At the poetry retreat last weekend in Texas, there were many fine moments. The 10 people who gathered for a weekend of reading and writing brought full hearts and were ready to dig deep, to play, to listen and respond with generosity.
One of my favorite interactions was with a man named H., who was originally from Nicaragua but now lives with his wife in Austin. He was a wonderful reader of my poems in The Way of All the Earth, which we were using as a starting place for most of the workshop. He could get right to the emotional core and point out the evidence in the poem for his interpretation.
But he was also thrown by some of the poems, one in particular that was light and humorous. It didn’t have the “emotion” he expected from poetry.
Talking on Saturday night, he shared that he often thought poetry was dangerous– that the emotion was dark and that one could follow it to a very deep sadness. I expressed my own struggles with this idea. As a young student and writer, it seemed very dangerous, especially for a woman, to write poetry. Maybe it was a kind of truth-telling, or an emotional journey, that could lead one off the steady path and down. The role models I had were all scary: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, even poor, brave, crazy Emily Dickinson.
For H., the poets he had always loved were Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, and other poets whose direct emotional expression filled him with a particular sadness. He said it was like the sadness of the tango. In fact, he said, he had so loved the tango that he built up a collection of the music. And there came a time when he disposed of all his tango recordings, because he didn’t like where the music was taking him.
What is the poetry of happiness? I’ve been struggling with this myself lately. When I try to write poems about life here on the farm, the happiness of marriage, the beauty around me, they just seem to fall flat. I have pages of poetry about various garden vegetables to which I have to say, “meh.”
Reading some of the poems from The Way of All the Earth, I realized I am in a different place than I was when I wrote them. They still strike me as very honest poems, but they are poems of a younger, more vulnerable person. There is a lot of healing in those poems, a lot of love and empathy, and for that I am grateful. Reading the poems with others, they began remembering things from their own lives they’d long forgotten and that they wanted to capture and explore in writing. One woman had a tremendous experience of finding an image and writing a poem through which she could see her mother in an entirely different way than she had before, and she experienced real joy in the writing.
For H., his happiness was in the experience of an assignment I gave specifically to him: write a poem and then cross out all the lines that directly express emotion. He read the poem he wrote to us and we were able to tell him all the emotions in the poem– without him telling them to us directly. He could trust us to hear him and “get it.”
Perhaps in the end it is this joy of saying something in poetry, and of being heard, this necessary communication and rendering triggering something in another, that is at the heart of poetry.
It is not difficult for me to imagine a world and life in which I could have ended up like Emily Dickinson, writing my poems and sewing them up into “versicles” and storing them in a trunk. Afraid to interact with the world because I was so vulnerable and “other.” I have had the great privilege to be able to speak out loud in poetry and be heard. I have had the great privilege to write some words that can spark something in others.