Pondering Poetry’s Persistent ElusivenessMarch 8, 2012
I love poetry, just not in the station. • Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector in Hugo (2011)
May Sarton, poet, memoirist, and novelist, wrote that “[w]hen one’s not writing poems—and I’m not at the moment—you wonder how you ever did it. It’s like another country you can’t reach.” I do not know where poetic inspiration comes from even though I can often identify the origin of my poems. What I don’t know is how to make inspiration arrive on my schedule. I want to reach poetic country when I’m ready to write. I don’t want to have to wait for it to ambush me and carry me off when I’m trying to do something else. I want to board its train of thought and get off at its destination when I have time to take the trip. I admire the discipline of those who approach versifying as daily vocation, but I am often distracted by necessity and duty and even by the bright shininess of other equally-tempting-yet-somehow-more-concrete creativity (yes, even this is that), but as much as I might want it, I do not always have the luxury of contemplative time for the mysterious miracles of poetic coalescence.
Some years ago, well-meaning colleagues told me that I should decide whether I wanted to move ahead in my career or wanted to continue being (or trying to be) a poet and an artist, spare time activities that were perceived to be taking time from other, more traditional, academic pursuits. Please note that I was not poeticizing and artmaking while I ought to have been doing my work. I was doing all my required work and then some. But no one can work all the time. Running, playing soccer, cooking, gardening, watching football or baseball, reading, walking the dog, taking a hike, going to the movie—these pursuits also take time, but bring less criticism. Perhaps it is the intellectual work involved in some pursuits that shifts perception that the brainpower they consume could be put to better—more useful—use. And then, of course, there is the product: visible, useless evidence of my timewastery.
Author Ken Kesey said that “[y]ou don’t lead by pointing and telling people someplace to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” I decided to ignore the well-meaning advice and to instead begin to integrate my passions, taking my inspiration from Mary Catherine Bateson (Composing a Life, 1989) who describes an integrated life as one in which “we are nurtured by our work and combine different kinds of tasks so they feed each other–mostly–instead of competing.” It was not—is not—an easy integration even though my artistic pursuits make a case for it, representing a synthesis of creative and scholarly activities that allows me to combine my vocation as a teacher educator with my creative obsessions, providing visible evidence of what can be accomplished using bits and pieces of time that are all that is sometimes available in a life bounded by personal and professional obligations. But still, why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier—and better—to either relax and do the mindless, or to care about something that matters more and do something that’s visibly—and usefully—productive? Less fecklessly frivolous?
Perhaps. But then there’s this: I use my creative work in my teaching and I think this matters increasingly in a world where data and accountability are watchwords at every level of education and where it is easy to lose sight of why schools matter—really—to the people who attend them. What does it mean to view my work as an educator as driven by more than pragmatic necessity, to see it is an integral part of my creative expressiveness? How does one kind of creativity feed another in a symbiotic dance of significance? The answers are complicated, but the questions are ones I must continue to ask.
And finally, here’s a poem. I know its origin. Although poetry often comes to me while I’m working on the pragmatic realities of my professional life, it’s everywhere and it doesn’t care if you’re looking for it. I found this one when I walked by a building in Chicago labeled “The Poetry Foundation.” I stopped, and as I sat inside surrounded by shelves full of other poets’ work, I wrote this poem:
The Foundation of Poetry
W-OZ, November 2011
It’s silly to be crying.
No one is dead.
I am not sad.
So I suppose that these are tears of joy,
but who cries over poetry
except the poets whose
rhyme or meter or
perfect word won’t come,
or those who find resonance and
comfort in the poet’s lines
that lead to consolation,
or those whose broken hearts
find edges matched
by jagged others’ penning,
inky residue that sticks the
heart in place
and holds it still to
contemplate a future
Who would cry in such a place
except the I of lonely
wandering in fields bereft
of poets and their words.
So when I find them here,
so unexpected and so welcoming,
the silly I doth drip.
Poetry inspires. Poetry connects. Poetry instructs. Poetry comforts. Poetry has many purposes. And poetry is elusive. I need it today and cannot find it anywhere.
Whether or not you’re a poet, where do you find the poetry in life?
Poetry is life distilled.• Gwendolyn Brooks