Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How Poetry Makes Things Happen


In the past I was irritated by being asked what a poem means. The irritation sprang from impatience. A poem, to me, is the most direct way to articulate something for which there are no other words. To explain it in other words is, in a sense, to lose what it means, which is not only an intellectual quality but an emotional one carried by the rhythms and phonetics of those exact words. However, I no longer find it an irritation but rather an important question because I understand more fully what meaning itself is.

Meaning is the definition of a relationship. Meaning is not just what something is in a vacuum but what it is in a universe of interactions and interconnections. Those interactions and interconnections are meaning. Think of the implication of saying to someone, “You mean so much to me.” The idea is that there are a multiplicity of connections you have to the person, significances that resonate across time and space and tie your lives together. This idea of meaning applies to every kind of relationship, i.e., to people, to nature, to society, to family, to friends, to God, to every jot and tittle of which you take notice. Our meanings, our definitions are our relationships and they make up our identity and our culture.

When someone asks “what does a poem mean?” they are asking really what are the relationships it is defining? It is precisely at this place that the important conversations can occur, because how those relationships or meanings contrast with our own are a clear opening to dialogue. They can provide a way to enlighten and make connections. This is how poetry, literature, and art in general can bridge gaps. We may agree or disagree with a poem’s definitions, feel they are outdated, or find they open our eyes to the realities of others. It is not only how we might learn from “Musée des Beaux Arts” that suffering is common or from “One Art” that the loss of a loved one is an art no one masters, but it is the consequences in the reader of what he considers. So a white, suburban-born male might learn from Langston Hughes’ poem “Who But the Lord?” that his relationship to the police is very different from an African American’s. Or he might learn from N. Scott Momaday that the American government is sometimes selective in who has freedom of religion. These realizations can come by discussing what a poem means, and those realizations might lead to a desire to change the way things are, a desire to expand the range of our humanity and expand the inclusion of our society, edge our society’s flawed image of itself a little closer to its ideal. In this way, poetry can make something happen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Reflection on Language


Language is not simply communication, it is also manipulation. This is true of all language because when we guide someone through language to understand something as we do, we are devising a kind of map that guides the listener to the point. We are, through intent and skill, managing what is and is not perceived. The difference between this and something we might call propaganda is only the difference of intention behind that guidance. It is what Keats sensed when he said, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” It is what Orwell understood when he said, “All art is propaganda.” Thus the language in everything from a poem to a casual conversation carries in its nuances the potential to free or ensnare our humanity. Those who do not respect that power have the potential to misuse it, while those who do not respect humanity have the potential to abuse it. The former is ignorance; the latter is evil.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Will to Be Lucid

Camus has a phrase that I love. It is “the will to be lucid.” Lucidity, clarity is not automatic; we must activity pursue it. That is, for me, what poetry is: a will to be lucid. People sometimes have difficulty with poetry because they find it more like an uninviting puzzle. Yet a poet, in his pursuit, is always after clarity. It is not mathematical clarity or logical clarity, but the clarity of shedding light on things often left unsaid and, therefore, not easily said. Those times you feel something but just can’t get it into words, those moments you know something but can’t articulate exactly what it is you know. Sometimes it’s a failure on our part to know the words that exist; sometimes it’s because no one has ever articulated that particular feeling or experience or knowledge before. Poets are always grasping for that. We are striving to give “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” In all this struggle for words, this struggle with language, it is a struggle toward clarity.
George Oppen: from “Route”
Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity
Poetry, like all other arts, is about connections: connecting people to their environment and each other through meaning, because meaning is connection. Meaning binds the world together and poetry is the discovering, the disclosure of that meaning. As Muriel Rukeyser put it, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Confusion of meanings is an exploding of these stories, a severance that can create discord not only in art but in society.
Rukeyser: From “Ballad of Orange and Grape”
I ask him : How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? –
How can they write and believe what they're writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape in ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE –?
(How are we going to believe what we read and we write
and we hear and we say and we do?)
He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be white and black women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don't do.
Bertrand Russell described this another way. In describing modern physics’ relationship to matter he said, “It is the events that are the stuff of the world.” Matter is not as substantial as assumed in past philosophy and science; it is more events, relationships, as in music, the relationship of notes to create chords, and chords to create harmony. In this sense that confusion of meanings can even severe us from an understanding of the universe and plunge us into darkness.
Stafford: from A Ritual to Read to Each Other
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Notice that “maybe” is among the clear signals given. Is “maybe” a lack of clarity? No more so than light itself that presents sometimes as waves and sometimes as particles, depending on how we look for it. Variable factors mean variable answers. Sometimes it’s “maybe.” The language of poetry directs us toward clarities in a variable, shifting universe, a universe flying apart, changing, a universe made of events and stories, yours and mine and how they interact. Poems thread those stories together, make a tapestry of our various colors and complexities. A successful poem is a crystallization of that will to be lucid that captures all the light needed to see, to focus it and present a path through the confusion, a music out of what was previously an oppressive silence.