P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.43 - May 2020
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE May 2020 No.43
As I write these words a lethal virus has largely shut down our nation, and indeed is fast racing across the entire globe, sickening and killing thousands as it goes, redefining “normal” for entire countries. In my country, even though they tell us this pandemic is still far from peak destructiveness, it has already crippled our economy, strained the health care system to its limits, thrown millions out of work, and sent our politics into even more turmoil and acrimony than usual. Entire categories of business (bookstores, small town newspapers), seem in real danger of going extinct, as are more than a few small private colleges. In New York State, where I live, the Governor has closed all “nonessential” businesses indefinitely, outlawed public gatherings of most kinds, and ordered everyone to stay at home except for emergencies, essential services, and solitary exercise. Needless to say, this is not just an unusual state of affairs. It’s unique, at least in my lifetime. Comparisons with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 are on everyone’s mind. That virus, we recall, killed millions of people. It’s too soon to know how this crisis will play out or just how bad things will get before it’s over. By the time you read these words you will no doubt know more than I do today, writing this in early April. I hope the news is better wherever you are a month or more from today, but I can’t say that I am entirely optimistic about that. So how does poetry fit into all this? Can poems help during a global catastrophe? That large and impossible question may not be the most urgent one I’ve been pondering as the crisis develops, but I suspect that all poets are dealing with it in one form or another amid the ongoing uncertainty and disruption of this pandemic. Personally, having retired from a career in teaching, I am lucky not to live in fear of losing my livelihood to the virus. I also realize how blessed I am to be a poet— writing is something I can easily do while in social isolation, as we’re calling it. I’m well aware that countless others are not so lucky, and so might find the questions I’m posing trivial under these circumstances. Yet it won’t surprise anyone who knows me to hear that I see things differently. First I will pause to pose a prior question, which would be “why poetry?” As it happens, along with two poet friends I gave a brief talk last year on the topic of “Why Poetry Matters.” Our title alluded to Dana Gioia’s famous 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” Among other things, I noted that Gioia’s essay is simply one more in a long line of similar hand-wringing articles or books that have appeared with some regularity for decades. Two years prior to Gioia’s article, in fact, Donald Hall published a bracing and exasperated essay titled “Death to the Death of Poetry.” In it he challenges much of the conventional wisdom about poetry in our time which Gioia would shortly be taking out for another run around the track. Hall was responding most immediately to a 1988 article by Joseph Epstein which in Hall’s words “assemble[s] every cliché about poetry, common for two centuries, under the title ‘Who Killed Poetry?’” Hall further mentions an essay from 1928 by Edmund Wilson which posed the question, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” which of course Wilson answered in the affirmative. As Hall also points out, “everybody today knows that poetry is ‘useless and completely out of date,’” quoting a passage from Flaubert published well over a century ago. Hall doesn’t mention, but could well have had in mind, a 1982 book by Christopher Clausen called The Place of Poetry: Two Centuries of an Art in Crisis. Two centuries: it seems poetry has been dying for a rather long time. Beyond their different slants and emphases, such articles and books as Hall describes are all the same in one respect: each one argues or assumes that poetry has somehow declined in our time, descending from a presumed position of cultural importance to its current irrelevance and low book sales. Various culprits are fingered: obscure or elite poets, academic critics, MFA programs, etc. I don’t wish to take up this old argument here in any detail, but here’s a spoiler alert: Donald Hall demonstrates with some panache how much of the conventional wisdom in such matters isn’t necessarily accurate. While I think there are in fact many good answers one can offer to Gioia’s question, isn’t it odd that poetry is expected to do so much of the heavy lifting, culturally speaking? I’m not aware of many books or anguished articles titled, for instance, Can Pottery Matter? Likewise with dance, quilting, sculpture, painting, or the other arts. That poetry is so often singled out for scolding must signal its distinct status, at least historically, as a particularly revered activity. It is no accident that poetry figures prominently in most (all?) religious traditions, which surely tells you something. In answer to those who deplore poetry’s supposed unpopularity these days, David Kirby has usefully reminded us that millions of Americans grow up attending a poetry reading every week, also known as church. In my own boyhood in the Episcopal faith, I was blessed with hearing wonderful Elizabethan language every Sunday in the form of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those hymns, psalms, and other prayers and scripture deriving from great Hebrew verse formed my earliest introduction to the powers of poetry. Likewise, it is notable how often poetry is brought to bear at important occasions, such as weddings, funerals, graduations, and inaugurations. At times of great personal stress as well as social upheaval, people naturally turn to poetry. When a person or culture is suffering grief, confusion, or terror, poems routinely follow. Many of us will recall how, in the after- math of the 9/11 terror attacks, Poet Laureate Billy Collins was invited to address a combined gathering of both houses of Congress as well as the Supreme Court—an unusual event, to say the least, for a poet to be asked to weigh in on matters of urgent global concern in those extra- ordinary days. And Collins did a solid job of performing one of poetry’s oldest functions, mourning the dead in somber ceremonial fashion, with the poem he had written for the occasion, “The Names.” Whether Collins’s elegy will stand the full test of time we can’t yet know. In the moment I thought he performed the difficult task of writing a readable, public poem quite effectively. Here is his poem’s conclusion: I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden As in a puzzle concocted for children. Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash, Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton, Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple. Names written in the pale sky. Names rising in the updraft amid buildings. Names silent in stone Or cried out behind a door. Names blown over the earth and out to sea. In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows. A boy on a lake lifts his oars. A woman by a window puts a match to a candle, And the names are outlined on the rose clouds — Vanacore and Wallace, (let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound) Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z. Names etched on the head of a pin. One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel. A blue name needled into the skin. Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers, The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son. Alphabet of names in a green field. Names in the small tracks of birds. Names lifted from a hat Or balanced on the tip of the tongue. Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory. So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart. Collins’s decision to organize the poem alphabetically by the names of representative victims achieved a grave elegance. Simply by naming Baxter, Calabro, Gonzalez, Han, Ishikawa, Medina, O’Connor, Schubert, Vanacore, Ziminsky, and the rest he highlighted the diversity of our melting-pot society which in that moment needed to hear a message of unity. E pluribus unum is a motto we have not always lived up to, but it remains a stirring ideal. I found his elegy a clear and moving way to honor the dead and remind the living of the better angels of our national character. In similar fashion, whenever some awful event occurs in this age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media, those platforms as well as email and text message services are soon flooded with poems new and old. Long before the current viral pandemic, certain poems have “gone viral” after every horrific mass shooting, incident of racial violence, natural disaster, celebrity death, and so on. Thus, as soon as the Covid-19 virus began ravaging communities all over our country, my social media feeds and email inbox were brimming with poetic responses. Poets are like antibodies swarming over an infection, whatever it may be. In this case it is an actual virus. There are hundreds of virtual poetry readings currently running on YouTube and Facebook Live, poems posted on Twitter and Instagram and no doubt many other places that I don’t see. Websites devoted to pandemic poems sprang up overnight, and literary journals (including this one) began featuring them as well. Many are sharing not just new work but also older poems—their own and others’. It is one of the venerable responsibilities of poetry, to witness, describe, name, and shape difficult experience into something artful. In the process, poets and other artists are reminding themselves and others of larger realities beyond the immediate crisis. Thus David Hockney, for example, posted a new digital painting of some daffodils with the inscription, “Do remember they can’t cancel the spring.” Remembering: that’s one of poetry’s crucial and oldest missions. We can remember, for instance, that the various Muses were all daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory. Poets can be useful, then, not only by writing fresh poems but by recalling and honoring the poetic tradition. So can any reader. In response to the current crisis, actor Patrick Stewart began posting videos of himself reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets online, one per day, and as I write this he continues, planning to read them all. Good for him. As far as my own writing goes, I suppose that by temperament I am more of a Wordsworthian than a topical poet anyway. My poems tend to focus on events and emotions “recollected in tranquility,” in Wordsworth’s famous phrase, or at the very least seen through the distancing lens of time. And thus my first poetic response to a calamity such as the Covid-19 crisis is not to write my own poems about it but to read more deeply if I can. And what I want to read are not necessarily poems about public health crises but simply ones that carry on poetry’s ancient mission of shaping and naming the difficult facts we keep having to re-learn, both personally and societally. A poet friend and I have occupied ourselves for years, off and on, by concocting imaginary poetry anthologies on various themes, then in desultory fashion swapping the poems that might theoretically appear in such books. At some point I think we agreed that what the world needed was a collection of poems that were, as we put it, uplifting and affirmative without being sappy. For it seemed there were quite a few non-imaginary anthologies already about war, grief, death, trauma, racial strife, nostalgia, and so forth. Well, since the time I recall first talking about that notion, it seems that the world has paid some attention to our imaginary book. When I scan my poetry shelves today I find a number of anthologies that fit the bill, all with their various slants, but each one collecting poems that offer affirmation without undue sentimentality. I am not entirely sure what it means that there seems to have been a proliferation of such anthologies in the first two decades of this century. But very likely the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 provided a central impetus, knocking this nation for a loop and fostering a great hunger for reassurance, resolve, and hope. People quite spontaneously turned to poetry. One of the first post-9-11 anthologies that caught my eye was Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times, edited by Joan Murray and published in 2001. The War on Terror kept escalating, of course, leading to the disastrous Iraq war and all the death and suffering it in turn ushered in. It also led to what is now America’s longest war, the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. In the midst of all that turmoil, Garrison Keillor weighed in with his anthology Good Poems for Hard Times in 2005. In introducing his selections, he wrote in unapologetic terms of hope, courage, love, and uplift, tempering such potential bromides with spiky and clear-headed recognition of the inevitable failures of such things, especially in hard times. And the poetry itself, “the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart,” in Keillor’s words, followed suit, skirting sentimental gush for honesty, clarity, humor, and a well-grounded realism. I’m no doubt unaware of many other books akin to these, but I will recommend here several recent ones if you’re looking for gatherings of good and intelligent poetry anthologies prompted by contemporary hard times. Each is full of poems that will nevertheless not leave you more depressed after reading them. I am thinking of Emily Fragos’s Poems of Gratitude (2017); The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Gratitude, edited by John Brehm (2017); Christian Wiman’s Joy: One Hundred Poems (2017); and most recently, Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, edited by James Crews in 2019. I should also take note of an earlier anthology, Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, from way back in 1996, which sought “to remind readers that for some very good reasons [poetry] may be of importance today. These reasons have to do with our troubles in the present phase of our civilization.” I surmise that the appearance of so many books of this general slant is probably rooted not only in the horrific wars already mentioned, but also the increasing polarization of our politics in this country, accompanied by demonization of one’s opponents and the mindless screaming matches on what used to be news programs that Keillor and others decry. It’s probably not a coincidence that many such anthologies appeared in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election that put Donald Trump into office. Readers—including poets themselves—seem hungry for honest, non-manipulative language that points in the direction of hope, kindness, gratitude, and so on. Since joining the ranks of Americans who are self-isolating I have, unsurprisingly, been scribbling in my journal about the strange times we find ourselves in. Some of these entries may in time—and perhaps future tranquility— become poems. But in the meantime I’ve been re- visiting all the above anthologies, and seeking out poems elsewhere that seem akin to their selections. The purpose of reading such poems, I’d say, is not so much consolation or mitigation of suffering and anxiety; rather, it is an increased alertness. The most deeply satisfying poems, at such a time, strike me as utterly honest about pain, loss, uncertainty, injustice, and so on, yet also quite concretely aimed in the direction of hope, gratitude, empathy. Which is to say, poems that help us be more awake. The subjects may vary, but they’re headed down the same road. I’ll close by mentioning just a few favorites which are not in those anthologies but could be. A poem that has deeply moved me for decades is Galway Kinnell’s four-part elegy for his brother, who died in 1957. “Freedom, New Hampshire” begins in reminiscence; he recalls his brother and himself as boys looking for the spot where they knew a dead cow had been buried, but never finding it. From there the poem covers a lot of ground, each section circling around the brute physicality of death. And naturally, by the end he is thinking of his brother’s burial. Here is how the final section ends: Children who come by chance on grass green for a man Can guess cow, dung, man, anything they want, To them it is the same. To us who knew him as he was After the beginning and before the end, it is green For a name called out of the confusions of the earth— Winnipesaukee coined like a moon, a bullcalf Dragged from the darkness where it breaks up again, Larks which long since have crashed for good in the grass To which we fed the flies, buzzing ourselves like flies, While the crickets shrilled beyond us, in July. The mind may sort it out and give it names— When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes— But an incarnation is in particular flesh And the dust that is swirled into a shape And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape That was this man. When he is dead the grass Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead, And the few who loved him know this until they die. At least for the space of this poem I can nearly believe that “it is good, yes,” that we die and return to earth, and even that “spirit flowers without stop.” But I would not be so moved by Kinnell’s poem if this hopeful possibility were not balanced carefully against the equally powerful sadness of the survivors: “When he is dead the grass / Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead, / And the few who loved him know this until they die.” Another poet I return to again and again for her Kinnell-like balancing act is Ellen Bass. Dozens of her poems would fit my theme. One that I especially love is “I Love the Way Men Crack,” from her 2002 collection Mules of Love, which begins: I love the way men crack open when their wives leave them, their sheaths curling back like the split shells of roasted chestnuts, exposing the sweet creamy meat. They call you and unburden their hearts the way a woman takes off her jewels, the heavy pendant earrings, the stiff lace gown and corset, and slips into a loose kimono. Unburdening themselves to their friends, the divorced men share their miseries in detail for most of the body of the poem. But then comes the turn at the end—predictable enough, yet in my view entirely earned and wonderful: Then a year goes by. Or two. Like broken bones, they knit back together. They grow like grass and bushes and trees after a forest fire, covering the seared earth. They landscape the whole thing, plant like mad and spend every weekend watering and weeding. There are so many other poems I’ve found nourishing in these challenging days, on a wide variety of subjects, all performing their own versions of Kinnell’s balancing act. Some are classics, such as Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” with its refrain inviting the honeybees to construct their hive in an empty bird’s nest: “Come build in the empty house of the stare.” Two more recent poems that have gone viral recently are well worth looking up if you haven’t run across them: Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” and Danusha Laméris’s “Small Kindnesses.” Both of these can be easily Googled (and “Small Kindnesses” is included in James Crews’s deeply satisfying anthology, Healing the Divide.) But I want to end with another of Ellen Bass’s, also from Mules of Love, which I will give in its entirety and without further comment, except: Of course poetry can matter. It can lift you up even while recounting the ugliest realities. Take a look at this: The Thing Is to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it and everything you've held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it. When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air, heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs; when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief, you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you I will love you, again.
© 2020 David Graham
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