I have been asked by Craig Smith, he of “Notes from the Dreamtime” fame, to post my notes for a workshop I often teach.
He posted a blog entry called Poetry’s Power and thought of my workshop, which I am proud to say he has participated in twice.
These notes are designed not to be read at the workshop but as fodder for discussion. I tell participants that I am happy to read for an hour or two, but it is my desire I be interrupted at every turn with question, comments, poetry of their own. It is meant to create interaction and creative thought on the state of poetry, past and present. It is meant to open a few eyes and a few ears to the place of poetry in our culture.
So, imagine yourself in a group of ten, twenty or thirty people, all eager to listen and share.
These are the notes we never get through.
* * * * * * *
Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft
A workshop by Adam Byrn Tritt
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
(William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)
From as far back as there are records, poets have been by the side of the monarch in court and in battle. The words of the poet were known to be magic and an insult from the poet could sway a battle. This post was often called the Jester. He spoke the truth, did so without fear and did so in rhyme. His words had power.
Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But, sometimes, the rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.
Prayers are in the form of poems and songs. A rabbi taught me . . . if you don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug
Poetry is just the right word, the right sound, the rhythm that conveys just the right feeling. In a spell, we want to create just the right vibration, at a state event, at a prayer, we want just the right meaning and to leave no room for a meaning other than what is intended. Poetry is meaning, sound distilled until there is no doubt left. Anything that is unsaid is as carefully crafted as what is said. Hence, poetry becomes powerful in its economy, its concentration and its intention and all of this is built on carefully constructed meaning and sound.
Spells are often placed in the form of rhymes. Poetry has power in the natural and supernatural realm. But as important as the poetry is, the poet is a position of even greater mystery. Our Monarchs and presidents have poet laureates. Chaucer was paid in wine. Our own national poet laureate is paid less than a beginning school teacher but is expected to compose and appear at affairs of state and the position so contentious an anti-laureate is voted upon as well. Only three US poets, Piercy, Walker and Angelou, make a living from their art. Yet, despite this, poets have honours of which other artists can only dream.
We will explore the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture and religion and leave you exploring for yourself how we can use poetry in both our magical and ordinary lives, as though we should be able to tell them apart.
Poetry has power. I once taught at a public high school where poetry could not be taught without permission slips being signed. One child became upset about one poem. One parent called.
I was asked to head up a poetry reading at a book night at Barnes and Noble to benefit the school. I wrote this and dedicated it to our Principal.
Gather your permission slips, parents, teachers,
All school activities possess the possibility of danger, always
An unsuspecting student may come back broken,
Different, changed or
Not come back at all. Some tender child
May come back
Not a child at all.
Children know some activities possess danger,
We cannot wholly shield them. These are undertaken by
Brave students must have permission slips during
Such activities may result in loss, or gain
Read the fine-print
Parents, your children may not come back
The same tender child may not return to you
As you remember.
Sign to state your contrition
Your baby might grow up different
Than you had anticipated. Beware.
(Adam Byrn Tritt)
Poetry is not to be taken lightly. It is not for the faint of heart.
Obviously, poetry is political.
The Chinese word for poetry, shih (詩), is composed of two idiograms. One, yan (言), means “word; language” & the other, szu (寺), means “temple, monastery.” Hence, poetry is a “temple of words.” Yan itself is composed of t’ou (頭) “above” (heaven, Tao), erh (二) “two” (earth, duality), & k’ou (口) “mouth” (pass). The mouth, the sound that connects Heaven and Earth. Poetry, The Temple of Words, the Great Connector. Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.12 (1595):
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The Chinese words for culture is wen hua (文化) meaning “literary” or “transformation.” We see the Chinese looked at words, at poetry, as a definer of culture and civilization. They connected poetry to change, transformation and alchemy.
Muriel Rukeyser spoke of this as well, in her writing about the two different kinds of poetry: the poetry of the unverifiable fact, love, art, feelings, and the poetry of documentary fact, literal accounts of strikes, wars, barbaries. She said, in 1974:
The poet today must be twice born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and have gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.
And so, we have a calling. We have an art and talent with which one is born, a born magic, a way of seeing the world and words which is shaped—forged and tempered—by the world and then set out again. A natural skill honed. It is a synthesis of the gift of the gods, heaven, and the practices of men, of Earth. It is an alchemy.
As for alchemy, the poet Gary Snyder tells us:
As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.
The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.
At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped backup
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Criss-crossing through the mud.
With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
No end to the sky—
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.
A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
Is seen from all sides,
Power has often been associated not with words, certainly not with Poetry, but with physical might and control over others. Again, Snyder tells us:
We all know that the power of a great poem is not that we felt that person expressed himself well. We don’t think that. What we think is, “How deeply I am touched.” That’s our level of response. And so a great poet does not express his or her self, he expresses all of our selves. And to express all of ourselves you have to go beyond your own self. The Zen master Dogen said, “We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things.” And that’s why poetry’s not self-expression in those small self terms.
A poet is indeed a priest in a temple of words, that power is a voice linking heaven with earth. That is a poet’s real work. A poet’s work is to show us the ordinary in a way that makes it new and fresh, perhaps, even alien and to take the alien and show us how it is familiar.
by William Carlos Williams
As the cat
the top of
first the right
then the hind
into the pit of
And we value this. We value this after it is done, though we neither value the effort of the poet him or herself. How may poets make a living from poetry?
Williams still had to practice medicine. Most poets teach, or work at drug stores, newpapers. Few even work in the arts. E.E. Cummings, a staple in the cannon of American poetry, could not get his work published even. His mother had to self publish his first collection.
We honor poetry after the fact.
For the Young Who Want To
by Marge Piercy
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Part of this is because we forget how powerful words are. People only faintly recall the worth and power words once possessed. Words gave order and shape to reality: To know the name of a thing was to perceive its essence and therefore to master it. To name a thing not present was to summon it into being, so that the thing itself existed in the words for it.
“I was many things before I was released, ” sang Taliesin, a man thought by many to be the Merlin of lore. “I was a word in letters.” A name could be moved and manipulated and placed in new arrangements, and all of these activities would affect the object named.
The outward sign of the inner powers of a wise woman or man was the knowledge of words and names and the songs made from them. This was true of the celts and of the native American. That is why so many shamans and workers of magic prefaced their spells with transformation songs—verses that claimed they had taken the shape of everything in creation, from raindrops and starlight to bubbles in beer, and thereby had gained infinite understanding. Words were the bricks of all charms and incantations, all spells, riddles and conjurations. Look at the words we use. Spell from the German Speilan, or story. And Incantation from the word chant. In Hebrew, the one who says the prayers is the cantor, the singer the enchanter, the one with the incantations. He binds us to god with words even if the words are unknown to us.
Our own King Authur, JFK, had this to say about poetry and the Poet Laureate at his inauguration:
Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
Poets have had the power to affect culture even while they are outside of culture and even when part of a despised minority.
Pope. Swift. Catholic, diminutive, sickly.
Mr. Pope did not demur
To attack a poet he’d scarce endure.
His whetted wit exposing flaws
With metric feet and raptor’s claws.
This wasp would sting at authors dim
Even those who feared not God, feared him.
(Adam Byrn Tritt)
Not respected. Not paid even when feared.
Not paid. But certainly valued even when reviled. Right up to, but, it may seem, no including present time, poets were outside rebuke. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sasoon that helped bring what WWII was really like home to the masses and was as instrumental doing so as the verse of Phil Ochs was during Vietnam.
Suicide in the Trenches
by Siegfried Sasoon
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
by Wilfred Owen
(First and last verses)
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join.—He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, was published in 1945. What did it do? Listen.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Prior to this, most people actually did not know how the B-17s and 24s fought and protected themselves. Jarrell, himself, thought it was necessary, but also that the people in the war with the shortest life expectancy deserved to have their fates understood by the people for whom they fought. He did this in an obvious, yet amazingly poetic and political way. It was widely distributed. Poets enjoyed an immunity.
That immunity seems to be waning. In 2003 First Lady Laura Bush canceled a White House poetry symposium in fear of finding poetry and poets critical of the administration and its policies. She feared the invited poets would recite poetry against war. Laura Bush defended her actions citing her freedom of speech. A spokesperson for the First Lady said, “While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she too has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum.”
Poets around the world have cried foul. Two former U.S. poets laureate, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, have criticized the cancellation. The result was, instead of a symposium at the White House with one hundred poets, a backlash, anti-war symposium with over 3,600 and a collection of poetry assembled on the topic of which I am delighted to be a part.
Far from showing a waning power, this demonstrates the power of poetry is still quite understood and, in some cases, feared. Kings, and would be kings, know what a poem can do.
“What are big girls made of?”
by Marge Piercy
The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.
Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, balloons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain.
How superior we are now: see the modern woman
thin as a blade of scissors.
She runs on a treadmill every morning,
fits herself into machines of weights
and pulleys to heave and grunt,
an image in her mind she can never
approximate, a body of rosy
glass that never wrinkles,
never grows, never fades. She
sits at the table closing her eyes to food
hungry, always hungry:
a woman made of pain.
A cat or dog approaches another,
they sniff noses. They sniff asses.
They bristle or lick. They fall
in love as often as we do,
as passionately. But they fall
in love or lust with furry flesh,
not hoop skirts or push up bras
rib removal or liposuction.
It is not for male or female dogs
that poodles are clipped
to topiary hedges.
If only we could like each other raw.
If only we could love ourselves
like healthy babies burbling in our arms.
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed
to need what is sold us.
Why should we want to live inside ads?
Why should we want to scourge our softness
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting?
Why should we punish each other with scorn
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?
When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?