Why Poetry?

I’ve had some level of interest in poetry for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, it has occupied a position of much greater significance in my life. As with any topic of deep interest, poetry inspires questions, not the least of which is why. Why poetry? Why does it mean so much to me, especially when so many other people just can’t be bothered?

Poems have the power to draw us deeply into unfamiliar contexts. Take the following poem for example, in which the author, a child of biracial parents, imagines a lighter-skinned version of herself.

Blond
Natasha Trethewey

Certainly it was possible — somewhere
in my parents’ genes the recessive traits
that might have given me a different look:
not attached earlobes or my father’s green eyes,
but another hair color — gentleman-preferred,
have-more-fun blond. And with my skin color,
like a good tan — an even mix of my parents’ —
I could have passed for white.

When on Christmas day I woke to find
a blond wig, a pink sequined tutu,
and a blond ballerina doll, nearly tall as me,
I didn’t know to ask, nor that it mattered,
if there’d been a brown version. This was years before
my grandmother nestled the dark baby
into our creche, years before I’d understand it
as primer for a Mississippi childhood.

Instead, I pranced around our living room
in a whirl of possibility, my parents looking on
at their suddenly strange child. In the photograph
my mother took, my father — almost
out of the frame — looks on as Joseph must have
at the miraculous birth: I’m in the foreground —
my blond wig a shining halo, a newborn likeness
to the child that chance, the long odds,
might have brought.

Few scenarios could lie further from my own experience, but the poem allows me into its private world with such immediacy that I imagine myself in the speaker’s place. I ponder the same questions she does, and I begin to feel what she feels. The context is unique, but the emotions it inspires are universally human. In the space of one short poem, I’ve imagined life in someone else’s shoes – someone with a background far different from mine. Every new poem offers this possibility.

I would argue that there is nothing we need more as human beings than to connect regularly with this level of depth, particularly with people from unfamiliar backgrounds. Article after article will tell you that despite the best efforts of technology, we live in an age of ever-increasing social isolation. Developing a poetry habit can help to bridge this disconnect, and as with any learned behavior, lasting change requires repeated exposure. The ultimate promise of poetry, as Jane Hirshfield writes in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, is that “by changing ourselves, one by one…,” we might also change “…the outer world that selves create and share.” It may be a cliche to suggest that poetry, or any art, has the power to change the world, but to my ear, it’s a cliche that rings true. Poems have tremendous potential to inspire both personal and social change.

 

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Giants are diving.

The Diving Board

Most of this blog’s followers are people with whom I share an interest in reading or writing poems, and poetry is incredibly important to me, but I am also a songwriter with an online music project called Giants of Diving. I write, record, and produce all of the music alone in a modest (but powerful) home studio.

The benefits of working alone will be familiar to poets: the joy of solitude, total creative control, and with lyric writing as with poetry, the sense of a communion with language; on the best days, it’s just you and the words, and the feeling that this is exactly where you want — or need — to be.

Making music is different, at least the way I do it. I try to create a full band sound on my own, which means recording each instrument one track at a time. Writing the songs is the easy part, relatively. It’s something I’ve been doing, and getting steadily better at I think, since I was seventeen. The other relatively easy part is the playing. Recording the tracks doesn’t actually take much time. The real challenge comes in the mixing and production phases. These are hard things to do alone. They require a lot of repeated listening, experimentation, and tremendous patience. You try one reverb setting on a vocal – you listen – you try another setting – you listen – you try another setting… you get the picture. It’s not a process for the faint of heart, especially when it is YOUR OWN VOICE you’re listening to — again and again. Remember the first time you heard a taped playback of yourself and you couldn’t believe how strange you sounded? Multiply that experience by 100.

Despite the differences in process, I suppose I make music and poetry for essentially the same reasons. I love following the spark of an idea to its conclusion and being surprised by where it ends up. I love funneling big ideas through my unique filter and then releasing them into the world. I love looking back at something I created and knowing that I worked hard to bring it to life.  Whether I’m re-recording a guitar solo just one more time after working on it all night or I’m revising a poem through its fifteenth draft, the motivations are the same.

So I’m glad to have both poetry and music, and I’m grateful that they are so different in the making. When my passion for one ebbs, the other creative outlet is there for me — offering inspiration.

To give my music a try, visit Giants of Diving on Soundcloud or go to giantsofdiving.com.

Love means you breathe in two countries.

I continue to have my breath taken away by the poems of Naomi Shihab Nye.  A selection of her best poems should be launched into space for alien civilizations to discover.  Here is a recording of “Two Countries” she made for a recent episode of the On Being podcast.  Try not to let the overwrought guitar music at the end ruin your experience.

 

LINK TO TEXT OF THE POEM HERE.

“Gridlock” in Forth Magazine

Thanks to Forth Magazine for publishing my poem “Gridlock.”

Read the poem here.

“Miracle Fair” by Wislawa Szymborska

If you are unfamiliar with the poems of Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, I encourage you to investigate. She was an absolute master of imagery and wordplay. She wrote about universal themes in a manner void of pretense, and prolifically, in direct language, with never a trace of cliché.  Her best writing appears effortless, as if written on air, though the words are undoubtedly carefully chosen. The result is poetry that, to me, feels timeless — as if it always existed.


“Miracle Fair”

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

Coffee Shop


that woman is broadcasting her phone call
like a distress signal sent
from the deck of a sinking ship

that man is slurping his soup
like a thirsty retriever before the water bowl
after a full day of fetching frisbees

isn’t it clear that
I’m trying to find the words
that will one day save the world

don’t they understand
that my creative process
requires being around people
without actually being around people

 

originally published in Praxis Magazine

Rediscovering Adrienne Rich

My niece, a high school senior, recently shared a poem she wrote for an English class assignment modeled after Adrienne Rich, and I was inspired to revisit her work. This one takes my breath away in at least three places. I hope it does something for you.

From an Atlas of the Difficult World

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.