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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




On September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I did something I’d never done before.   I made copies of some of my favorite poems and took them door-to-door to my neighbors, thinking: we’ve exchanged zucchini, tomatoes, home maintenance tips, casseroles in difficult times.  Maybe this is a time for poems.
    No matter that only one of these neighbors had ever been to a reading.   No matter that, to my knowledge, only one neighbor ever reads poems at all.  On that day in September, on my comfortable, middle-class street of older homes and well-kept yards, at a time when our collective sense of helplessness and despair was acute, sharing poems was something I could do, could offer.   If ever there was a time when I could put to good use my years of practicing words, this was it.  Muriel Rukeyser had spoken, in The Life of Poetry, of ”the long preparation of the self to be used.” If I truly stood by the power of poetry, I could not wait and hope for my friends and neighbors to come to it.  I would take it to them.
    The poems I chose were these: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” (from his book Openings); Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (from Dream Work); and William Stafford’s widely anthologized “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (West of Your City). Poems I’ve known for years; poems I’ve read so often they’re almost committed to memory; poems I’ve said at night, to myself, falling asleep, instead of prayers.
    Poetry “makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden, in lines I’ve heard invoked by those who would justify their own withdrawal from the public sphere,  from openly working for change.  And maybe it’s true: poetry itself will not turn an election, stop a war.  Poetry, unlike propaganda,  has no agenda, other than telling the truth, whatever that truth may be.
    But if poems, by being poems, can acknowledge the difficult truths; if poems can confirm our own perceptions, our fears, our suffering, and if, in sharing these poems, we can be less alone; if poems can help us pay homage to that which sustains us, and direct our attention to what is transcendent and eternal;  if poems can renew our sense of humility, without which there is no chance of harmony in the world; do they not make something happen?   Here are some words by Phyllis McGinley, an Oregon poet from long ago, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, known best for her light, often-satirical verse.  “In times of unrest and fear, it is perhaps the writer's duty to celebrate, to single out some values we can cherish, to talk about some of the few warm things we know in a cold world.”
    You who read these words have your own favorite poems.  Perhaps there are lines you heard, as a younger person, that spoke to you, that deeply informed your life at a critical time, that made you want to write just that well, to write words that count.   Lines you’ve carried with you through the years.    I’ll never forget finding, as a college student, these lines by Theodore Roethke: “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow” and “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.”  My god!  He was speaking for me!  And,  “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”  I don’t think I was in great danger of being declared mad, though I knew through and through what it was like to be “at odds with circumstance.”   What thinking person doesn’t?
    When I carried those poems door-to-door September 12th, the fact I’d someday be telling this tale was the last thing on my mind.   Nor had I any notion that what I was doing locally was being repeated, like loaves and fishes, small acts of faith multiplied, all across the country, over the internet and through the mails.  Far-flung friends and relatives were sending poems to each other, a wide range of them:  poems protesting injustice, bearing witness; poems pledging allegiance to beauty, to love, to the wondrous things of this world.   Poems acknowledging our common frailties, our need for connection.  Poems like bread, grounding us, sustaining us, strengthening our resolve.
    Thinking today of W.H. Auden, I prefer to remember others of his words. Years ago I was asked by our local newspaper to interview the famous poet, who had just read at the University of Oregon.  Awed, self-conscious, and trying to think what general readers might want to know, I opened with one of the most basic of questions.  “Mr. Auden,” I asked, “why do you write poems.”
    His answer was immediate.   “To help people enjoy life more, or endure it better.”
    In times of war and other extremities, when God, or our notion of God, seems far away, poetry can be a lifeline, a clarity of breath, a means toward balance, a respite from despair that is not an evasion.  Poetry reminds us we can lie down, as Wendell Berry suggests, under the stars, near “wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief.”  We can, with Mary Oliver, behold the world calling to us “like wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing [our] place / in the family of things.”   We can recognize, with William Stafford, “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” 
    We can turn to poems and take heart. And go on.


© by Ingrid Wendt


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