Perspectives: Poetry in the Flavor of Life

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The poems written in this style are spoken in a wry, exuberant, talky, accessible style. They typically include detailed anecdotes, bits of pop culture culled from past and present, explicit references to books the narrator has read, and allusions to historical and literary figures. The art comes in weaving all these strands together. You could say ultra-talk is an experiment in lowering the pressure. Previous page Next page. But obviously there was something about monasticism that I was drawn toward, even then, and recognized even then.

The idea of a single-minded, undistracted life, dedicated to something I must have sensed mattered. Perhaps it was some premonition about the shape my life would take. And when, years later, I did find myself living that life, I felt a deep consonance.

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It felt to me the way human beings were meant to live. Was your family at all observant when you were growing up? JH: Something is surely there—habits of mind and temperament recognizably from that tradition and culture. One grandfather was something of a mystic, and briefly joined the Rosicrucians; one great-great-grandfather, from Philadelphia, was a rabbi in the Civil War.

I received virtually no religious instruction. To see them used as devices of division grieves me. IK and KT: In some ways, your poetry collections can be read as reminiscent of a religious book of hours. Is this a comparison that makes sense to you? A book of hours is ingrained in the different stages of a day.

I need to do this. I have to do that. Spiritual practices are in part a set of techniques to free a person from enslavement to that mind. They allow us to look around a bit, to step back and see things as they are, to apprehend them as part of the larger whole. Art does this as well. But I think art plays much the same role in a human life as does spiritual ritual. Both stop you in your mammalian tracks and let you see and know your life through larger eyes and ears.

This may be wrong; perhaps some of them do. You will have more life if you remember that life is short than if you forget it. A work of art is just this kind of liberation: something that changes everything and yet is perfectly useless in any usual sense. So, to finally answer your question, I think this would be fine work for my poems to do, the work of a book of hours. I suppose some people collect paintings because they think their value will increase in ten years or a hundred years, or because owning a certain object conveys social status.

Anything you really take in, you have to stop to take in. I think we desperately want time to slow down in the ways it does when you really pay attention. All my life, I have been looking for the condition of being where things are so deeply themselves that they and I fall into each other, and everything seems to stop. I fell so deeply into the music, there was only listening, and no sense of a self at all. Then the album ended. The needle made that little click, click, click sound it does when a record is over a sound I realize will someday soon be unknown, as fewer and fewer people listen to vinyl recordings.

It was night, and it was New Jersey, and it was raining. I burst into tears. My friend came running. And nothing was. I wept at the largeness I had fallen into and become. It felt like a true understanding of existence. And I am absolutely in favor of changing this world for the better in any way we can, before we destroy ourselves and perhaps the planet with us.

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But it seems to me that the desire to change things all too often means you are going to change them for the worse. The current war in Iraq is only the most recent example of such a devastating consequence. Maybe a bonsai was a bad choice of example. A bonsai, after all, is stunted, captive, not natural. But we began by talking about art, and I think a bonsai is art—something made by us in collaboration with the actual energies of life. IK and KT: Your interest in achieving the state of concentration you describe seems to be reflected in your poems, which tend to lean toward the lyrical and away from narrative.

Can you comment on this? JH: People have a native diction for understanding existence. Narrative is one of the most fundamental. I have written a very few poems that hold stories, and these make me happy—a person is always glad to expand the repertory of the soul. I am desperate for anything that comes, and what tends to come are poems seated in image, in metaphor, in perception juxtaposed against perception.

Induction and distillation rather than story. He was a friend of yours. Was he also an influence? My response was physical—it was if the poem were a hand reaching into my body, holding the spinal vertebrae, shaking me. In Facing the River and Provinces , Milosz does that.

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I have learned, and am still learning I hope, an immense amount from his work, from its beginning to its end, and the influence extends far beyond aesthetics and technique. Milosz invited me into our friendship as a fellow poet. After he read my second book, he called with an invitation to dinner.

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But I now think what he wanted most was a conversation about Zen and Buddhism. For this, he felt an enormous sympathy of view. Other aspects though, particularly the transparency and provisionality of self, were entirely horrifying to him—for Milosz, the idea of a soul which lasts, which can be saved, was essential. He called himself a poet of the apokastasis , and disappearance without salvation was for him a hell-realm of meaninglessness. So many of his poems were—and are—overt acts of memory intended as rescue and preservation. After he died, I felt that I had done him a disservice.

He wanted to talk to me about these things and I should have argued harder, against his horror, for the relationship between emptiness and compassion. I failed to give him the respect of treating him as a peer—but how could I? We were friends, yes, and I loved him, but I was not his peer. IK and KT: A well known American critic says that Milosz cannot possibly influence American poets because his life experience was very different from theirs. I tend to disagree. I wonder where you stand on the issue.

He lived in the United States for many decades. Is there such a thing as a Milosz school in American poetry? I think there is very much an American school of Polish poetry, though I might not be able to name every practitioner. Ed Hirsch, for instance, has obviously taken on this Polish lineage, combining it sometimes with the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, both Biblical and contemporary.

Nor do I think that what great poets offer can be confined to the circumstances of their lives, however much it emerges from the lived-through particular. The question you ask goes to the very heart of literature and its achievement: If we could not be influenced by work coming from lives different from our own, if experience could not be passed from person to person by art, what would reading be? To deny the power of art to transmit the whole of human comprehension from person to person is to deny it any standing, seriousness, consequence.

The Polish poets taught me to trust the presentational statement. My own poems took on more a flavor of thus-ness after I read Milosz; he himself sometimes echoed classical Chinese poems in this way. Another instruction came from the largeness of his universe and from the many different kinds of poems that he has written—big, small, personal, philosophical. From Milosz, I took the permission to roughen, to think, to be very short, to go on. I could say I learned everything from him. JH: Certainly I know that disgust, but fortunately it is usually a short-lived phase. But all my writing life, I have had long silences.

I wrote as a child and mostly hid the writing under my mattress, never showing it to anyone. In the summers, my parents would send me to camp, and so every summer I stopped writing, and every fall I started again. I became used to the idea that poetry has its own seasons and rhythms. My intention was to practice Zen.

When I left, the intention of poetry came back, and I began writing again almost immediately. Still, I feel it as a sign of some wrongness in my life, in my relationship to my life. After I finished The Lives of the Heart , there was a long period, almost a year, when I fell silent. There were circumstantial reasons, but I worried enough about it that eventually I started a dream notebook, wanting to keep some conduit open to my unconscious life.

For many years, even after poetry returned, I kept recording my dreams, and then stopped. My history has always been that when I start to write again after a long pause, the poems as well as the self have changed. Silence can be a protected space, gravitational as sleep for the creative mind.

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I think of a field lying fallow or well water having a chance to refill, undrawn. Mostly I trust these times, but I also realize that someday poetry may simply not come back. The world will have enough good poems whether I myself am trying to write them or not. He teaches at San Diego State University. Receive updates on our latest ventures, exclusive essays from our editors, discount offers, and more, direct to your email. Our People. Staff Authors Friends. Wells-Barnett , Brooks also offered her talent as a poet to this cause. Brooks had an honest reaction to such things as Black life and culture, music, and the war.

All the while, never forgetting her lifelong connection to the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville area.


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As a Black woman poet-activist, Brooks also exemplified what it meant to balance womanhood, motherhood, and art. Jackson also reveals the many voices of womanhood and motherhood and how essential these experiences were to Brooks— even if it meant traumatic moments.

This honesty is further exemplified through a bold poetry move. Her choice to keep this poem beautifully captures the raw emotions of a woman—regret, sorrow, loss, guilt. Such an undertaking in was not only illegal, but even more of a revolutionary act to write about publicly.