Before we move on to the next poem, I would like to post something I wrote for my poetry workshop. We are required to write a poetry "manifesto," a word that makes me laugh a bit, but is supposed to be our chance to express something we believe about the nature and purpose of poetry. Feel free to comment, to add something, to agree or disagree, whatever. I'm interested to hear what poets and/or readers of poetry might think. Thanks for indulging me!
A Call for Courageous Poets
Do we have anything new to say? Is there any freshness and new-born life in us that we can express in our poetry? Is there any boldness and color left in our language that hasn’t already been appropriated by one of our predecessors? Is there anything unique about our lives, our experiences of love, pain, loss, beauty, sex, lies, truth, violence, abandonment, death, birth, hate, and joy?
I believe, at some point, each of us must confront this question. How we answer it fundamentally affects how we write, what we write, and our attitudes toward what we and other poets write. I have my answer.
The nature of experience is one of fluidity. We each travel from moment to connected moment, as if flowing through a liquid circle of time. Usually, when a moment feels cemented or halted in our minds, it is because its sensory impact was so strong: the scent of a mother’s baked cookies; a particularly cold hike through the woods; a traumatic instance of abuse; the first time we kissed someone; the first time our hearts were broken. But each moment, no matter how apparently mundane, takes up its own space in our lives, and is as worthy of our attention as the “stronger” moments. Our individual connectedness to these moments, our willingness to be grounded firmly in our experiences, and our mastery of language are what determine the quality, impact, and uniqueness of our art.
In an essay entitled “A Poet is Made, Not Born,” Tina Blue writes, “The more carefully you attend to observation, to really experiencing the complexity and intensity of the world's details, the less likely you are to view your experience of life through the lens of cliché” (sic). Cliché serves a purpose in our language. It is a way we are taught to express an idea so it will be readily and commonly understood. But cliché is not natural to us. It is learned. I think of my nearly three-year-old niece, Justine, who sings a famous Christmas song this way:
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
How much fun it is to ride
Horse and soap and sleigh! Hey!
Justine doesn’t know the actual lyrics to this song, and she doesn’t care. She has complete faith in her ability to translate what comes at her from the radio or the CD player. No one has yet told her, “No, Justine, it goes like this.” Justine has perfectly and confidently expressed her experience of the song.
We have an advantage over Justine, however, and that is our mastery of language. If we can learn to ground ourselves in experience, and if we continue to study the beautiful English language, we can either avoid cliché by discovering our own words, phrases, colors, and distinctions, or we can exploit cliché, by subverting it, or employing it in the interests of satire or to provoke debate.
Language, like experience, is fluid. Words are constantly being added or subtracted from the English lexicon. There is no possible way for language to be completely used up. Like experience, it is not finite. How can one completely quantify the sensory and emotional impact of an experience? How can one learn and employ every word and nuance available in our language? We can’t. As poets, this is to our advantage; we can each express our particular perception of an experience through disciplined and creative use of language. Because each of us is unique, because each of our experiences is interpreted through our own unique conscious and subconscious filters, because language always carries the potential for unique expression, we can create unique poetry.
This is not for the faint-hearted. It is not for the easily jaded, or for the cynical. It takes courage to create art even in the best of circumstances; it takes even more if we have voices around us whispering, or even shouting, that there is nothing we can express that has not already been expressed. This is an artificial, external voice, not our own, internal truth. Let’s dig out our truths. Let’s not cast judgment on our experiences. Let’s use it all: our pain, love, abuse, fear, guilt, bodies, friends, hate, joy, everything. Let’s seize our courage and put it to use, injecting hope, creativity, and beauty into a frightened world, with language that we choose. Let’s learn from our predecessors, but not be intimidated by them.
Do I believe I have anything new to say?
Who wants to join me?