I’m reading two books right now, Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morning and Venus Khoury-Ghata’s She Says (translated by Marilyn Hacker). The first is a meditation on grief; the second, a book of poems the first section of which, “Words,” is basically a mythologization of language. Each of them, for different reasons, has thrown me back onto the question of why, when I think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as a poet. Or, perhaps a more accurate way to ask this question is this: why, when I think about writing something, my first inclination, regardless of what I want to write about, is to turn it into a poem and only after the poem or poems that I try to write fail do I even consider that another form might be a more appropriate choice. In “Words,” Khoury-Ghata writes:
blind flight in the darkness
fireflies wheeling in on themselves
pebbles in the pocket of an absentminded dead man
projectiles against the cemetery wall
they broke up into alphabets
ate a different earth on each continent
There is something about the way writing a poem focuses my attention on words, not on content per se, but on the meaning and sound and rhythm of individual words, and how they join to create sentences that also have meaning and sound and rhythm, and how the form of a poem–whether the verse is formal or “free” (which is really just another kind of form)–shapes that meaning and sound and rhythm into a music that, in turn, both shapes and transcends the overall content that is the aggregate of these meanings and sounds and rhythms. There is something about all this, and I think Khoury-Gata has captured it in her second line, “blind flight in the darkness.” Following the forms of language for their own sake is a kind of blind flight because forms are constantly evolving and you never know where they will take you, and then to be blind in the dark, which makes the dark redundant because even if it is lifted, you would not be able to see what is in front of you–or does the line mean that it is the darkness that blinds you?
Words do blind us. At the same time, though, without words we would live in the darkness of seeing and knowing without being able to name what we see and what we know; and so darkness would also be silence, and silence, ultimately–or, rather, the ultimate silence–is death. And so words are “pebbles in the pocket of an absentminded dead man.” They do him no good. And words are “projectiles against the cemetery wall,” that with which we try to shatter the silence of death, not just in the very narrow sense of wanting our words to outlive us–and all of us, not just writers, want someone to remember who we were after we are gone, to keep alive in their own lives the words we used in ours–but also in the here and now, the conversations we have, the jokes we tell, the bargains we strike, the loves we profess, because each of those uses to which we put our words is a way of insisting, affirming, proving that both we and the people to whom we are talking are here, that we and they exist, that we are in relation to them and that this relationship is precious, crucial, the opposite–or at least an attempt to be the opposite–of a “blind flight into darkness.”
Even oppressive language, the language of the oppressor, partakes in this dynamic. I do not mean by this that oppressive language is any less unjust than it is, or that it is not often deadly, literally fatal, to those who are being oppressed, or that it should somehow be accommodated, or fought against any less strongly because it is part of this dynamic. I mean merely to acknowledge the fact that the language of oppression, in its very existence, demonstrates that the oppressor needs the oppressed, that, without the oppressed, the oppressor would not, could not, exist. I know this is not a new idea, but it’s one that I think about when I ask myself why I am a poet, because I do see my work as being in opposition to the language of oppression, and then I think, What would it mean for me as a poet if suddenly there were no oppression to oppose? On the one hand, this is a meaningless question. Oppression is not going to disappear overnight. On the other hand, though, I don’t know how to think about myself as a poet and about my relationship to language without asking it.
In Kayak Morning, Roger Rosenblatt writes, “All I have to keep me afloat, all I have ever had, is writing.” In the most immediate sense, he is talking about how writing has helped him deal with the death of his daughter, but he also means it more broadly, in terms of his life in general; and it is in this latter sense that I identify with him. Writing poetry quite literally saved my life. When I was college freshman, I went through a period of deep, deep depression. I remember spending hours on the phone with a friend of mine from high school, talking about how pointless my life felt, how pointless I felt. In one of those conversations, she asked me, simply, “Are you writing?” I told her no. “Maybe you should be,” she said. She was the only person in the world at that time who could’ve known to say such a thing, and so I listened to her, and I started writing again Not poems, or at least not good poems. Just ramblings that I sometimes chopped up into lines. But the ramblings, even more than talking to her, made me feel less alone, less estranged from myself–which was where my loneliness was coming from–and I felt stronger, strong enough at one point to tell my friend I loved her. It was the first time I’d ever said those words to another human being and meant them as much for myself as for the other person. It didn’t matter to me what my friend said back; it just felt good to love her, to know the feeling as love–to name it, in other words–and to name it to her as being for her. It would be some time before I wrote the poem for her that was rooted in that love, and it was a love she would eventually reject, but when she told me she loved me too at the end of that phone conversation, I knew I would survive.
And so I can think of no better answer to the question that is the title of this post except to say that poetry, more than any other genre in which I have written, has given me the strength to say what I need to survive.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.