I was stepping out the door into a thunderstorm with a shoebox of poems when my husband asked where I was going.
“An errand for my blog,” I said.
He looked at the weather and looked at the poems bundled in a protective garbage bag and said, “Sometimes I think you’re a little crazy.”
Usually I don’t mind being called a little crazy. It puts me in the good company of all the kooks and eccentrics I admire and enjoy. Years ago I heard Irish writer Edna O’Brien explain herself this way: “I’m not what you would call the sanest woman in the universe. In fact I might have a little extra insanity.” She wasn’t joking in the least.
But this time, “a little crazy” sounded less like “charming and creative” and more like “pointless and irrelevant.”
Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. Why do I go out in the rain to a coffee shop to set up a display of give-away poems that will be moved by the management to a back corner where hardly anyone sees it? Why do I slink around public parks or libraries waiting for people to leave so I can tape a poem to a bike rack or bench and take a picture? Why do I go back to check if the poem is still there? Why am I writing this post when I could draw in hundreds more viewers with pictures of my dog?
Maybe National Poetry Month has brought on this crisis of confidence. With the National Poetry Foundation, teachers and bloggers all cheering Yes, poetry matters! so insistently that everyone suspects it doesn’t, a person several rungs down the poetry ladder, a person who doesn’t write poetry but writes about poetry, and not even writing about poetry for an academic audience who might possibly care but for a general audience who doesn’t, that person might feel a little sorry for herself.
It’s been a rotten April in Michigan, wet, cold and today actually snowing on the just-blossoming forsythia. The month began badly with a gratuitously cruel op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the irrelevance of contemporary poetry. Essayist Joseph Epstein, perhaps trying to reprise the uproar he caused twenty-five years ago with his essay “Who Killed Poetry,” wrote a follow-up piece on April Fool’s Day called “The Poetic Justice of April 1.” Epstein writes that although he loves poetry, old poetry that is, poetry that’s already in the canon, poetry that’s been blessed by Harold Bloom I suppose, he finds more recent poetry worthy only of his considered contempt. He writes, “the biggest fools of all may well be those who believe that contemporary poetry matters in the least except to those who, against a high barbed-wire wall of national indifference, continue solemnly to churn it out.” Judging from the meager number of comments the essay generated, folks were just as indifferent to his rant.
Epstein is a great writer and he’s funny and smart, but here he underestimates the general public. The searches on my blog offer a counter argument to his assertion of national indifference to contemporary poetry. Nearly every day someone is looking for a wedding poem or a children-leaving-home poem or a poem by Billy Collins. Sometimes the search terms include a phrase from a poem and often those poems are contemporary. Not everyone is looking for Yeats and Keats. As poet Jane Hirshfield says (and I’ve quoted this in a past post, so forgive me for repeating it),
“I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition — a marriage or a funeral — they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.”
And here’s another thing, Joseph Epstein. This month my daughter sent me two poems given to her by two different young men, both graduating college seniors. Granted the poems don’t exactly disprove Epstein’s thesis—one poem is actually a lyric and the other is by Emily Dickinson—but the fact that two guys cared enough about a poem to share it suggests that our yearning for meaning will always keep poetry, old or new, relevant.
The first friend, an engineering student, forwarded Lizzie part of a song by Rage Against the Machine called “Snakecharmer.” I’m treating it as a poem because that’s the form he sent it in. If he intended it to be experienced as a song, he would have sent a youtube video. Here it is:
soul soaked in, spit and urine
And you gotta make it where?
To a sanctuary that’s a fragile American hell
An empty dream
A selfish, horrific vision
Passed on like the deadliest of viruses
Crushing you and your naive profession
Have no illusions boy
Vomit all ideals and serve
Sleep and wake and serve
And don’t just think just wake and serve
I don’t understand the comma after soul soaked in but I love the incredulity of the question that follows: And you gotta make it where? The idea that the American dream is a deadly virus passed from father to son is a powerful one. For a college kid who doesn’t want to spend life in a cubicle, this poem is a rallying cry.
Her other friend had talked to her about trying to decide whether or not to become a priest. Perhaps by way of an answer, he sent her this:
Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church
by Emily Dickinson
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Here are two guys, neither one an English major or aspiring writer, finding solace and satisfaction in poetry. Both found poems that speak directly to their life decisions, their philosophies, and their dreams. How do you get more relevant than that?
All of which is a timely reminder of why I keep writing this blog. This is my fantasy: waiting at the train station or rushing through the grocery store, someone chances upon a poem I’ve left behind, reads it, thinks about it, and steps back from the frantic surface of life long enough to discover the poem’s relevance, which was there all along, hidden among all the irrelevant things we call important.