Friday, September 4, 2009

The Life and Breath of Poetry


For some reason, tonight some haunting words came back to me, to weave their way through the vast complexities of my soul. When I first heard them I felt a warming pain that both stung and comforted me in the same moment. These were not just words . . . they were a beckoning of the surrendering to our own agendas. They were more than syllables, vowels, and punctuation. They were a mourning for the loss of selflessness. These words hit me, and hit me hard (I love when things do this!). I'll admit, I'm moved by things quite easily. I frequently find beauty in the subtleties of life. But this was one of the most beautiful statements I had heard in a long time.

The words of which I am speaking are from Elizabeth Alexander -- the Inaugural poet from this last January. In her poem "Praise Song for the Day" she spoke this line:

". . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance."

This may mean little to nothing to most people, but for me, this is such a profound and poignant thought. To me, it's incredibly beautiful. I was not aware of this until just this evening, as I was reading some articles on Alexander, but it seems that many, if not most people were quite underwhelmed and even bored with her poem. They felt it was too prosaic and one even said, "bureaucratic." Well, that's the nature of poetry: it's a purely subjective art and speaks to some, while not others. It is practically impossible to truly judge a poem as "good" or "bad," though my professors did not seem to have this problem with me. :)

Poetry is my first love, and will always be my greatest love (aside from my husband, of course). Poetry is life and breath . . . it relfects the truth and beauty of our world and our experiences. To see someone's poetry battered to hell, like I just saw her's, I begin to feel very angered. Perhaps it hits a bit too close to home. I've had my share of that too. And though I don't looooove every poem I read, I can always find at least one good thing in it. And even if I couldn't, I know that it doesn't make it a "bad" poem, simply because it's not my taste. I think a more accurate gauge of whether or not a poem is good or bad is whether or not the poet crafted it from an honest place. But that, unfortunately, is also impossible to ascertain.

In my poetry, I most often try to create vivid imagery, in order to portray a "truth" of humanity. If anything was hammered home into my skull during my years of college, it was to "show" and not "tell." Excellent advice; a tip of my hat to all my old professors out there! And probably the first thing that I ever learned as I began my journey into writing (which was when I was nine), was that a writer is NEVER satisfied. No matter how many drafts we go through, it is never quite good enough for us. While I may be satisfied with parts, I am never fully pleased with the whole.

When I read others' work I very often wish that I had thought of that. I wish that I had been that insightful and creative. The aforementioned line of Alexander's is one of those wishes. It blew me away. Love with no need to pre-empt grievance . . . I had to really let that one sink in for awhile, and spin it around till I had viewed it from all angles. I'm still pondering the full meaning of it, quite honestly. The most basic understanding of it I think, is that of unconditional love. Love that needs not to be won or earned. Love that exists in spite of differences and accusations. Love that comes before a reason to love. Love that does not need to block or stifle criticism. But love that allows openness for all emotions, all freedoms, all circumstances.

When I heard her poem on that January afternoon I immediatly thought of Walt Whitman, whom often used the idea of "song" in his poetry. There was a similar tone, I thought, as in some of Whitman's work -- the calling upon of people to unite, and lift up one another in appreciation of the beauty of the human condition. There is a hopefulness to both Alexander's poem and that of Whitman's work.

I heard Alexander speak some time after the inauguration about her poem. She explained that when she said "praise song" she meant that as one modified noun -- a song of praise. The way in which I interpreted it when I heard it was that she was giving the command to praise the entity of "song." That's the other nature of poetry: it's open for interpretation. And while I appreciate the way in which she meant it, I sort of like my own piddly interpretation better. I like the idea of "song" being an entity to which we are offering our praise. It's that transcendentalist in me! I love to personify objects and ideas in writing. That technique lends itself quite well to poetry. It is a useful way in which to create many layers of meaning.

Like every person, the best poems (and this is subjective) have multiple layers, from which you can constantly find new meanings. This is what makes poetry so alive . . . that it breathes and takes upon a spirit and soul of its own. Corny? Perhaps. It may be the nerd in me. And trust me, I AM a nerd. :) But the fact that most poetry does not have a defined interpretation laid out for the reader allows speculations, discussions, and ponderings to continue indefinitely. It is a continous searching for the truth behind the metaphor. What could be more alive than that?

I am thankful for the insight of authors and poets. There is so much knowledge to be gained . . . and I am not only speaking of knowledge of facts and figures. There is knowledge of humanity, of society, of ourselves, and of the soul. They offer a looking glass -- an altered reflection, showing us not only what we were, what we are . . . but also what we can become.


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