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I Have Been Taught to Leave My Poetry Behind

As a writer, I was taught to be three things: Clear, concise, and honest. These are all excellent things to be, but sometimes I wonder if they always align.

June 19, 2015

Photo: Carly Piersol
Photo: Carly Piersol

It started with music.

It’s always music. You listen and feel understood. Loved. It’s intoxicating, this notion that there’s someone reaching across time and space to express this very specific feeling coursing through your veins, and so you hit play again and again and again, you scribble down their words and contemplate every possible meaning.

You want everyone to hear those same words, to understand them in that same way. Of course, not everyone will. Not everyone’s been there.

This will be the first of many heartbreaks: Knowing that there’s something out there that expresses what you cannot and offers a way for others to see you.

Then you get older and think, Wow. That was fucking embarrassing.

As a writer, I was taught to be three things: Clear, concise, and honest. These are all excellent things to be, but sometimes I wonder if they always align. I’m not so sure they do.

Humans are clear and also messy, concise and also cryptic, honest and also liars. Words should be, too.

Of course, we allow this sort of writing. We call it poetry. We build pretty walls around it, and make it known that anyone is welcome to come and go from it as they please. It is a pure place, we are told, fueled by much passion and little practicality.

But walls, however pretty, are still walls.

Here lies a curious notion — that we would take language at its most potent and powerful and divorce the means of creating it from the regular discussion of writing as a craft. Especially when we consider one of the words we use to describe the prose we love most: Poetic.

I’m not sure what poet made me realize this, who first showed me words could be this way. Maybe it was William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings, in one of those giant standard-issue literature textbooks specifically designed to make words as cold and unappealing as is humanly possible.

There were a couple of poetry classes in my life, mostly treated as utter bullshit by their participants, an easy way to get good marks and three credits. There were also a few people who Got It. Some of them were even professors.

But then I graduated, and all that poetry began to seem so much like the pile of burned CDs I had accumulated throughout my teens. I became a journalist. Write clear, write fast, write now.

Don’t pay
                so much

    attention
to how      words

                                look on          

                                a page.

Because those are the kind of words that can be measured and sold for a price. Those are the words you will click on. The kind that we edit ourselves out of, that aren’t rude or difficult or won’t overstay their welcome in your brain.

Of course, I can still make you feel. I don’t need verse for that.

But verse taught me that.

Photo: John Maher
Photo: John Maher

There’s this poem called Axe Handles, by Gary Snyder. It was sent to me in the throes of writing the words you read here, amid much swearing and frustration. There’s a part that goes like this:

And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

The speaker is building an axe with his son, while using an axe,  and it reminds him of an old Ezra Pound aphorism. Only, as he works with his son, he realizes that this line in his head is even older than that, appearing in the work of the Fourth Century Chinese poet Lu Ji — translated by Chen, the speaker’s former teacher.

I am an axe, and as an axe I will carve another axe, and neither will be poetry nor prose, but something more.

Snyder’s poem is also mentioned in a recent Atlantic essay by Conor Friedersdorf discussing, among other things, poetry and white privilege. From it, I have gathered that one of the literary debates du jour is whether or not we have enough published white male poets out there as to render our need for more white male poets obsolete. It is, by and large, a subject entirely removed from my life. (This entire debate also completely ignores the fact that, historically, white men do whatever the hell they want.)

In fact, it is easy to consider poetry a subject entirely removed from my life. To encounter work like Snyder’s is to embark on a hunt, a journey to that walled-off Garden of Verse. But as Friedersdorf notes, that isn’t true at all. We live in an era filled to the brim with poetry under another name, a name that gives the public license to dismiss it without engaging with it at all: Rap.

Music, you see? It always comes back to music.

I used to think there was always something lacking in prose. Something that kept me from punching a hole through the limits of the written word, right into your damn heart. That was the root of my teenage attraction to hip-hop and pop-punk and post-hardcore. They had cracked it, they had figured it out, and I could too.

If only I could get the words right.

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