of poetry and prose stylists) is rather a lesson that outlives his passing.
The great Doris Lessing also passed away recently and to witness, even from afar, and through her vast body of work, was another lesson in how to keep striving, changing, challenging the form itself and making all of us see anew. Consider how many lives Lessing altered when people read The Golden Notebooks alone!
So, I was thinking last night deep into the wee hours about Lou Reed and Doris Lessing and poetry and poetic lives - and how writing can and does save us, at its best, if we meet it full-on, and not shy away from it or treat it as a soft machine to merely get by.
Writing may be all we got, to use the vernacular. Its power is in our hands.
November 27, 2013