Some Trouble with Poetry

by Jeff Oaks

It’s hard to be in love all the time, I want to say. Remember when you were young, and each poem you found was like a flash bulb going off, a revelation, a new world of permissions? Maybe even poetry gets tired, I want to say. It’s so old now. But what I want to know is what’s wrong with me, I think, that poems don’t have that light right now. I was young, maybe, and didn’t know how hard the world works to erase delight, to stymie joy, to hold onto its stupidities, its angers, its fears. I couldn’t believe that once I knew about these things that the world wouldn’t crack open, because after all, who was I? Maybe this means that I’m tired. Maybe I know too much to feel hopeful now–the extinction of ocean fish by 2048 was the headline this morning’s stab in the heart. The police forces corrupted by seemingly unchecked racism, the political field seemingly corrupted by corporately sponsored inaction, the forces of art largely coopted by fools given money to create foolishness, the forces of nature burnt down to the ground or destroyed by a humanity that can’t control its own growth, the forces of the soul corrupted by loudspeakers and mega-stadiums of greed and fear.

There are amazing writers writing now. Even I would admit that, even in the midst of this current–what? sadness? blankness? inability (like Lana Turner in Frank O’Hara’s famous poem) to get back up? There are great things happening. I hear and read about them. Conversations started and joined and enlivened by new perspectives. And which of the masters I have had–Galeano, Neruda, Rilke, Dickinson, Cavafy, Heaney, Bishop, Rich, Plath, Hughes–gave up on the essential power of the imagination, of the human spirit, to subvert the dominating powers of governments, history, sadness, cruelty, shame? You can do a little good maybe just to admit to your weakness, I want to believe.

I have been using Tumblr as a place to assemble images, some famous, some contemporary art, that struck me. This morning I was looking around and found this quote from artist Richard Tuttle:

“Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental…”

And I’ve been thinking what I could do with my hands again: writing in my journal, drawing on paper with charcoal or painting again, putting together the long wished-for workshop on my third floor. Something to wake myself up again, get me out of my exhausted head. Solely for myself, I tell myself, even though I also suspect I’m fooling myself there, in the same way I fool myself sometimes into writing things for this blog by saying it’s just for me.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with one of my freshmen writers about humility, a topic he was writing about and wrestling with personally. What was an appropriate level of it, he wants to know. What’s the relationship between work and being humble, he’s wondering. He is in college to become a doctor but was struck by some short pieces I had them read and write responses to, including a few poems by my colleague Terrance Hayes. Did I have any room in my Intro to Creative Writing class next term? We sat a long time, talking about nothing afterward, the meal he was going to cook for his family for Thanksgiving (it involved thyme-butter, I remember), the difficulty of scheduling classes, how tired he was of school. The very stuff of a poetry.

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