When someone looks back longingly, maybe in wonder, back toward
their past and says, I don’t have a father, my father disappeared when I was a little girl,
or someone says something like this, some one says, no I never knew my mother, she
killed herself in front of me
when I was five, it’s true, I feel so bad (for who? the mother? the father? myself? you?
us all?) something direct and wordless happens in my chest. All my strongest
feelings happen in there where I can’t help but understand them to be true.
So then when and if something I’m feeling gets outside of me, like this,
it can tend to seem superficial or shallow or insincere, or some of all
the ways there are over & across the suspect spectrum of emotions
we call meaningful & sincere, but suspect a little, we can’t help but
suspect how they look, how they might look out there
on the outside, when exposed, sometimes someone says it’s none of my business
to feel what others feel
but once I’m told something that matters monumentally, it’s inevitable, I’m going to feel
this, if not in my heart, right up next to my heart where what happens on account of
anything someone’s told me takes hold and changes who I am.
And starts up another feeling simultaneously, a strikingly obvious feeling
of being alive and human. Something that obvious and that taken for granted
most of time, and dangerously close to sangfroid’s calm or equanimity’s nerve.
If anyone wants a poet usually they want their poets to be saying something,
if not for them, then at least apparently having them somehow or other in mind,
maybe to take up talking about something, whatever that might be, that matters to them.
To speak up for them. To not leave them out, or just hanging there.
People like love poems, and poems in which we talk to the dead
because talking to the dead is something everyone does at one time or another.
Someone will want to see how others talk to people who are no longer around.
Or they’ll be looking for someone else to be filling in where they left off.
People like how a poem is one place (there are others) we believe talking to the dead
might have the results we desire and intend. In us, for others, beyond.
Some people like love poems because just about everyone’s experienced how impossible
it can be to have words come out of your mouth when you’re at first in love.
It’s impossible. Being speechless is how that is and should be. When you’re first in love
you shouldn’t have so much to say. You should be communicating by other means.
And so poets take up the slack and write love poem after love poem after love poem,
I know I’ve done it. They’re my favorite kind of poem to write.
I saw the phrase “the usual ratio of banality to wonder” and it arrested my attention for
the certainty it proposed. I thought immediately-- really? Someone knows this?
People would like to hear poems about fear, every kind of fear that’s common to being
human. Fear of being not good enough, or being left out in the cold, or shunned, or told
to go away, you don’t belong here, or fear of being made to feel less than worthwhile, or
fear of being unloved or betrayed or of being one huge disappointment to anyone who
matters, or fear of getting sick or fear of dying or fear of never being loved. And then for
some people fear of fear is the subject they’d like to hear poets say something about.
People fear many things, during the turn of the 20th Century to the 21st fear has
practically been our national pastime, our collective hobby, our password, by-word
into a land of paranoia so that often we’re made to find our minds paralyzed or numbed,
or we’re panic-frozen by traumas that will not go away. Everyone knows that fear
is the worst control. And the most effective. To lead someone to fear must be one of
the most unkind, most destructive things any one of us has ever done.
People want poems that say things about money and work and what it means to have
more or less of those, and what that does. People want to know what money means.
They want poets to say something about money even if it means the poet is going to have
to be embarrassed by it. Poets are required to endure any and all embarrassments.
Most poets say they don’t like to talk about money but they’re always talking about
money; once you say anything in words, in public, to strangers, there’s money around.
You may want to ignore it, and you can sometimes, but money isn’t going away, if by
money we include anything of value we trade and barter for what we need to live.
Embarrassed poets are pretty worthless to humanity. An embarrassed poet is okay for
some things but not many. Think of what poets feel obligated to include in their poems.
By definition in the land of poetry nothing is forbidden.
And that is in itself sometimes frightening, and something to be feared.
Sometimes people like to see a poet own up to something awful in a poem, and
sometimes to see a poet accuse someone, or sometimes all of humanity, of terrible things,
things so unspeakably wretched it’s a wonder words stand being able to contain them,
some things people say ought to be taken to the grave & lo and behold, they too often are.
It’s not a joke to believe that by means of poetry’s metaphorical essence we’re able to
understand a little better what to do with the complexities of which we’re composed.
When Auden says poetry makes nothing happen he’s praising how poetry takes anything
and everything and honors its existence by being its shadow, ghost and soul.
Giving what’s invisible a chance to be visible for at least a little time.
Or at least it’s proposing what it might be like if what’s essentially invisible
might be seen. Proposing a solution to omniscience’s opposite, maybe to be seen.
It turns nothing into something, or what appears
to be nothing, into the many things it is. Poetry knows better than I do what to do
with regret, and shame, and disappointment and weakness of the will and spirit.
Unless one’s brain finds cause to be well used, what happens in any poem
can feel useless or some kind of worse wasting of time. And if a poem seems
to want to hold you or anyone else hostage it turns itself into something suspect
and it begins to seem to want more from you than you from it, injustice prevails.
Poetry brings everything back for us (as do other things, our brain, our eyes, dance, keys,
water, air, space, light, skin and bones, terrain, birds, underwater creatures, ants, salt,
hooves, horns, strings, synchronized, harmonized, hands, hair, pouring, standing,
music, sleep, wind, seeds, dirt, shale (when a photographer says “I photographed
things because I wanted to see how they looked in photographs,” the truth of
that is some kind of balm and comes home. Who would want to argue with that?)).
Tautology seems like nothing in art. And that’s lucky, maybe for us all.
Poetry can stand to hear anyone scream. Within its borders, the idea of
borders never can be forever erased, to stand accused will be soul-destroyingly
worse than having this happen on any ordinary day in any everyday court of law.
People want poems about loss and how to grieve honorably and thoroughly.
They want poems that seem to keep the memory of someone alive
or at least give them the impression that how they feel about missing someone
is honorable and good for a human to do. They want poems to sentence.
And they want poems about dead horses and long lost automobiles, and the kitchen chair
they kept for themselves for as long as their last lost love stayed alive.
As you can imagine there’s no end to what people might want from a poem.
And what they might need. In a poem anyone can righteously accuse, collect evidence,
witness, bear testimony, argue, decry, submit, and build a case that without doubt
proves us all to be small, frightened, broken, valiant, bold, boring and botched.
A poem will always be an unnecessary addition to what is always there, but a sign,
a signification that repeats itself for the sake of consoling us in our fleeting
consciousness and longing, always that, always next, more, after, toward.
A poem will do what ought to be unnecessary but isn’t ever merely or just.
It exists unnaturally unless you count as natural everything humans make.
It’s made by a mind’s effort, a heart’s will, out of the stubbornness we are.
And it is important for a poet to keep in mind other ratios, the ratio of responsibility to
carelessness, the ratio of love without end to patience without reward, the ratio of
innocence to violence, the ratio of foolishness to dignity, of reasoning to justification,
of strength to weakness, of self preservation to greed, of willingness to destroy to
forgiveness, of what’s rational to what’s beyond reason, of darkness to light and
how that shifts and changes through a lifetime and through the hours of a day.
It’s true that people like to be surprised by what they find in a poem, to find something
they hadn’t anticipated finding there, & for this to be authentic it needs to be true
for the poet also, the poet’s arrivals within the poem must, at least most of the time,
be authentically unintended. A reason formal shapes and conditions can be good
for making poems is because in them all of our human desires to be orderly and shapely
and clear and simple and repetitive and musical and word burned can be satisfied
so that the rest of the poem can go on unimpeded by what’s predictable or pre-determined
by what poets have heard before or what the newspapers happen to report in their reports
about recent scientific or psychological or political surveys and studies, investigations
based on one point of view’s gathering of information, or creation of statistics or what
the poet remembers about her childhood or what the poet thinks you want to hear.
It takes little more than calling something a poem to both elevate what’s within
whatever that is, and to diminish, sometimes pitilessly, sometimes vainly, sometimes
purposely on purpose to rouse or propose the question what’s a poem to a status more
important, more significant than it is or would ever want to be. A terrible distraction.
Without this paradox we’re left behind, we might as well avoid the light of day.