How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.
At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.
It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.
What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?
This year, I’m challenging myself–and any of you who care to join–to claim your own catwalk to move across steadily and with as much grace as we can muster. I’m not talking about a Kate Moss catwalk, but the kind that’s tethered near the tops of trees, a single cable you inch across for the heady experience, and just to convince yourself you can do it. Mine has something to do with picking up and moving on without one of my biggest cheerleaders, searching for contact with the wire, checking my fear at the tree and pressing on to the next one. (And yes, that’s me in the photo last year, nearly hyperventilating with a fear of heights but moving across as I’d urged my students to do. We all made it, unscathed.) The breeze will blow; my balance will not be constant; the air will grow cold. But walking the line requires trusting I can find some words, some truth. I’m harnessed in, after all, so all I love will break my fall.
In her poem, “Apples,” Grace Schulman writes, “beauty strikes just once,/ hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,/ tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.” The act of inching across the catwalk is a deliberate pursuit of beauty, but the risk is real, and it can feel like exile. Waiting months for the response of an esteemed publication. Then getting it. Over and over. There are compliments as well as critiques. There is hope. But the rope is high and the trek is long.
This month, I’m revising (for the twenty-something time) several poems in an evolving book-length manuscript while trying to work up a new class on portfolio development for creative writers and kick out a couple of new poem drafts. Then it’ll be a recommitment to sending out small batches of poems. Step by pensive step, I inch across. I think of my lifelong cheerleader, my confidante, my first reader, whose death still does not quite feel real. She wanted to be a writer, but wrote very little. She did publish one article and write a couple of stories and a song. She really wanted me to succeed. I have to walk the walk for myself . . . but I know it’s for her, too. At this rate I may not break any land speed records, but then, I’m not touching the ground.
So, what is your catwalk? What’s your plan to get across?
After a series of personal challenges in the past six months (fire, three moves, close deaths, and associated challenges), I’m baaaaack . . . . Now that I’ve dusted off, it’s back to teaching, pulling out the poetry manuscripts, mixing things up (big-time), greasing wheels, feeding my inner nerd, hoping I remember how to see upside-down through my legs like a kid, or, as Fitzgerald famously said, breathing underwater.
I’ve been reading poets new and ancient, the most ancient of whom is Rumi. From eight centuries back, he speaks more clearly through translators like Coleman Barks than most, regardless of their epoch or their age, as in these lines from “Who Says Words with My Mouth?”: “Who looks out with my eyes? What is my soul? / I cannot stop asking” (Selected Poems by Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks [New York: HarperCollins, 1995]). On September 11th this year, at an interfaith community commemoration at Hudson River Music Hall featuring preachers, poets like Paul Pines, and musicians including Duke Ellington‘s granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, I had the privilege and joy of reading Rumi. Preparing for that event, I immersed myself in Rumi’s ecstatic love and wisdom, a tasty tonic for the soul.
If you had told me two decades ago that very soon our culture would broadly celebrate a thirteenth century Persian ecstatic mystic poet, I wouldn’t even have believed you. Rumi’s appeal transcends his faith tradition, eschews false piety, embraces all humanity. You just have to sip his work to get it.
So, if you’re here, if you read or write poetry, what revives your soul? For whose poems do you head when your head is down? Scroll down a little and post a comment, please.
In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:
The New Androgyne
She will be like the deaf mute turned composer:
ink will pulse through her veins the color
of half-lit midnight when grass sways slightly
By turns she will be gardener and stargazer peasant
and prophet bag-lady and carpetbagger
pointillist and modern dancer
delivering mother and midwife delivering
the mother and her child
You will see her gradually
rising with the sun her origins uncertain
her language raw and bold her hands stained
strong-boned her eyes deep as Andromeda
She will take by the first two fingers
anyone who will enter the labyrinth listen
to the crackling of leaves as she infuses them with breath
and witness her gypsy dance as she steadily
wrenches an arc of bone from her side
In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich. While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.