In defense of “is”

Contemporary poetry favors compression–perhaps all poetry employs that approach, condensing out of prose whatever has most vitality in terms of imagery, metaphor, emotion. Symbols, metaphors, actions, neologisms, wordplay, rhythm, whatever gets us to the kernel of the poem. My cultural inspiration began among biblical and metaphysical poems, however, and popular song lyrics (the lyrical narrative). Only later did I stumble upon the influences of Eastern poetic strategies, haiku and tanka, the Imagists, and the vividly imposing demand that writers of all kind, but especially poets, should avoid the “to be” verbs.

How would philosophy–or Hamlet–manage without to be? How shall a writer whose work often deals with the quandaries and paradoxes of being (namely: life, death) compose avoiding those verbs, verbs of existence? Existence has active components to it, to my way of thinking; and some of us need the to-be verbs, with all their various conjugations, to express the more inexpressible activity of being-ness.

During my long years of writing and of having my writing critiqued, I’ve been advised more than once to watch my verbs. I recognize the stylistic impulse and agree that too much to be, too much is, was, or has been, can slow or decompress a poem.

Sometimes, exactly what the poet intends to do.

Other times, exactly what the colloquially convincing narrator or character would say.

A time and a place for every verb.

~

Zhuangzi:zhuangzi

“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Watson, trans.)

~

I wrote this post not as an encomium for the to-be verbs but as a suggestion that they exist for good reason and possess action in their compressed sayability, that to be does not sidestep to mean. I defend “is” and its siblings. The important thing? Use them well.

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First person, continued…

When a poem employs first or, in some cases, second person, readers generally assume the stance is the writer’s. (For more on this, see previous post.) I won’t deny that that is sometimes the case, a situation which has led to the contemporary idea that a poem is always a form of self expression–yet another assumption that is only true in part.

My Best Beloveds have been known to accuse me of writing a lyrical narrative incorrectly. “That isn’t how it happened,” they say–and they are right. But poets are not journalists, nor even memoirists. A poet chooses the event, image, or story that will make the poem do its best work which, dear readers, is not necessarily factual.

Even relationships may be imagined, or imagined from a different-than-expected point of view. The poem may have emerged from a prompt having nothing to do at all with the poet’s own relationships or experiences, and yet seem true.

Here is an example of how the first person (lyrical narrative) point of view may or may not reflect the writer’s actual experience. In the example below, revision, change of stance, and allusion make this “father poem” not about my father, exactly. (For a poem that is about my father, as I imagined his experience, see this post.)

I began this poem when I came across the Chuang Tzu quote. Call that my “writing prompt.” As my father had been dangerously ill at the time, the aphorism resonated. Yet the poem did not seem to head where I thought I wanted it to go…to be specifically “about” my own father. The allusion to the Chinese sage does not feel much like my own family–the image did not jive with my parents’ backgrounds. I tried the poem without the aphorism, and it became totally boring. I returned the quote as an epigraph and tried couplet stanzas then, developing the image of old slide projector screenings (pardon the pun), something I recall vividly from my childhood.

Then, my dad’s condition improved. He recovered. I put the poem away for awhile, and when I went back to consider it, I realized the poem did not need to be about him. Or about me, for that matter. It’s still a poem in progress but works better now.

Who is the “I” in this poem? Shall I let the reader decide?

~~

莊子

Familiarity

The sage Chuang Tzu says, when you step
on your parent’s foot you know
you are already forgiven.

My father’s no sage,
just an old man beginning to die.
Unable to smile at his pain

he smiles at us
at my mother holding his hand
at my sister holding her anxious thoughts;

he smiles at her fears and they seem
translucent, like slides projected
on the wall, pictures of our childhoods

hovering near, colorful but not crisp—
and instead of our rounder faces
and smaller forms fading

he is fading, sallow among the sheets, white screen,
blank wall, and he’s forgiven me in advance
for all the injuries I may do

treating me with gentleness
though I’ve trod upon his foot
again, and again, and again.

 

~

continuum

The poet’s “I”

So often, when reading a poem written using the first-person perspective, my initial reaction is to consider the poet as the narrator–even though I ought to know better!

When I revisit the poem, when I analyze or interpret it on a more abstract or intellectual level, my view may alter. Interpretation sometimes leads me to decide that the “I” in a first-person poem may be a persona, a stand-in for the poet, or a perspective not of the poet’s personal experience but imagined or constructed. The foregoing are reasons to read and interpret poems with care and not to conclude, automatically, that the poet is writing from or of her own experience.

This makes poets sound like rather slippery or manipulative characters, employing use of the personal pronoun to mislead readers into believing something that isn’t “strictly true” (whatever that means). If I am telling a story, surely it must be my story; and if it isn’t my story—shouldn’t I confess that to my open-minded, engaged, possibly gullible reader? If a poem falls into the category of lyrical, readers tend to believe that the writer and narrator are one and the same, despite a reminder in the glossary of terms that the narrator who “expresses personal feelings” may be “the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker.” In other words—not the poet’s own feelings, despite the apparent authenticity implied in the use of the first-person pronoun.

Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.

I have been asking myself why and how it happens that poets sometimes—often, perhaps—end up composing texts from other points of view, masquerading as their own. There seem to be a couple of reasons, one of which is simply that we practice writing by using our own much-loved poems as models. The lyric poem has a long history, and even autodidactic students of poetry eventually find that the biographies of some of their favorite writers do not correlate perfectly with the works themselves.

The lyric narrative has been around for less time, gradually supplanting the epic by drawing upon the ballad. And it’s here that readers often get confused about who is the “I” that tells the story, especially when emotional expressions of one kind or another enter the narrative.

I have more to say about this aspect of the poetic stance, the poet’s voice, and the lyrical narrative as lived or imagined experience. And about how that sort of thing evolves during the writing and revision process—with an example or two. But that is for another post. Meanwhile, I am mulling.

Image: Monterey Bay Spice Company

Mulling Spices

Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

~

Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

~

From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

~

2011A-rainbow.jpg

Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.