To Be: As Poetry

Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish have both written poems on the nature of poetry: Moore’s conclusion, in her “Poetry,” is that

…nor till the poets among us can be
    ‘literalists of
    the imagination’–above
        insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
            shall we have
    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
    the raw material of poetry in
        all its rawness and
        that which is on the other hand
            genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

In other words, the things of poetry are “important not because a//high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are/useful.” Poetry is not about large words and fancy interpretations, but about being useful to us. It is meant to show us “real toads”–true reflections of life–in all their rawness and genuineness, even if the poem itself is only an “imaginary garden.”

MacLeish concludes something similar in “Ars Poetica.” A series of rhyming couplets begins with “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit” and ends with

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

He, too, rejects the idea of poetry as something to be interpreted. It should sit silent, “Palpable and mute.” It’s something to touch. To taste. Not to explain.

I think these are ideas that should resonate in all art, not only poetry. I mentioned in my last post that art is something we make in order to cry out with others, a vehicle to share our humanness; and I think that’s what Moore and MacLeish are getting at, that if you’re so busy incorporating large words and sophisticated philosophies into a piece of art, nobody else can breathe it in, can taste the juice from the globed fruit. It’s a hard line to walk. For me, a girl who defines herself by intellectualism, it’s difficult to stop asking what things mean and start tasting them. But I think it’s important.

I also think that sometimes a poem actually means more simply by “being.” The more I read the Bible, the more I come to see how meaningful it is through its very nature as a work of art. We evangelicals tend to read poems like Psalm 133 and think, now this shows us we need to be nice to each other and “dwell in unity.” We rarely stop to soak in the image of precious oil and robes, of Aaron the priest in his anointing, of how satisfying and cleansing it is for members of the Church to live in love. We are always moralizing; but the Bible is really not meant to be a book of rules as much as it is a picture of them. There are rules, yes, but there is also a story of a Man who saw a woman drawing water whom He should culturally have ignored and loved her. There is a song by someone who is wounded, mocked, and parched with thirst, who knows in his head God will save him but still cries out for the pain. There is a vision of a dragon who is hurled forever into a lake of fire and sulfur for the deceptions and torment he has wreaked.

To me, these images convey a world more about God’s greatest command–love–than any fancily-worded moralistic rule book can. The Bible does, obviously, have meaning, and it can be interpreted and exegeted and hermeneutically examined, but it can also be mute as a globed fruit. Psalm 44 doesn’t have answers, it’s just some people who need help begging a God who made a promise to follow through. The meaning in that is not something we can explain adequately with scientific interpretations. It is, however, a feeling we’ve felt before, and it means a whole lot simply by being the way it is.

That’s the way true art should convey meaning. It’s the way humans experience our humanness, by biting straight into the globed fruit. Art should show you a real toad. It shouldn’t need to tell you what to do with it.

To Be: And To Make Art

I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question.  Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”

And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.

If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.

I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.

That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,

sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.

sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and sourness
and spiciness
and everything you needed,
with everythingness.

sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
for poetry
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.

–Slake

A Book

Five years’ worth of poems

is enough to fill a book.

It’s enough

to take a journey; it’s enough

to climb a mountain and come down the other side, to

want and rant and vent but also

to slake of the living waters you always needed.

I am in the process of compiling that book, and will hopefully have it completed (and self-published) by

August.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting writing tips,

book updates, and other miscellany

here on my blog.

Join me for the hike?

Writer’s Keys: Lying in Wait for a Raven, Step 1

Ideas are really such slippery things; as smooth as a raven, with sleek shining wings.

Harnessing That sort of a bird can be difficult, because there are fat, distracting, and overused pigeons idling in much easier reach. But there’s an art to catching what you really want, if you know where to look. Spontaneous though it may seem when coming from the Greats (Dickinson and Dickens and Hemingway and Hawthorne), lying in wait for a raven is purely technical and purely intentional, nine ravens out of ten.

By far the most important trick is to discredit the easily reachable birds. Given a prompt, most will take hold of the first pigeon they see, and admire its feathers, and give themselves a pat on the back for Originality and Cleverness. It is all too easy to fall into this trap, but when avoided it causes an exponential increase in true originality. Examine one such prompt:

A pair of unlikely friends.

The first idea one thinks up involves a popular, athletic sort of boy in middle or high school, and a quiet girl of the same age and a very different mien. You may have some slight variation on this standard, but it almost certainly stems from the same tree.

This is a pigeon, of the Fattest, Laziest, and Most Stereotypical Sort.

Ditch it.

As much as anyone dislikes the truth, we all live in the same world as everyone else, and the same country as a great number of people. With many of these we share a language, a lifestyle and an outlook on life; therefore, we have the same associations, the same cultural cliches, the same assets and setbacks. And we think up the same first ideas.

So the first step in catching a raven is to not catch the nearest pigeon, no matter how glossy its feathers appear to be, and no matter how well-fed and comfortable it seems. It has almost certainly been caught, caged, capacitated and coddled a thousand times before. You have to Let It Go.

Once your eyes are opened to the truth of what is really a desirable bird to catch, you can train yourself to find the rarer ones, those that hide in the undergrowth masquerading as pheasants or sparrows rather than sitting plumply on eye-level branches. Writing is reaching. Nine ravens out of ten.

For further writing steps, sign up for my email list here and I’ll send you a free download of the whole document.

Keys

So here we are in
hardly a wonderland
and how to get back to Narnia
there’s no telling

door’s locked
window’s blocked
etc etc etc

so we are here to explore the keys
and find our way perhaps
to the eternal home
which we were missing all along.

On this ring of Keys,
find Poetry & Keys for Writing,
meanderings of thought,
political harangues to the World in General,
and
traces of an old and vibrant Love.
I hope you will discover the one True Key,
The Love
Way
Truth
and Life,
as I begin to discover Him more as well.