One of the major disadvantages of getting a Ph.D. in Literature is that any pure love of reading that may have led you to make the ridiculous choice to enter a Ph.D. program in the first place has been leached out of you by the time you have crawled through the desert of writing a dissertation. You give your life to the process for years, and then you come to your dissertation defense, shriveled up like a frightened little prune, and when they tell you that you have “passed,” you skitter away, obsequious and relieved, most likely jobless, and vaguely aware that you should feel happier but clearly don’t.
Okay, so that’s how it was for me; it’s possible that this is not a universal experience. But while I lost a few important things during the process of getting my degree, my sanity and will to live, for example, the MOST important thing that I lost was the innocence that allowed me to simply LOVE poetry without criticizing or analyzing it. I lost the awareness that poetry is a “blood issue,” a matter of life and death, an utterly human language that, for those who love it, speaks directly to your soul, and therefore makes being alive more bearable and even transcendently wonderful at times.
Knowing how to read poetry is a skill, that’s for sure. It requires some linguistic discernment, the ability to pay attention to nuance, an understanding of context, history, rhythm and words (and there is some mighty bad poetry out there, oh yes indeedy). But while having these skills will help you to enjoy poetry more than if you don’t have them, they are not necessarily required in order to LOVE poetry.
I started writing poetry when I was fairly small and wrote all the way through college, and I know enough to know that I am not a skilled poet. I might become one someday, but that doesn’t really matter, because I still love it. The first time that I realized that I was IN LOVE with it was in college when I was house-sitting for a high-school teacher at the Philadelphia Friends School. He had tons of books stacked all around his West Philly brownstone, and instead of cleaning out his cats’ litter boxes, I sat at his old wooden dining room table and read poetry.
I was absolutely blown away by Sharon Olds, a contemporary New York poet, and remember with complete clarity the moment of sitting at that wooden table, holding that maroon paperback in my hands, looking at the long chunks of verse on the pages—time really did stand still, an entire world opened, and I thought, “This is what my life will be about.”
And then stupidly, I went to graduate school, where you have two choices—you can either write literature and poetry or you can study literature and poetry, and there is a great deal of posturing and snobbery that goes along with either choice. One of the dumbest things I learned in graduate school was that a poem should stand on its own, that the context in which it was written, the story behind it, doesn’t really matter. On an academic level, there are some legitimate reasons for this, but on a human level, it is ridiculous. Poetry is the human voice speaking out, in all its clarity and confusion, its transcendence and limitations, and there is ALWAYS a story behind it.
So it took me a long, long time to unlearn this essentially childish belief—that a poem, as it stands, is the truth, the final word, the lesson learned, once and for all. How this happened is that I had been reading some May Sarton, specifically the poem, “Now I Become Myself,” which is an empowering poem about refusing other people’s choices and identities, and choosing instead to live your own life: “O, in this single hour I live/All of myself and do not move.”
It’s a nice poem. But at the same time, I was reading a biography of Sarton that described her as narcissistic, needy, often cruel and dismissive, and desperate for praise and attention, even into her 80’s. I was stunned, and just unbelievably angry. “But she wrote this poem celebrating being confident in being yourself!” I thought, literally unable to process the fact that the poem was not the final word for her, that she struggled with this issue of becoming herself, of wearing “other people’s faces,” for her whole life. I felt betrayed, lied to. It took me weeks to get over, until I realized that I had been reading poetry like a child, believing that it was the Truth, and what’s more, that you could only write poetry if you already KNEW the Truth.
I tried to explain this to someone older and wiser than me and she said, “But what would you write about if you already knew everything?” I just didn’t realize that people write out of confusion, brokenness, curiosity, pain, joy, terror, wonder, uncertainty, and/or the basic human need to make sense of life. I didn’t realize that May Sarton’s insecurities and fears allowed her to write that poem in the first place.
It sounds simple, and when I finally got it, it was, like a blinding flash of the obvious. But letting go of the magical-thinking hope that poetry held “the Truth” was hard, because tied up in this fairy-tale view of poetry and writing was the belief that writing could save me. If I was just a good enough, insightful enough, creative enough writer, I too would know “the Truth,” and nothing would ever hurt me again.
So letting that go was hard and scary and a little bit sad. Last April, I was driving down to the Merton Institute in Kentucky to do a writing retreat and I was listening to a CD collection by David Whyte called “Footsteps: A Writing Life.” He reads a poem about emotional exploration called “It is Not Enough,” and there is a line in the middle of the poem that says, “you must go to the place where everything waits,” and I had to pull over because I was crying so hard. Trucks were wooshing by me at 90 miles an hour, my little Honda Fit was shaking, it was pouring down rain, and I was crying because I knew that taking writing seriously would mean going to the place where everything waits, and I both wanted and didn’t want to go there in equally desperate measures.
Florida Scott Maxwell, whom I’ve quoted here before, wrote, “It is not easy to be sure that being yourself is worth the trouble, but we do know it is our sacred duty.” This totally hits it for me, and it just happens that writing is what helps me do it. But there are a thousand ways to learn to be yourself, a thousand ways to be in your own life, a thousand ways, as Rumi wrote, to kneel and kiss the ground. Whatever it is for any of us, it’s not certainty or credentials that’s going to get us there. It’s curiosity and wonder, and the noble innocence of not knowing.
For old times’ sake, here’s a poem by Sharon Olds called “The Missing Boy.” It’s sad (fair warning), but notice what she’s doing: through this poem, which is partly through the eyes of her own young son, she’s bearing witness to the truth, and the truth in this case is that children sometimes go missing and hearts are broken. The best poetry will always tell the truth, which doesn’t solve anyone’s problems, but in simply being another human voice sharing in the experience, offers tremendous comfort along the way.
The Missing Boy
(for Etan Patz)
Every time we take the bus
my son sees the picture of the missing boy.
He looks at it like a mirror–the dark
blond hair, the pale skin,
the blue eyes, the electric-blue sneakers with
slashes of jagged gold. But of course that
kid is little, only six and a half,
an age when things can happen to you,
when you’re not really safe, and Gabriel is seven,
practically fully grown–why, he would
tower over that kid if they could
find him and bring him right here on this bus and
stand them together. He sways in the silence
wishing for that, the tape on the picture
gleaming over his head, beginning to
melt at the center and curl at the edges as it
ages. At night, when I put him to bed,
my son holds my hand tight
and says he’s sure that kid’s all right,
nothing to worry about, he just
hopes he’s getting the food he likes,
not just any old food, but the food
he likes the most, the food he is used to.
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living