31 October 2010

Something I'm thinking about: death & poetry

I finally got around to reading Creative Nonfiction 38 (Spring 2010), which includes a section of essays on "the theme of Immortality." One of the essays is "The World Without Us: A Meditation" by Carolyn Forché. She writes:
But is it possible to live without ever forgetting death? Could we endure such turbulent radiance? Isn't it necessary to forget so as to get on with remembering the past and planning the future? Death holds us in the present, a moment that spirals outward, a moment revered and treasured beyond comprehension: the last moment, the moment before we go out. In this moment, it is possible to love having lived, to hold one's life sacred and to be filled with gratitude for the gift bestowed at the explosion of our conception. If the "I" were immortal, the self continuous, unthreatened, in this body or another, from time immemorial to infinity, without interruption, if this "I" could remain conscious forever, without limit, in the prison of selfhood—what? There would be "time" for everything and everyone, for all permutations of experience, and thus all urgency would be removed, all longing and wonder, all disappointment and, with it, expectation, leaving us suspended not in an eternal present but an eternal nothingness, without the immense spiritual satisfaction of having schooled a soul.
I've been reading this passage (from a section of the essay titled "From Insomnia:") over and over again, not because it doesn't make sense to me. It does. Especially in the context of long nights lying awake thinking about my own eventual non-being, my own panic at the utter incomprehensibility of that "moment before we go out" or of the very fact that there will be such a moment at all. No, I've been rereading this moment because it seems to be addressing questions about poetry, about the long-argued lyrical self in poetry, about the "I" that inhabits a poem.

I don't know exactly how to address those questions, though, and I'm left wondering: would a similar reflection on poetry ultimately lead to a poetry in which the lyrical self is more confident, more strongly situated in the "moment" of the poem? or would it lead to a poetry that is consciously aware of the inherent subjectivity of a self that is mortal, discontinuous, and ever-threatened?

Is this the same split that Tony Hoagland tries to address in his essay ("Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness") in the September 2010 issue of Poetry? Where he seems to call for a "shape" or an "individual dramatic identity" or a "narrative frame" to mediate the sense of "disorientation" he finds in much contemporary poetry, could we instead discuss the notion of self-identity, whether the "self" is remembered and fixed-for-the-moment as a response to its eventual self-annihilation or the "self" is consciously abandoned in acceptance of its ultimate demise? Then again, isn't this one-or-the-other question another false debate with the answer lying somewhere in the middle? What would that middle-ground even look like?

No answers here, I'm afraid, but if you've read this far, you should probably check out the issue of Creative Nonfiction. Or better yet, subscribe. Seriously, it's good stuff.

Music at the moment: The Low Anthem, Oh My God Charlie Darwin

14 October 2010

A good day

I teach English at an independent school. Which means I also coach two teams, advise a group of students, and moderate several clubs and extracurricular activities. So maybe opening up this space just a few days before starting a new academic year was a bad idea. I mean, I knew there’d be times I’d let this place slide, but man-alive that was fast.

It’s easy to be frustrated as a high school teacher. As a poet who has always loved to read, it’s very easy to be frustrated as a high school teacher. Disillusioned. Disgruntled. Too often, students seem motivated only by grades, test scores, college admissions. Too often, students seemed bored, jaded, cynical. Too often, it seems the things that are important to me are silly to them. Outdated. Worthless.

But today, about twenty students showed up to an after-school meeting of our fledgling creative writing workshop. We spent a few minutes talking about the relationship between William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” and Charles Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold.” Then they started to write their own poems in response to an Edward Hopper painting. They scribbled and scrawled, heads popping up so that wide eyes could absorb the image before their shoulders hunched back over their little desks.

After fifteen minutes, with soccer practice and a student council meeting demanding their attention, students began to trickle out of the room. But most of them lingered for a moment to talk about what they’d just done. With excitement in their voices, they compared what they’d written, traded their impressions of the painting, shared their plans to keep working on their poems. One of them asked if I’d email the image so they could keep writing about it. Others asked if they could share their poems at next week’s meeting. A few seemed not to want to leave.

It’s easy to be frustrated, but not today. Today, I was reminded of the boy in Albert Goldbarth’s poem “Shawl”: “he was discovering himself / to be among the tribe that reads.” Today, there was nothing practical on the line: no grades, no letters of recommendation, no prizes. Instead, these kids put themselves on the line by putting something on the page, and they seemed to discover the exhilaration that comes with finding yourself in a community of others who have chosen to do the same. 

Music at the moment: Old 97's, The Grand Theatre Volume One