A few years ago, I heard a poet describe writing poetry as “similar to going for a long, slow walk and collecting treasures – like stones or knick knacks or pieces of driftwood – and coming home, emptying one’s pockets, and laying them out carefully on a table.” One might turn over a shell, examine it, and notice a particularly rough, broken edge – or a smooth, colorful interior created by pressure, water, time. Turning over these treasures found on a walk, one starts to notice things about them; sometimes, they seem to relate to each other and maybe a story is formed or the bigger picture meaning becomes evident. Other times, they simply evoke particular emotions or strike the collector as interesting for an unsuspected reason. When one writes poetry, one collects pieces, fragments from the day only to examine and reflect on them later on. A new meaning is applied to something seemingly small or insignificant. Our senses tell us what is happening – and we write about it later to find out what really transpired, what we really know about that experience. Every experience is meaningful according to our own lens or application of understanding.This is partly why I fear that poetry has become undervalued, underrepresented, and forgotten: as a culture, we dismiss reflection. We are the first to hold others accountable for wrongs in particular, but we are the last to turn inward and quietly examine ourselves. Of course, this is then also why poetry is so important. It is an antidote available to us that could aid in curing this blasé attitude towards the emotional and empathic aspects of life in particular. Poetry is at war with immediate gratification, money, impatience, arrogance, ‘un-feeling’, fraudulent concepts of ambition. Unfortunately, these ideas can be characteristically associated with misconstrued, but common, notions of ‘success.’ So this isn’t exactly a conversation about poetry – this is about analyzing what drives us, what it means that we reject poetic mentalities – and why we are so blinded by destructive forces.Poetic mentality offers us richer moments (and inevitably, richer existences), exercises in humility, and serves as a comforting companion when we experience pain - or as a vessel of truth when we know we are going through a moment of bliss, as well. Without forcing statistics or definitive ‘answers’, poetics are a way of knowing ‘truth’ with us – we are not merely a receptacle of it; rather, we are with it and it is with us while we come to understand.
James Wright’s masterpiece ‘To The Muse’ is one of the most painful poems I have read. He manages to capture, somehow, the inexplicable unfairness of his wife’s struggle with breast cancer. In particular, he does not run away from the vivid descriptions of the surgical procedure that she undergoes. The deliberately uncomfortable word choice demands that the reader know about the strikingly human aspect of the unwarranted shame that is inflicted upon his wife. We know at once about his own pain as he watches her go through this, and we know about her own physical torment as well. Wright brings the reader into this horrific experience partly by incorporating gesture – he has mastered the most ideal moments of gesture in this piece. The words “Oh Jenny” interrupt the narrative, and at once, in your gut, you are invited to know his exasperated, injured self and the profound love he has for his wife. Wright submits to the pain vulnerably in this piece. Just in those two words – “Oh Jenny” – he tells us that he is ‘spent’ – he is not sure what to say to capture how sorry he is, or how badly he wants to take away the injustice of the world. And as he says, “It is all right.” in the opening line, we know at once that it is not all right. It might call forth images of a father telling an injured child that everything is okay, simply for the sake of saying it. This couple’s shared experience of profound pain and unfairness shows the reader the strength of their relationship but does not let the reader avoid the bitterness or reality of the situation, either. This is why this is such a striking poem. Wright does not lie to us – he refuses to sugarcoat this event – instead, he pulls the reader right into the darkest corners of his life.
To The Muse –
It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn’t
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:
You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.
Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don’t have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.
It’s awkward a while. Still, it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don’t
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.
That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny.
I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn’t, I can’t bear it
Either, I don’t blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of black sand,
I don’t blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.