Why write poetry?
This question is itself a cliché. For decades, centuries even, those of us who write have gone around muttering it under our breath. Sometimes we debate it over dinner and a glass of wine. Often a classroom holds the awkward silence of disinterested students after the teacher says the question aloud. And in the quietest corner of some souls the question drops into a journal like a stone on water, the result of a therapist’s suggestion to write down the pain.
For me, there are three possible answers to this question:
1. I write for myself. This is most often uttered by teens and sad people and those deluded few who have never read anything worthwhile enough to realize that most art is meant to be perused by someone other than oneself. If one shoves the writing into a closet, this is completely fine and I forgive you.
2. I write for everyone else. This is common among highly-educated folks, those who’ve spent a fortune on degrees and contest entries. These people want to be famous and love playing with the alphabet. This is also fine, as long as one doesn’t expect one’s mother to understand one’s latest work.
3. Last, there are those people who started out as #1, moved into #2, and then ended up somewhere completely different, realizing that though they love to play with words, they want even more for their words to touch others. The # 3s have had a hard time of it, spending money on contests, writing and sweating into the night with depressive misery. However, the best part of being a #3 (hey, can you tell which number I consider myself?) is the realization that art is meant to communicate something of the human condition to another person. The balance between self-absorption and the desperation for fame sometimes creates a poem that is worth reading.
In the recent issue of Touch: The Journal of Healing, there are several poems that reach this balance (disclaimer: I have two poems in this issue, so I’m biased), poems that talk about something so personal one almost cannot fit into the doorway of the poet’s soul. Tina Hacker’s poem, “Cutting It,” is one such poem. It deals with madness and birth and the desperate scrabbling of the individuals involved in this tragedy as they try to rescue a child from the depths of oblivion. The best part of the poem, for me, was the skillful handling of metaphor. Hacker used this device to convey the sense of loss inherent in mental deterioration: “he pushed out all her strength / and grew fragile as lace.” Not only does this passage refer to the act of giving birth, it also shows how the mother loses herself. In the next part of the poem the mother turns into scissors and cuts “holes into the lace,” leaving her parents to rescue her child as best they could. The grandfather slaps “the dust of madness / off his shirt and pants.” I have had a few bad years of my own, but never lost grip with reality, yet the poet still manages to convey the sorrow and frustration of this family in a way that I could understand, deeply. This is a poem that could have descended into either linguistic masturbation or navel-gazing dullness, but it doesn’t. It is perfect and wonderful.
Another poem in this issue that I loved was James S. Wilk’s “Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig.” I have never been a doctor, never even wanted to be one. In this poem, the narrator speaks about this woman as she practices medicine despite losing her hearing. The poet tells up bluntly how “She discarded her stethoscope” and then describes how the doctor’s fingers traced along the babies’ chests, “feeling for murmurs.” The poet then compares her facility with touch to a butterfly, giving the narrative a sense of lightness and joy, making a miracle out of loss. I could imagine what that must have felt like for her as she lost the one sense that was most important and necessary for her to practice her calling. Yet, the poem never descends into melancholy or cliche. Lovely work.
Another excellent poem, Larina Warnock’s, “Hospital Hush,” begins with a contradiction. Anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital knows that it is filled with noise, even in the dead of night; there is not such thing as “Hospital Hush.” The poem narrates the story of a parent watching over his/her gravely-ill child. The delightful thing about this poem is how the description of the noises profoundly contradicts the silent fear and sorrow of the parent. The very nature of those sounds (monitors, injections, doors clacking) illuminates the lack of news: the parent does not know if the child will get better. The silence of unknowing dwarfs the physical noise, creating a disharmony that is nearly unbearable. All this from a simple poem. The use of clear statments, “The door to room 24 in 10-North / of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital / clacks,” interspersed with parenthetical comments, “(no matter how / softly),” creates the reality for the reader. There is the real noise and then there are the murmurings the parent cannot help in the silence of his/her worry. Brilliant.
Unfortunately, not every poem in this issue speaks to me. For example, Kelly Grace Smith’s poem, “white lotus II,” seems to overflow with abstraction and superfluous language. It begins: “A single blossom / of bliss.” This is fine, except what is the “bliss?” Is is a person? A love-affair? A act of passion? I expected the metaphor to speak to me but in the second stanza, the reader is encouraged to believe that the narrator him/herself is the bloom: “I bloom only / in the dark of night.” How can one be both bliss and a bloom? The metaphor is broken over two concepts, neither of which are entirely believable. Unfortunately the poem continues in this vein, stumbling over such clichés as “beauty” and “ecstasy” and “suffering.” The most concrete detail is the reference to a “mountaintop.” Where is the human element? What part of this poem gives me something to which I can relate? I had no idea what was happening because the poem was composed entirely of pretty words and linebreaks. The poem might mean something to the poet but sadly it keeps readers from sharing the secret.
In the end, why even bother to ask “why write poetry?” Why sing? Why paint? Every piece of art begins with the soul of the artist, the voice of the poet wanting to get out. Sometimes it’s drivel and sometimes it’s a work so profound that the least one can do is share it with others, connect to a greater human community so that some reader in the world may take joy of it. If there’s even the slightest possibility of that happening I say, why the hell not?