by Merle Hoffmnan
I had gone to bed in my habitual way — very late, with some difficulty, the muted sounds of C-Span droning in the background. Hours after, dazed with sleep, I heard it. Something about the grass being “the handkerchief of the Lord.” The metaphor was so arresting that I was unsure whether it was the product of my own imaginative longings or the result of a dream.
The wondering woke me enough to realize that I was hearing the part of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in which he answers a child who asks, “What is the grass?”
. . . it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name some way in the corners, that
we may see and remark and say, Whose?
The image of the creator as a designer who drops his handiwork for name recognition was extraordinary in itself. Even more remarkable was that this reading was being broadcast from the East Room of the White House. Fully awake now, I realized I was watching a replay of a “Millennium Evening” celebrating April as National Poetry Month. Three poets laureate — Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, and Bob Hass — were reading from the best of American poetry. Soon the words of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams filled my bedroom. Then came the powerfully moving Sylvia Plath, whose love poem to her child begins:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new. . .
Populating the zeitgeist with explosions of expression, poetry and poets seem to be everywhere. There are poetry bouts, where the poets alternate reading poems up to five minutes long for a panel of judges who score them with points for each “round,” as in a boxing match; poetry slams, where teams or individuals who may or may not be accomplished poets compete for trophies; and poetry circuses, which include both the above, plus roundtables, tag-team poetry, and “conventional” readings.
The Nation magazine is now publishing more than Calvin Trillin’s political four-liners, and the inside front cover of Tikkun magazine showcases a modern religious poem. The Village Voice reports that a national queer slam has grown out of the need to create a safe space for gay and lesbian poets to slam. And poet laureate Joseph Brodsky’s American Poetry and Literacy Project distributes thousands of copies of 101 Great Poems in truck stops, supermarkets, hotels and train stations across the country every April.
In a particularly heady mixture of creativity and capitalism, Marks & Spencer, the British department store chain, has hired an in-house poet, making the company the first in the U.K. (possibly the world) to do so. Earning $1,500 a month, the experimental bard — Peter Sansom, a father of four whose favorite poets include Allen Ginsberg — represents an attempt by management to “demystify the arts…[and] boost employee morale.” He holds hour-long poetry workshops for employees four times a month. Similarly, Poets in Residence assigned by Britain’s Poetry Society have been hired by Kew Gardens and the BBC, and there are rumors that the London Zoo is considering having one (no doubt to read Blake’s “Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright”).
Why so much poetry, and why now?
John Keats describes the poet as capable of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In a society that venerates what is observable and measurable; in a “culture” that constricts imagination and reduces much of creativity to shallow, formulaic images, is it possible that we are witnessing a renaissance of the poetic sensibility? A tropism toward the internal and transcendant rather than the material? A cri de coeur for meaning?
To Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great poet and essayist who believed that all men live by truth, the poet is a vessel, a receiver of the ultimate truth with the ability to impart it. When the truth and beauty of the world “renders most people mute,” poetry is a counterpoint of quietness, using language to evoke and provoke. It speaks most deeply to and of the silences, and resonates with the music of thought. Poets visit and rest in the spaces between immediate experience and experience mediated by the collective reality — and poetry chronicles the landscapes of those spaces. All poems are maps of interior journeys, and poets are cartographers of the soul. The more intensely evocative the map, the greater the poet.
The gift of poetry is in the challenge of the naming — and how much unnamed experience it can evoke. For the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger:
. . . The poet names the gods,
and names all the things
in that which they are. . .
Poetry is the establishing of being by means of the word
Only and for the first time in this between is it decided,
who man is and where he is settling his existence
The truth of experience that poetry evokes awaits our readiness to hear it. We memorize poetry as children without understanding, so that when our lives fill in the spaces with experience, we will be able to graft some fragment of poetry onto them. And in this way, we give our world and the world meaning. The more people in any culture recognize, practice, and create poetry, the more the map of future experience is enlightened.
A dying culture kills imagination first, replacing it with stereotypic images, banality, and miniminalist musings. When the naming of an experience is superficial, insipid; when love becomes sex; when death becomes trite, the result is the diminishing of individual and collective experience.
One can argue that the political is the antithesis of the poetic, yet it is within the poetic sensibility — the deep imaginative leaps, the courage to chart the unknown — that a truly progressive politic should reside. Much of the joy, wonder, and awe of existence finds expression through poetry. Many of our great philosophical, theoretical, and ethical values are imparted through poetry. Perhaps our national conversation should focus on poetic values.
In my professional, political, and personal journeys, I have visited many spaces. They are all part of who I am. My own poetry is tied to my in-between states — of beauty, truth, pain, loss, questioning. Now, when the external world is too much with me; when I am burdened by the functions and the forms of living; when I feel as if my consciousness and imagination are imprisoned by daily life, poetry can help free me. So here I offer some of the maps of my former journeys:
You’ll leave me I know
Giving me back to paper dreams
And lonely Sunday mornings with twice-read books
But I have traced too many mad patterns
on marble floors
And been too long without love to allow it.
Lying beside you in this half-light
I create eternities without movement or fear
And practice my kisses on the air
Waiting for you to wake
And want me again
To take me violently
And then perhaps
To make me forget
that I had ever danced alone.
Restrained only by will
You enter my mind
through patterns of gentle insistence
Now made real
by the power of your presence
All around me
Shadowed forms of possibility
Colors, shapes and contours of loving
weave circles of warmth
that amaze me
So I move toward you
openly — eagerly
Still finding new ways to place myself
in the landscapes of your truth.
So here we are with lust rage and time,
The dandelion once a lion’s tooth now served in tea
remakes the edges of my world in a fluid ambiguity
What is most fresh and yellow
(Van Gogh talks about an orange field of soil)
fades into pure extension without color;
ideas replace the lawn with flowers
words cover dandelions, arguments mute
the surfaces of petals, the springing lawns
green, green-yellow, yellow-green,
And time will fold the flowering dandelions
the teeth rot in their raging
the green lust loves ignorance
the poet speaks to lovers who do not hear him
the philosopher speaks to no one but himself.
Have I seen you —
You who are apart from
yet not quite separate
who speaks to me as other
using colored tones of fusion
Binding through light and
the rough edges of my dreaming
filling my interiors with
fire and play and
echoes of familiar longing
made warm and transparent
by such burnings
seek the surety of mind’s presence
only to find your eyes whispering the question.