“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

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Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.

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I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.

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I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.

I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.

A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.

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Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.

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We need clarity.

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I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.

Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.

Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.

Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

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AWP conference 2013

I am heading up to Boston next week with about nine thousand other writers, writer-educators, writer-publishers, academics, and business people. The annual Associated Writing Programs conference will be in session March 6-10. I posted about the conference briefly last year...and last year’s conference introduced me to Brian Boyd’s work on cognition and storytelling. So I am hopeful that this year’s programs and panels will prove equally enlightening.

The conference offers a chance to meet or at least hear some of my favorite writers and to talk with interesting colleagues. Best of all, there are thousands upon thousands of books and literary magazines to browse. If I feel shy, I can interact with books at the Bookfair and “meet” my fellow writers through their polished texts instead of face-to-face (or body-to-body in the packed bar). The main problem with any event of this kind is the lack of places for introverts to regain equilibrium. At AWP, there are quite a few introverts; and people tend to claim a spot by a window, balcony, or corner somewhere in the conference area and send out “don’t disturb me, I’m recharging” body-language signals. Or they eat alone in the restaurant without looking too uncomfortable about the status of solo diner.

Writers understand.

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Lori A. May offers her insights on the conference here, with a focus on people who are considering graduate school programs. I will be participating in a panel on that topic: the Low-Residency MFA. My main interests, however, remain bibliophile-oriented: discovering poets whose work I haven’t encountered before, finding new books by favorite poets, learning who is editing which long-running journals, and finding new journals to peruse.

By contrast, here’s a lovely, very funny article by Kay Ryan that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005. The second paragraph sets the tone:

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine. It turns out I have an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts. I couldn’t imagine making a play or movie, for instance; so many people involved. I don’t like orchestral music. I don’t like team sports. I love the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught. Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side. It took her years to do a pocketful. You just know she doesn’t go to art conferences. Certainly not zillion-strong international ones, giant wheeling circuses of panel discussions.

How, then, one wonders, can it be that I have just come back from AWP’s annual conference in Vancouver, treading upon a lifetime of preferring not to?

I fear I am rather in her camp. I do like orchestral music, but I prefer chamber ensembles. I don’t care for team sports. I love the solitaries, the St. Simeon Stylites of the world; there’s a bit of the hermit in me. Crowds–shudder! Yet a conference of writers at least offers the promise that I will be among others who understand how I feel and who feel that way themselves now and then.

St. Simeon Stylites

St. Simeon Stylites

Another advantageous aspect to this event is that I get a chance to talk about poetry and creative writing with people who are as passionate about it as I am. I can discuss the logic and music behind free verse line breaks and learn contemporary writers’ opinions about the sonnet. Is the metaphor dead? Does symbolism have any place in modern writing? Is hypertext the new L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Does anyone understand the significance of the tattoo that says “December 10, 1830” on that young woman’s arm? (It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday). I can talk about my book Water-Rites with people who are working on getting their own poems published and discuss current projects with folks who are sure to have ideas and advice to share.

So the event is worth a bit of discomfort on my part. If I get too overwhelmed, I can go back to my room or walk the chilly Boston streets or have a chat over coffee with just one person at a time.

Or maybe find a pillar in a park somewhere. I think I recall one at Bunker Hill….

bunker-hill-monument