February 13, 2015 by Julia
I usually skim poetry to get a sense of how quickly the poet makes his or her point. No epic, esoteric wordplay for me! (Also no flowery, cheesy, syrupy generic stuff; but that goes without saying, right?) Unless it’s short, punchy and sensational (in either the controversial sense, or in the filling up of my senses), I don’t read it. I like when a poem conjures up a scene so vividly that you can smell and hear it, transported by invisible words that draw no attention to themselves. I also like poetry that punches me right in the gut with emotion, or ignites a righteous anger on behalf of a people with a rhythm, a chant. I like to get it upon my first reading.
But I realize that some poems take more time, and the slow reveal of meaning can enhance the reader’s experience. This has been true for me in almost everything I’ve read by Shakespeare; he stacked meanings on top of meanings while entertaining everyone’s socks off. (Note to self: Shakespeare is not just for high school English students. Put him in your book pile.)
Shakespeare aside, though – sometimes I want a poet to say it plainly, and I get the sense that I am not alone in this sentiment, right or wrong. Is the challenge of unraveling a tricky poem the reason that the general public doesn’t read many of them? Or is it the lack of story? Disconnected vignettes are allowed to float on and off the page, and we are left to connect the dots…or not. Spell it out for us: what are you talking about, really?
The poets won’t always put it plainly, though. Thank God.
And life is not so simple that we can ever fully understand it or master it, thank God.
As motivated as I’ve been to get more practical in my approach to life, I have to remember that it’s not all under my control. Poetry is often mysterious and so too is life, and if you try to extract that quicksilver quality from either, you will be left with something about as interesting as a refrigerator manual. (Only a helpful analogy if you find them as boring as I do…no offense to all you manual-readers out there.)
There’s that famous Leonard Cohen lyric,
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Only, like, the most gorgeous sentiment EVER.
So what can we do to embrace the poetic, mysterious, unpredictable side of life? There are two approaches that both strike me as being valuable:
- Accept the mysterious; surrender the things we can’t control.
It’s so, so easy to suffer the delusion that we are in control of every aspect of our lives – epecially during the moments that we are feeling empowered and on top of things. But if we never got sideswiped by life, how could we ever have compassion for others who are suffering? How could we ever be humble enough to experience intimacy with others? Jack’s preschool was canceled AGAIN a few days ago and I seriously considered a vent-fest on Facebook, which is usually against my personal credo. But when I could go with it, the day turned out okay. Whether or not he has preschool is out of my control; it is no one’s fault if the roads are icy or if he is sick with fever despite our best attempts to stay healthy. There was no quick-fix; there was just surrender and acceptance.
I was grumpy about it for sure, but I announced my grumpiness to everyone – “No, I will NOT make pancakes today! Jack is once again not going to school and I am grumpy!!” – and then made the best of the situation. In this case, I watched the recorded Grammys with the kids on the couch, which is highly unusual for me – to watch one of my shows with the kids around. Fiona and I had a fun running commentary going, as well as delightful fits of giggles and high kicks during Pharrell’s Happy. Once her two hour school delay was up, Jack and I went about our day, and soon enough everything was unexpectedly good.
By the same token, I am better off accepting that I will not always understand life or people or even myself. I love to take apart situations and people and examine the pieces under different lights, but there will always be parts that defy explanation, and that is awe-inspiring as hell. Take God, for example. (Oh, hello! says God. Did you just use hell as an expletive and then mention me two words later? That’s cool.) I believe in Him, and the fact that I believe Him to be the most mysterious life-force of all makes Him all that much more believable, if you catch my drift. In fact, an acceptance of God’s mystery is the only way I can continue to believe in Him; if I had only the culturally outdated laws of the Bible to go on, I could never reconcile my belief in God with the instinctual beliefs of my heart. I have to believe that God accepts love of all kinds, and not in some disapproving “Yes, but…” way. Well, you know I could go on about that forever – the point is, I need room for God in my life, which means I must also leave room for mystery.
Leaving room for the unknown is also a good way to respect others: we have to accept that other people’s inner lives are always going to be a mystery to us (to some degree) because we cannot literally be them.
- Make time for beauty for its own sake (not just as a means to an end).
You have to stop every so often and just take things in. You have to remember the things that you have always loved, especially the long-neglected things from your youth – chances are, you can make time for them again, and you still love them. I have always loved the arts, reading, nature, travel…and whether or not a trip to Italy is possible at the moment, I can look at photos and keep a book of travel hopes for the future. If such a project can bring current pleasure, it is worth it.
What profession could be more romantic, more impractical than that of a poet? But it is what we long for, sometimes – art for art’s sake. Our desire for art, however we define it, is one the most wonderful things about being human.
On that note (while bringing it down a notch), I’ve been all over Pinterest lately, pinning beautiful illustrations and quotations and dresses and food, and who knows if I will ever put those pinned items “to good use,” but any Pinterest addict knows that is hardly the point. We just like to appreciate certain things, and to arrange them into collections that we can come back to at any point for a good dose of loveliness.
I’ve written enough, no doubt! (Always.) It’s time for some poetry and art and maybe a music suggestion or two. I hope the idea of interweaving the poetic and the practical into your life is a helpful one.
The retreat by Marge Piercy
Come back to me.
Crawl from the cotton batting
tunnels of your obsessions,
the involuted maze without a center
an entrance but no exit
except all at once.
If you but shut your eyes and rise
you would sail out
like a red balloon.
You are a jeweled spider
spinning an embroidered web
but it is not to catch prey:
it surrounds you.
You stalk and trap yourself.
As hunger wizens you
you spin faster and faster
until the web
darkens your world.
You stumble across a field
in a mist so thick
it chokes you. The fog
moves with you. It is only
six feet thick.
Come out to me, come out.
There are no miracles here.
Only light, sky, soil, air,
a woman with her arms open.
These ravens feasting
on your wounds, they are your pets.
You called them from the cliffs
where the broken fortresses
of old defeats look picturesque.
Worry is work like any other
but no product except itself.
Come back. Let the simple light
enter and scrub your mind.
Lines written in the days of growing darkness
by Mary Oliver
Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
who would cry out
to the petals on the ground
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married
to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do
if the love one claims to have for the world
So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,
though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.
I’ve been listening to this fun, quirky, dreamy (but energetic) group The Do. I had no idea they were so beautiful; it’s hardly fair! Check them out:
Credo by Matthew Rohrer
I believe there is something else
entirely going on but no single
person can ever know it,
so we fall in love.
It could also be true
that what we use everyday
to open cans was something
much nobler, that we’ll never recognize.
I believe the woman sleeping beside me
doesn’t care about what’s going on outside,
and her body is warm with trust
which is a great beginning.
Love this gorgeous song about death by Hozier (featuring Karen Cowley):
The Tent by Rumi
Outside, the freezing desert night,
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.
Friend, our closeness is this:
anywhere you put your foot, feel me
in the firmness under you.
How is it with this love,
I see your world and not you?
Listen to presences inside poems,
Let them take you where they will.
Follow those private hints,
and never leave the premises.