Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Poetry

I have never spent much time thinking about poetry.

I read novels, short stories and occasionally memoirs and non-fiction books about science. This keeps me going.

When my grandmother died a few months ago something strange happened in my head. Nothing in the world seemed important. It was like I had suddenly actually understood that we will all die.  Nothing we do in life will mean anything. Not now. Not in the long run.  Even the great writers will die with the human race. Art, literature, kindness, none of this matters in the wider scheme of things. One day everyone will die. Humans will become extinct. Nature really doesn't care about Shakespeare.

I couldn't write. Suddenly there was no urgency. Everything I create will be less than the best literature in the world and even that will be worth nothing at the end of our species. It seemed like a waste of energy to write. It seemed like a waste of energy to live at all.

This is when I started writing poetry.

There is an episode of the Australian television show Rake, where a trauma causes one of the characters to suddenly speak in a language she never knew she could speak. She could no longer speak in English. I felt like this had happened to me.

I started to write poetry. I didn't know anything about poetry so I couldn't judge if it was good poems or bad but there were poems. I wrote one after another. I woke up at 2am and wrote poems because I couldn't sleep. They were all about my grandmother. After a month of this I had one hundred pages of poetry. I had a book of poetry all about death and my grandmother and loss and pointlessness. I am still not really sure what to do with that document.

I needed to know if it was any good. I started to read other people's poetry to figure that out.  I already loved Simon Armitage's poems along with Adrienne Rich and  Sylvia Plath. Now I began to hunt, to see what kind of poems I actually like and to try to figure out why.

Anne Carson was one of the first people I uncovered. I read The Beauty of the Husband because other people had talked about how wonderful it was. It is wonderful. It seems to say something true about separation and love and human need. I moved on from that to The Autobiography of Red. Reading this verse novel changed me in some way.  There are poems in that book that reach inside a person and shake them . I discovered feelings I could not name. I began to have ideas again.

I have recovered from whatever demon broke my sentences up into short detonations. I can write novels again - I think. But my foray into the world of the poets has stayed with me.  I have gobbled up E. E. Cumming's erotic poems. Lewd, often funny, sometimes romantic. I am not yet sure what I feel about these poems but I keep going back to them and reading some of them over and over. And now I have discovered Sharon Olds. In particular I am reading Stag's Leap, a verse novel about the end of a marriage.  What I love about this book is that the poems have no subtext. They are honest admissions on the page. I feel like her words have given me permission to take the poem cycle about my Grandmother out of the draw. She has explained to me with her own work, that my work can be just that. An exploration of feelings, grief, life, written simply and eloquently on the page.

My exploration of poetry does not seem to be over. I wonder where it will go to from here.