Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Part Three: "Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.” – T.S. Eliot

“We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.”

– Donald Miller, Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life

Spanish vowels make my tongue feel fat. There’s an inflection in the present tense which makes the sounds of “eeyah” and “endo” trip across my lips. Still, the first sentence that I said (which I actually formed and understood before speaking) gave me a feeling of utter elation and accomplishment. I’ve learned more and retained more from my attempt to communicate with my Spanish speaking friend than I have in all the classes I’ve taken. I learned my friend is from Nicaragua (De donde es usted?) and when she told me where she was from the only word I knew to use to ask about her homeland was “Verde?” Although I didn’t understand every word of what she was communicating, I understood the desperation, the trials, as she replied “No Verde,” and then mimicked trying to pump water from a spout as she explained “Ninguna lluvia. Ninguna agua.” (no rain, no water) por seis meses (for six months). “Aqui es moi verde.”

In preceding essays I’ve tried to tackle the task of explaining the value of words, our purpose for using them and specifically, in poetry, why it is so important we understand the worth of words in communicating. The first sentence I was able to formulate in reply to a question in espanol that didn’t sound like it was coming from a 2 year old was,

“Tengo gusto de manzanas verdes con la sal.”

That’s what poetry should be, a question or reply, a conversation, an attempt at understanding, waking people up to a new experience, forming a shared encounter, a connection which promotes empathy, coming to an understanding with the reader concerning the often confusing foreign languages of the inner psyche, or soul.

From T.S. Eliot, four quartets:
II. East Coker V.
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
I’ve noticed a lot of contemporary American poetry seems to get caught up in the expression of the individual, there is nothing wrong with that, however it seems that many writers write to validate themselves as “writers” rather than to validate the human experience. They forget about the soul. I’m using that word when I might mean psyche or self, but “soul” has a deeper historical significance. Let me put that another way, we only ever lose ourselves in what we put on a page, if we attempt to find ourselves there I think the ultimate end is insanity. Maybe that’s hyperbolic, but what are we trying to communicate, and why?

I used to get really annoyed when in a workshop or writing course I would hear statements like,
“But, what does this MEAN?”

My reply was always “Why does a poem have to “mean” anything? Can’t it just be?”

After several years of struggling with this, heck I don’t know what my poems mean until after I write them, I figured out that my annoyance wasn’t so much with the intention of the question but with the word “meaning.”

A poem can express emotion or reveal a truth to the subconscious mind and the “meaning” may not be clear on an intellectual level but on an instinctive gut level there’s communication which occurs. (If the reader allows it.) The question above I think would be better phrased as “What is your intention, what are you trying to communicate and why?” As the intention of a poet can only be guessed at, it requires a certain amount of faith from readers that the intention of the author isn’t just to confuse you, or to make themselves sound smart (although sometimes, yes, I think some poets get caught up in this and some good indicators of getting lost on the page are oblique references to mythology, or in other words name dropping a greek God here and there.) When done well, it works, when used to fluff up the poem…it doesn’t. How can you tell the difference? Intent.

But back to Eliot, before I get lost on the page here—
Four Quartets again,

IV Little Gidding I.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Oh so often I’m confronted with statistics about publishing and numbers related to gender issues. I read articles continually berating MFA programs and the academia, or the opposite-- I hear or read negative things said about blogs or online poetry workshops. That’s all bullshit, folks.

I’ve been thinking about turtles. Sea turtles. There’s one type of sea turtle that comes to the beach (the same beach they’ve been coming to for a millennium) and they come alone, sporadically, laying their eggs. When the eggs hatch and the little turtles start to scoot across the sand they are easy mark for the predators, most don’t make it.

The other type of sea turtle comes in a hoard, thousands upon thousands descend upon their beach (the same beach they’ve been coming to for a millennium) at the same time. The nests are all laid at the same time, the baby turtles all hatch at the same time. Millions of scooting turtles surge to the sea, a wave of turtle-ness. In this case, the predators are so overwhelmed the survival rate is multiplied a thousand times more than the above.

If you haven’t gotten the parallel I am making about the writing world and the many poets today (considering how in previous posts I compared poets to ducks, well…now here, we’re turtles.) Let me spell it out for you: It is a GOOD thing to have so many people writing poetry, speaking poetry, interested in poetry. It doesn’t matter if it’s slam poetry, formal poetry, academic poetry, nautical poetry, poetry about oranges or apple pie, good poetry, bad poetry, whatever. There will be survivors. No one knows what is coming next. I can’t watch the news about Japan without feeling sick. I’m not an apocalyptic type of gal, but I do think words will be the salt which preserves humanity (are you following me here, from turtles to salt?) Or maybe not the salt, but time capsules buried in the sand to emerge one day, like those sea turtles…so we might live on, no matter what comes next.

Oh, Eliot says it better than I do: (Quartets again, II)

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
My only hope for poetry is the statement above “In my end is my beginning”, my fear for it the same-- in the future, may this never be said of us:

III The Dry Salvages II.
We had the experience but missed the meaning


  1. The part I am sharing when I link to this on my FB page: "Let me spell it out for you: It is a GOOD thing to have so many people writing poetry, speaking poetry, interested in poetry. It doesn’t matter if it’s slam poetry, formal poetry, academic poetry, nautical poetry, poetry about oranges or apple pie, good poetry, bad poetry, whatever. There will be survivors. No one knows what is coming next."

    I love this, and Eliot never meant so much to me as he does not. Will re-read this after a shower, and if I do not say more, ask me tomorrow night.

    Whew. Some kick-ass writing here, my friend.

  2. Thanks Mara. This has been in the percolator several months and I had no idea where it was going other than it had to include turtles and Eliot. So, I'm glad you love Eliot's quartets now too.

  3. Enjoyed this, Melanie - would underline the same quote that Mara did above. Keep it coming! Best, Nic