Earlier this month, I read Edward Hirsch’s New Yorker interview on the death of his son and on Hirsch’s process of writing about his son’s life and about losing him. He began with the facts, writing a dossier, and then he wrote poems. The poems became a book-length narrative poem, Gabriel, to be published by Knopf next month. The interview is extraordinarily moving, and I kept coming back to Hirsch’s words on writing the poems: “The whole time, I’m desperately trying to be faithful to Gabriel’s life, so that he’ll come through.”
After reading the interview, I thought again of Mary Szybist's beautiful National Book Award acceptance speech, this in particular:
"Sometimes, when I find myself in a dark place, I lose all taste for poetry. If it cannot do what I want it to do, if it cannot restore those I have lost, then why bother with it at all? There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.”
When I read the Hirsch interview, I was teaching in Atlantic Center for the Arts' "your word" Teen Creative Writing Residency, a phenomenal multi-genre summer writing residency that offers 9th through rising 12th grade writers workshops and mentorship. At lunch with three other poets: John Murillo, Nicole Sealey, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, I mentioned Hirsch’s interview and Szybist’s words – how they kept circling. What can poetry do? I asked them.
In the weeks that followed, Gaza was bombed, Michael Brown was murdered, a small Missouri town became a war zone. I wondered if my question even mattered. But there was Szybist, already asking, what can it do in a dark place? So I asked several poets to tell me, What can poetry do?
If poetry is a muscle not used enough, as some of us have come to believe, then poetry can teach us about the new. Poems ask us, remind us, to both surrender AND pay attention.
Some have quoted Stanley Kunitz as claiming that poetry is the syntax of survival. I continue to wonder on that: is this too much to ask of art, and is this a survival of the poet, or of the reader-- or does it even matter, as long as something is changed afterward. As to taking us all to a greater place, I do not think poetry comforts in the same way other art does: it does not tell a story, it does not end neatly, it does not help you forget. I might argue instead that poetry is the syntax of epiphany. Yes, poetry can save, but more as art which is not about itself, and instead asks us to move closer.
I liken writing and/or reading poetry to annealing, the process of cooling glass to relieve its internal stresses. Man is as fragile as glass. Poetry, even at its most unnerving, can relieve stress and, in so doing, feed the spirit.
Because of my own limitations, the wildest language I occasionally speak inside English is poetry---but if it has to be only this, the deep, repeatable weirdness is enough. I am thinking a little about Pasiphae and the bull —how she needed the wooden skin of a cow to lie with the great bull of her desire. The resistance she forges between herself and what she can’t possibly understand is how she tricks herself into making a minotaur—and here let’s just say metaphor. What poetry can do is prove it’s worth crawling past ourselves—even through huge fakeries--to test the simple impossibility of letting unlike things lie down together. To let ourselves be filled with an aching strangeness that makes things both better and worse.
I once rode in a car through Paris while a woman I barely knew read a poem into my ear—Apollonaire? Villon? It was a cabaret performance she’d do & she offered to do it for me.
Each word vibrated inside my head.
For years I’d tried to read Rilke, yet failed—what I mean is that I didn’t get Rilke. One night I read the Duino Elegies out loud to my then-girlfriend—by the end we were teary & renewed.
A poem, I realized, could do what roots do—cling to darkness, search out hidden rivers, feed the visible world . . .
I often picture poems as containers—little jars, perhaps, or bowls—that manage to hold whatever is placed in them—no matter the smallness of the poem or the largeness, the seeming unsayableness, of the emotion. It’s this generosity of poems, this capaciousness, that I think has most changed and enabled my life. Because I do think this is something—an enormous thing—that poetry can do: make a life, make it sustainable and real and true, make it sometimes joyful, sometimes simply bearable. Reading poems, and trying to write them, I continue to find containers—homes—for the human-animal feelings that have nowhere else to live, nowhere else to go. Because those states of being can find poems in which to rest, I am infinitely less lonely.
Of course there are times, too, when that lived experience of poem-as-home feels impossibly distant. These are the times when I can’t write or even read: the most painful times. Even then, I think, poems are waiting. Even when I’m not aware they’re waiting or able to feel I will ever live inside them again, they are.
It’s difficult to say what poetry can do as I’m driving long distance to visit family in mourning over the loss of a father. A great poet and good friend recently told me that “Art is always larger than our definitions of it.” We are farthest away from poetry the moment we try to describe it, and what it can do. But to describe is different than to experience. We are never alone with poetry, we must always enter it in the company of another whether we are aware of it or not. It is where the inward landscape meets the outward landscape. But poetry can kill, it can defeat us as much as it can renew us. Poetry, as Li-Young Lee said, almost always happens on the out breath, the dying breath, when our bones become soft. So we become more aware of ourselves in the dying breath as more is revealed to us. It is as Paul Valéry’s wife said, “larger than visible things,” so it is comprised of the sum of the visible. Everything is the beginning of a poem, but not everything can be a poem.
In some circumstances, poetry cannot exist, in many more it isn’t enough. As Breton famously said, “The Marvelous is always beautiful. Everything Marvelous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvelous is beautiful.” But I think poetry is what is left over after beauty, incapable of pain. The moment the poem ceases to be a poem is when it becomes Marvelous and Beautiful, when it can do great things. Then and only then can poetry heal, can it serve as simulacrum for something we are not meant to name. So you can either praise the beautiful, or praise what is left over. I will choose the one that is most like a bridge and soak my hands in it.
I don’t know. The particular tradition of American poetry I’ve inherited is one in which art is considered to serve a social function. Poets witness, speak truth to power, preserve the history of the tribe, etc. But in light of certain recent events, I’ve begun to wonder whether some of us overestimate the impact our work has on the world, or, more dangerously, believe that writing is, itself, activism and therefore somehow absolves us of having to do anything more.
As a poet, as a teacher, I have to believe that poetry can help make us more compassionate, more thoughtful human beings. I’d like to think, for instance, that if Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson had committed to memory certain passages of “Song of Myself”, that if he walked with these lines in his bones (the way I do), he may have operated from a set of impulses different from those that led him to gun down unarmed eighteen year old Michael Brown. Maybe if he’d read the work of a Ross Gay or a Rickey Laurentiis, he’d have seen something different when looking at that young black man. But savages don’t read. And Michael Brown is as dead today as Walt Whitman. Poetry couldn’t save him any more than it could save Eric Garner. Or Oscar Grant. Or Trayvon Martin. Or Jordan Davis. Or Sean Bell. Or Amadou Diallo. Or Prince Jones. Jr. Or Henry Dumas, who although he was, himself, a very fine poet, could write nothing to stop New York transit cops from murdering him one cold April night forty-six years ago. So it seems that whatever poetry does, it’s not enough. I would never say with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But neither can I any longer console myself with rapper Talib Kweli’s notion that “singing is swinging and writing is fighting.” It’s not. And it’s not.
I wrote a little ars poetica about The Boss that suggests at least some of what I believe poetry can do, namely create a human-sized space for the both the flaws of memory and the empathy of imagination, a place to pause and pay closer attention to both words and the world:
Lately I’ve been listening to Springsteen sing Stolen Car, remembering that part about the guy really hoping he gets caught so he doesn’t disappear entirely. And when the lost wife in the song talks about the love letters and how reading them made her feel one hundred years old, I think about how you almost want her to say love letters, and then one hundred times better. She could have said that.