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Making the Ordinary Sacred April 17, 2018

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In my last blog post, I talked about how poetry is able to articulate, through its form and language, aspects of experience that are hard to articulate – aspects like love or grief.  But another great thing about poetry is its ability to make the ordinary sacred, by focusing on ordinary life and making it into something special, or reminding us how special our most ordinary moments are.  This is to say that poetry is good for the big things, the things we think about alot (love, grief), but it is also great on the smaller things, the things we forget, the things we want to remember but don’t (alas!) write down.  Therefore, now that we are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a poem that I love, where what is ordinary is memorialized and maybe even transformed.

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, the Detroit-born Philip Levine.

Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
walking alone. Back panting
to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare
fall on, the damp piles of clothes,
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.

 

This is an amazing moment, a remarkable experience, but it’s the kind of thing one might forget about if it hadn’t been written down – going hand in hand under the water of the Detroit River with a stranger, a “Polish highschool girl.”  There is something so lovely and deep about this memory, despite the description of the river as full of “car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.”  We hear about a “perfect calm dark / as far as there was sight,” and the sense is that Levine and his stranger-friend are buoyed in this darkness and calm by the water, and are swimming towards a light – “ore boats, maybe, or smokers / washing alone.”  There is something desolate about these images, while at the same time something gritty and stark and beautiful.  The moment is seemingly ordinary, but something about the language – the motif of light and dark, the water, “the final moonless atmosphere / that was this world” – gives the poem a spiritual and even philosophical intensity, something almost metaphysical, something having to do with experience and memory.  Levine has chosen to memorialize this event, and it’s not hard to see why – there was about this event something so vivid and alive, something youthful and fun.  It makes me wonder if the memory is bittersweet for the older poet looking back on it, or if the memory still retains its taste of pure amazed joy.

As we end National Poetry Month, I hope you are able to find similarly intense and vivid poems that reminds us why we read and write poetry in the first place, and that perhaps might inspire you to put your pen to paper and memorialize something, no matter how large or how small.

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Philip Levine

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A Poem About (Messy, Visceral) Love for National Poetry Month April 6, 2018

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April is National Poetry Month, which means I have the opportunity to write about one of my favorite topics.  Poetry, for me, is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and expressive of the art forms.  While visual art uses the world that we see, and music uses the sense of our hearing, poetry uses both (seeing = the arrangement of the poem on the page; hearing = the rhythm of the poem on the page, or hearing the poem read out loud).  But what poetry uses more than anything else is language.  And that’s why I love it so much.  Don’t get me wrong – fiction and non-fiction are also constructed out of language, but poetry for me is a different use of language, and it can gesture towards aspects of experience that are hard to talk about or explain, including love and grief.  Here, for example is a poem a friend of mine shared recently on Facebook.  I read it with the shocked awareness of something being said about love and grief that would be hard to articulate in another art form.  Here is the poem:

Marriage

By Ellen Bass
When you finally, after deep illness, lay
the length of your body on mine, isn’t it
like the strata of the earth, the pressure
of time on sand, mud, bits of shell, all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.
How to bear the weight, with every
flake of bone pressed in. Then, how to bear when
the weight is gone, the way a woman
whose neck has been coiled with brass
can no longer hold it up alone. Oh love,
it is balm, but also a seal. It binds us tight
as the fur of a rabbit to the rabbit.
When you strip it, grasping the edge
of the sliced skin, pulling the glossy membranes
apart, the body is warm and limp. If you could,
you’d climb inside that wet, slick skin
and carry it on your back. This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding,
not the bright effervescence of champagne
spilling over the throat of the bottle. This visceral
bloody union that is love, but
beyond love. Beyond charm and delight
the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the petals torn off the branches of love,
the dizzy hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.

Although the poem is titled “Marriage,” I think it could speak to anyone who has experienced love both as a “balm” and a “seal.”  Here, Ellen Bass is trying to get beyond notions of love that are “neat and white and lacy.”  She is trying through language to gesture towards the messy and visceral aspects of love, the way it reaches us down to the roots and changes our lives in unalterable ways.  Love, for Bass, is like “the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.”  It is real, and therefore not always pretty, but its power moves within us, through happiness and (maybe even more so?) through loss.  Love is such a rich and complicated thing that it contains

                                                                   all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.

When people love each other, they are loving a person formed by time, and time is full of so many things, including dreams, quarrels, chatter, silence, and even things like weather and trees and leaves and rock.  When we love someone, we are loving an embodiment of the world.  This is not a pretty poem, but a poem doesn’t have to be pretty.  Instead, it needs to be honest about its subject matter.  Reading it is therefore bracing, but also energizing.  I hope during this month, and beyond, that you are able to find poems that you find energizing, exciting, and moving, full of rich language and imagery.

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Ellen Bass

The Poetry We Can Find in the World March 20, 2018

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For the upcoming National Poetry Month, which starts in April, I’ve been thinking about places we find poetry outside of poetry books.  Of course, if you think about it, the subject of poetry can be very wide, for poetry is often used as a metaphor to describe a moment of beauty or clarity that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the verbal art of poetry proper, but instead is related to our experience.  For example, this morning, driving to work, I saw a group of black birds rise up into the sky, and the scene to me was like poetry – there was something graceful about it, even moving, how they all rose up together as is borne up by a great wind, and how quickly it happened, and as quickly moved out of view.  Of course, I wasn’t reading a poem about birds, I was seeing birds in flight, but something about the experience struck me as poetic.  But what does this even mean?

John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political economist from the 19th century, also had some interesting thoughts about poetry.  In an essay he wrote called “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” Mill argued that poetry should not be defined based on “metrical composition” alone, “metrical composition” referring to the way in which poetry is often concerned with the rhythm of a sentence or a line.  But Mill thought defining poetry exclusively based on its focus on rhythm was not true to the spirit of what we mean when we talk about poetry in the wider sense.  Mill goes on to say in the essay that he does think poetry contains a “difference” that sets it apart from other experiences, though this difference can be found in other art forms as well, including prose, music, sculpture, painting and architecture, and maybe even outside those art forms.  So what is this difference?

Here is how Mill describes this difference:

“The object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions;—and therein is poetry sufficiently distinguished from what Wordsworth affirms to be its logical opposite—namely, not prose, but matter of fact, or science. The one addresses itself to the belief; the other, to the feelings. The one does its work by convincing or persuading; the other, by moving. The one acts by presenting a proposition to the understanding; the other, by offering interesting objects of contemplation to the sensibilities.”

So for Mill, the opposite of poetry is not prose.  The opposite is instead “matter of fact, or science.”  For Mill, there is a wide gulf that separates the things that persuade us (having to do with beliefs, facts, and even reason), and the things that move us (having to do with feelings, emotions).  Indeed, Mill believe there is an intimate connection between the world of poetry and the world of feelings.  Poetry refers to an experience during which we are moved, during which our feelings are stirred and we are pulled out of our habitual thoughts to contemplate something interesting, different, even sublime.  Poetry slows us down, so that we can focus on something that shakes us, that makes us feel wonder.

Although Mill does distinguish poetry from science, I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that science can also be poetic.  I’m sure readers of the late Stephen Hawking would agree that there is something awe-inducing about contemplating the universe itself, which causes us to feel wonder at the sheer fact of existence at all!

So, dear reader, what are some moments in your life when you have a poetic experience, when you experience the poetry of your own life?  Does it have to do with a relationship, of seeing a friend or loved one smiling or laughing?  Does it have to do with a moment in nature, noticing the color of the sky or marveling at the growth of a certain tree?  Does it happen during peak moments, like a wedding or a funeral, or does it happen in quiet moments, like cooking dinner with a spouse?  Either way, I hope that during this National Poetry Month you are able to feel and experience and see the poetry in your own life – and maybe even write a poem about it!

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