Why write poetry? Review of "Touch: The Journal of Healing" Issue 2

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?

review of The Flea

Review of the inaugural issue of The Flea

I spent April reading and writing poetry in honor of National Poetry Month. To my dismay, most of it was dreck. I had poems emailed to me, read them on blogs, online workshops, in journals, and investigated some new poets I’d not read before. My disappointment nearly crushed the life out of my pencil. Several days ago I read a few poems by Carol Ann Duffy thinking, how cool that the UK’s new poet laureate is a woman. Perhaps I wasn’t working from a large enough sample size, but the three poems I’d read were enough to convince me that I would never willingly read more: “I sank like a stone / Into the still, deep waters / of late middle age,” said her poem “Mrs Rip Van Winkle” and after reading that, so did I. And just yesterday I read a poem by Ferlinghetti (“Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]”) and was astonished by the pointlessness of it: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.” Uh, sure. Why the hell not? Just throw out alliteration and assonance and while you’re at it, forget that metaphor is the single most useful device in the English language.

This morning I woke up and checked my email in despair, not really even hoping anymore for good writing to magically appear and appease my underfed poetic muse. Instead of a poem, I received notification that someone new was following me on Twitter. My hungry muse whimpered in dismay. I didn’t know who it was since Twitter does not tell you the real names of your followers, just their userid’s which usually look like spam, only spelled more weirdly. I clicked on the profile. It still looked like spam, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t better written than the poems I’d been reading. The tweet said: Dancing with Metaphysical Fleas. What? Cool. I followed the link: http://www.the-flea.com/ and nearly had a heart attack. It was poetry! Holy moly, it was good poetry!

Upon further investigation, I discovered that The Flea is a brand new online journal (excuse me, broadsheet) full of the most interesting and creative poetry I’d read all month (outside of a few blogs and several good online workshop participants, which is code for unpublished poetry that will never see the light of day in a journal if the PTB have anything to say about it). Really, really good stuff. The first two lines of Catherine Chandler’s poem, “Body of Evidence” were delightful: “At odds about the odds the oxen sit. / Intransigent, they just don’t give a whit” Whoa! It rhymes! It uses iambic pentameter! It cleverly leads you to think the last word of the second line is going to be “shit” but then throws you over the connotation cliff with “whit” instead. I loved it. Even better was that the rest of the poem didn’t disappoint. It discusses point of view and god in a way that is both interesting and musically lyrical. I felt such relief. I’d opened the link to The Flea and been magically transported to a poet’s castle where the emperor’s new clothes were actually made of fabric instead of wishful thinking.

Now, I’m not a formal poetry nerd. Really, I’m not. I like free verse and have probably read more of it in my life than anything done up in pretty meter, so with great delight I clicked next on Rose Kelleher’s poem, “Global Solutions Architect.” I am married to a software engineering genius so the lingo in her poem was completely awesome and geekishly nifty. Yes, I know what a proton is and sure, I actually do know what a dynamic library does. Cool so far. Then her poem smacked me upside the head with this line: “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” Whoa! Was that an allusion? It was! It was! I grew so excited I read the rest of the poem thinking: Wow. Someone adroitly compares the nature of human intelligence and what we have made to the idea of a creator while not boring me to death. How could I not love a poem that says this in one place: “earth to the moon, and moon to spoon and croon,” and this in another: “breathe in, breathe out, iambic ones and zeros”? And then, spectacularly, it ends with chaos theory: “some engineer / who chuckles softly, sending a vibration / that fails to alter history the way / a butterfly-wing would, or so they say.”

I read “De Caelis” by Temple Cone, marveling at the experimental format and the way the poet rhymed “sky” with π. I read “Neutrinos and the holy spirit” by Geoff Page, pissed that I didn’t think of comparing the holy spirit to invisible particles in a poem. Why didn’t I write that? I listened to “Sonnet 27 from The Dark Lady” by Jennifer Reeser who managed to fit the words “Scheherazade,” “extenuated,” and “gracile” effortlessly into the sonnet form. I read the rest of the excellent poems found there (too many to discuss here without sounding like a brainless fangirl) and decided that the editor, Paul Stevens, succeeded in his goal, stated in the editorial note: “Whatever we think that Metaphysical poetry might be, most will agree that the possible range is very wide indeed. But for the purposes of The Flea, the term simply means that I will be receptive to good poems that might elsewhere struggle to win a hearing. . .” My starveling muse has finally eaten her fill and shut up. And the silence is filled with something much better than the clichés that had been fogging up my reading glasses.

I have no excuses anymore for laziness. I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing really worth reading being published and I was wrong. Go, go to The Flea. Read it and be grateful. I’ll be collecting all the useless print journals I’ve got sitting around and firing up the barbecue. Maybe the light of the flames will inspire me. At least I know that there is still poetry in the world that speaks to the mind and heart without navigating through the navel first and miring us all in the lint so often found therein.