Poetry, history, connectivity

We are connected, perhaps too closely, too immediately. With Nigeria and Boko Haram. With Paris and Charlie Hebdo. Ferguson, MO. Eric Garner in New York. George Zimmerman. Iraq. Syria. It’s easy to continue this list–too easy.

What we tend to want are simple solutions, dichotomies, dualities, one choice or another–not complexities and subtleties. But the human brain, the human culture, the human genome, the human body and the systems in and through which we operate are damned complicated.

~

Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins gets a great deal of press, and sometimes he gets criticism for his popularity; but in a recent interview he states in apparently simple terms how complex the human condition is, and why we need compassion, and poetry:

The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

The history books will leave out many of the crimes, massacres, terrorist acts, and bloody little belligerent actions of people and their governments and cultures and belief systems. History cannot help but be compromised by point of view–it is always, as Churchill noted, “written by the victors,” even when they are trying to be even-handed and objective. But poetry is all about point of view. The “tell it slant” of Dickinson, ambiguity and mixed feelings, individual imaginations and individual interpretations. As Collins puts it:

I think writing and creating are expressions of an epistemological position — that is, how you look at the world, that slant you look at it from. And that’s all I feel I am in a palpable way responsible to: using that slant to get at some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.

It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language. You have to listen to all the other violinists who have ever played, and read all of the poetry you can consume. That’s my sense of responsibility. It’s an artistic responsibility, not so much a political one, not so much a financial one or a responsibility based on commodity. It can’t be commodified.

As a teacher myself, I love the anecdote in this interview about a past student who, years later, could recall a poem he’d memorized for Collins’ class. Collins says:

[T]eaching is a very mysterious process. You’re throwing information, in a sense, into the dark. I mean, you spend an hour talking to this group of increasingly younger people and you walk out of there and you think sometimes you’ve had a good class, and other times it’s not been that great. But no matter what it is to you, you’re not sure how it’s being taken or what effect you’ve had.

The story reminds me of one time when I was getting my teeth examined; my dentist (knowing I teach poetry) said to me, “You know, in college and dental school, I took Chemistry. I had five classes in Chemistry. And I never, hardly ever, in my current job, use that information. I almost never think about chemistry. But I took a class on Milton’s Paradise Lost. A poetry class, really. And  you know, to this day–sometimes I find myself thinking about that poem. And that class, and those lines. Really. It’s stayed with me much longer, and more significantly, than any of the chemistry courses I took.”

Billy Collins would surely smile and nod if I were to tell him this story. Those connections are the invaluable sort: beyond information and into the mystery of what makes us human beings. Teachers learn from this sort of experience. It stays with us.

~

We may not be able to resolve the wars, prejudices, pride and anger and sense of  injustice that cause people to murder one another for revenge, honor, religious feeling, economic or territorial needs, or fears so deep we may not even be able to name them. Even tolerance has its downside: a tendency to refrain or excuse when speaking up might be necessary, if dangerous. Not all of us enjoy the learning we can gain from adversity or from trying to understand our enemies, who may not respect a willingness to listen. Not all of us learn from great literature, or have the patience to live with art that discomfits or challenges us. It is easier to paint Satan with the broad brush of evil, when Milton’s character possesses nuance and depth. The same with Mohammed or Jesus, the Pope or Buddha, Putin, Obama, or any world leader or financial oligarch.

We are all people in the world, flesh and bone, loved by someone, suffering and gratified by daily life, under the same sun and moon. The sun and moon that have appeared in poems from time immemorial. The biosphere that connects us whether we like it or not.

Poetry and art

A colleague pointed out art critic Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece as a must-read for me with my interests in both disciplines. Here is the link to Cotter’s essay in the “First Crush” series the Times runs: Cotter August 13, 2013.

Cotter says the first love was language, specifically poetry, especially Longfellow and Dickinson.

“If you fall for Dickinson early, you’re committed to language for life, and almost unavoidably to Dickinson’s kind of language. It’s more concrete than just words on a page or in the air. It’s language as a physical material, a substance so concentrated that you can all but hold it in your hands, turn it over, feel its textures.

And it’s addictive. Once in your system, it’s impossible to shake, like a neurological imprint. In my experience, Longfellow’s intensely visual poetry was like a mural or a movie. You just wanted to stand back and let it happen to you. Dickinson’s language was visual, too, but in a startling, flashbulb way — a bang of illumination after which your vision took time to adjust to normal light.

Poetry, in general, made me sense that language could be about big, urgent subjects, the kind that ruffled even a 9-year-old mind. Will everyone I love always be here? If not, where, exactly, is heaven, and what does it look like? Perhaps most important to a writer in formation, Dickinson’s language felt personally usable. It made you want to write, made you think you could. So I did, just for the pleasure and power of creating pictures from words.”

What can I add but “Amen to that”?

It interests me greatly, though, that Cotter made his trajectory from poetry to art; my path went the other direction. I began with a fascination for and study of art and ended up as a writer.

Overlaps and linkages, interdiscipline & creativity. Big, urgent subjects…a kind of power. That’s art.

English major argument redux

Yet more weighing-in on why one might wish to choose to major in English as an undergrad, this time from Mark Edmundson:

http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

Edmundson writes:

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.

(He even quotes Heidegger!)

This does not mean all English/literature/humanities folks think alike. In fact, the beauty of it is, we all think differently.

“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

We need clarity.

~

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—

~

 

Hope & meaning

Hope. Meaning. Zen?

I have been thinking about hope lately for a number of reasons, due in part to a conversation with a person of my acquaintance who feels very strongly that humans have destroyed the planet irreparably, that civilization is past the tipping point, and that what many people term Armageddon or apocalypse is not merely inevitable but near. One might say she has no hope for the future.

This woman is generous, creative, happy; she is a lively activist who advocates for artistic and social justice causes–even though she has no hope for the future. Why does she bother? She might serve as a real-life example for a philosopher’s thought experiment or dilemma on the self-interest theory.

She seems quite sane. I think she illustrates how hope and meaning differ.

Hope leans inevitably toward the future. It signals a desire for a circumstance we do not have and may never attain. Even when stated in the present tense, it indicates a temporal shift, an implicit recognition of a future: “I hope things stay exactly as they are” implies there is a risk of change.

Hope is related to faith, unprovable yet deeply felt, something in which we believe (against all rational proofs).

Meaning, however, has more substance. We do not believe in meaning, we discover it. Meaning is a found thing which acts upon us by allowing us to take action…meaningful action. Meaning is temporal in the sense that it takes place in time as we understand it. It possesses an unusual characteristic in that it needs no outcome even as it operates in real time in our lives. Meaningful existence keeps us moving, and when we lose life-meaning we are likely to feel even more devastated than when we lose hope.

My acquaintance lives her life in a meaningful way, doing things that nurture a sense of meaning in her life even though she is fairly certain the outcome of her actions will be negligible. Her purpose is to share with or add meaning to the lives of others, knowing she cannot rescue everyone or steer the earth’s denizens toward utopia.

She is one of the more contented and least-anxious people I know.

After mulling these ideas over, I found myself returning to an overly-familiar Dickinson poem on this topic, the one in which she calls hope “the thing with feathers”:

Hope by Dickinson.

Consider her metaphor. Hope flies; it can escape us. I have held birds and know from experience they are not easy to catch nor to maintain a hold upon. Hope flies into its future without us even while it blesses us with its singing. What have we got then, earthbound beings that we are? A wordless tune, something that comforts without asking for anything in return–if we accept the tune as comfort enough (and we may not).

Perhaps what keeps us going, really, is not hope but the dailiness of our small but meaningful pursuits. Dickinson writing even when no one was reading. Each of us accomplishing whatever seems necessary, art or baking, advocacy or gardening, regardless of result.

Chop wood, carry water.

 

Why I read poetry

A few months ago, I posted a light-hearted look at mondegreens and malchichés. Clichés are useful to some extent because we believe we know what those phrases mean, and they serve the purpose of general communication. To confess “I’m feeling blue” can elicit compassion from a good friend, or help us to state a mood so that we might, possibly, move on from it. Popular song lyrics employ such figures of speech often, and often to good effect.

But clichés also leave something to be desired, don’t give a full enough account of the human situation. In the poem “Madame la Fleurie,” Wallace Stevens describes a man who looks into a mirror and believes what he sees depicts his actual life. But it is only a reflection; the image is “a page he found in the handbook of heartbreak.” A page in the handbook of heartbreak: that begins to express a more complex and specific feeling.

Poems can express every subtle shade of blue a person might feel. There is Emily Dickinson’s Hour of Lead and Elizabeth Bishop’s art of losing, Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues and Theodore Roethke’s desolation in immaculate places.  For thousands of years, poets have understood, and been able to convey, the vivid and expansive range of human emotions that our lively and energetic brains and souls experience—from unbearable grief to listless ennui, from a moment of surprising cheerfulness to the uplifting embrace of romantic or spiritual love. How poets accomplish this subtle connection between people, this empathy, amazes me. Especially as this mutual exchange of feelings takes place through the abstract medium of words.

This is why I read poetry. When a friend’s child died, I consoled myself with Ben Jonson’s words, “farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” and nothing else seemed as apropos, even though the poem was composed almost 400 years ago. When life gets tough, Andrew Marvel’s lines about how feeble hope has tinsel wings in the face of magnanimous Despair just about sum up my feelings. Such poems may offer little cheer, yet they can comfort. Through gorgeous language and imagery that is honest if sometimes fanciful, good poems remind us that we are not alone in our circumstances.

Poems identify feelings, places, situations, and allusions to which another human being—perhaps hundreds of years or thousands of miles away—can relate. That relationship has a wonderful effect, for poetry offers a way to connect the rich and complicated scope of our humanity with the lives and sympathies of others, especially during troubled times. I know that my own heart begins rebounding from stress and gloom when I read Neruda’s lines: “through me, freedom and the sea/will bring solace to my downcast heart.” As we navigate through political and economic and personal hassles, we might want to open a poetry anthology now and then, or call up a website such as A Poem a Day or Verse Daily for a fix of shared humanity in an increasingly virtual world. After all, “What the heart longs for,” says Gregory Orr, “the poem accomplishes.”

One person who has taken this poetry inspiration into the wider world is Nicelle Davis. Check out her year-long poetry project at The Bees Knees.

Recitations

My brain still hurts, so I have decided to publish a radio commentary I did quite a few years back (for WDIY). If I can locate the mp3 file, I’ll post that, too.

I’ve chosen to post this essay for a number of reasons. The concept of having the time and the motivation to read, recall, and recite poetry seems like heaven to me at the moment. Then there’s the connection to rhythm, to pulse, that operates so fruitfully in metrical poetry. Finally, for sentimental reasons: it’s been ten years since my grandmother’s death, and now my parents have moved into an independent living community, and these events tend to lead to review, reflection, and—in my case—the desire to connect with poetry.

Recitations
to the memory of Lucille Bohnstedt

My grandmother was born in 1909. As a child, she lived on a small farm in the Midwest, rising early to do chores, after which she’d study her homework by kerosene lamp. I once asked her what subjects she most enjoyed in school, and her answers surprised me. “I liked doing sums,” she told me, “And Latin, and poetry—I always liked poetry.”

This was a revelation. My grandma always seemed such a practical person; I wondered what it was she liked about Latin and poetry. I was aware of her devotion to crossword puzzles—caught up in the crossword craze during the 1920s, she never gave up her love of solving word challenges. I’m sure her Latin helped her decipher many an obscure word. But puzzles involve a different part of the brain than poetry.

I love poetry, so I had to probe more, curious about what my grandmother had studied and learned in verse. Did she recall which poets she liked? No, she had pretty well forgotten, but she liked rhyme and recitation. She had been good at memorizing lines—she liked the rhythms. And those old poems, they told such good stories, some of them sad…

Recitations! Such an old-fashioned concept, but still very popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Schoolchildren stood at the head of the class reciting their pieces, and poetic ballads were popular recitations at community gatherings and amateur nights; heart-rending tragedies like Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” (1906) were extremely popular. While most of these poems rhymed, their defining feature is the strong rhythm in the lines which carried listeners —who had never experienced the constant blare of television—into the powerful surge of words. Poems such as Wordsworth’s “Lines”:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs…

Or Sir Henry Wotton’s ecstatic poem “On a Bank as I sat Fishing:”

And now all Nature seemed in love;
The lusty sap began to move;
New juice did stir the embracing vines;
And birds had drawn their Valentines…”

Many a schoolchild recited Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” the fourth line of which has become so famous that few of today’s Americans could tell you its origin—

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The ballads of Edgar Allen Poe—Annabelle Lee was a favorite—and Phoebe Cary’s ballad of the Dutch boy whose finger stemmed a breach in the dike, and Longfellow’s classic poetic stories— “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”—these were my grandmother’s texts, her introduction into poetry. I like to imagine my young grandmother milking cows in the darkness and murmuring “By the shores of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis…” the sound of milk in the bucket echoing the rhythm of her hands as she milks. She earned an A in recitation from this practice. Maybe those resounding rhythms played some part in her steady endurance through a long lifetime that was not always easy.

My grandmother died in March of 2001, one less poetry-lover in the world. At her funeral I read Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell.”  This is the poem’s last verse—

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go.

~Here is a photo that shows Grandma’s less-practical side. She’s on the right (with her sister Faye), dressed in “flapper” style and riding side-saddle on a draft horse! I really ought to write a poem about this image.