There’s a poem by the Canadian poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, titled “Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear” which is rather intense and marvelously clear, in fact. She begins, “Let me make this perfectly clear. / I have never written anything because it is a Poem.” Notice, the capital P, Poem. And then her poem, direct and forthright and firm throughout, ends:
Do not think for one minute it is the Poem that matters.
It is not the Poem that matters.
You can shove the Poem.
What matters is what is out there in the large dark
and in the long light,
So yes, shove the Poem. What matters, as always, is the shadow and the light, the fact of our breathing. That miracle. What matters, too, is poetry, which to me is the large dark, the long light, what breathes there.
In her essay, “The Art of Finding,” Linda Gregg writes, “There is a luminosity in those poems of Lorca and Hopkins, and for me ever since when I see such luminosity beginning in a poem, it is a sign that something significant has been found.” She goes on, “It may be that the major art in poetry is the art of finding this shining—this luminosity. It is the difference between a publishable poem and one that matters.”
In “The Secrets of Poetry,” Gregg writes about the celadon bowl belonging to the Mikado which was broken, sent away for repair and returned pieced together and affixed with heavy iron staples. The poem ends, “The letter with it said they could not make it / more perfect. Which turned out to be true.”
And so, let’s go on working on our shattered poems, our novels, the ones that need to be stapled together in the end. They don’t hold water, maybe, but they let in light at curious and broken angles. I think the same thoughts apply to paintings, to photographs. I’m still learning in my photography to remember that I’m not taking a picture of a flower, say, but of light. I want my writing to breathe, my photographs to breathe. I want them to matter, if only a little, if only to a few. And I want to be changed by the making of these things, by the way light gets through, eases into a poem, sings, stings, startles one by its presence.
Jorie Graham, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor titled, “Daring to live in the Details” says, “Writing a poem is thrilling because you’re changed by the act of writing it. You make discoveries that will sustain you, make you a better parent, make you a better citizen. If they happen to end up as adequate discoveries on the page, that’s a blessing. But you’re definitely making discoveries that you take back into your life.”
This is similar to what Li Young-Lee said, about how the writing of poetry changes you on the cellular level. You know, ‘shove the Poem,’ because what you’re doing is changing your life, your being. And this matters.
In the Graham interview, she is asked, How does poetry keep you "in life?" which I think is a very interesting question because this is where we all are, after all. She answers:
Poetry has always seemed to me not so much a record of a life lived [than] as a way - through the act of composition - of experiencing an event I missed [by] just living it. Poetry's a way of thinking that only enacts itself in the moment of composition. Things hurt more when I'm about to write. It's like a lens aperture: You suddenly decide you're going to open it up and feel things at a level you didn't feel when you were just living through them.
It's always very important, as I'm moving through a situation, to make sure I'm using all my senses, not just my eyes.
As poets, we tend to use our eyes first. Even if the material doesn't end up staying in the poem, I always ask myself, what did it smell like, did you report texture, did you hear anything when you were there? There's that constant sense of "Anything else? Are you sure you've been in this scene deeply enough?"
The everyday goes on, breakfasts are made. Lunches, suppers. One goes on balancing work and writing and family. One walks the dog, buys the groceries, sweeps the floor. One manages to occasionally have lunch with a friend and talk about life and poetry. One manages to read the work of others, to comment and encourage and admire. One manages to appear calm. One attempts. One is rarely luminous. The thing is, as Graham says, to write, because at the very least, writing will change you. And I think that goes for those of us who try to take a photograph or two every day. It’s another way of absorbing the details of things, the fragrance of things, the way the light enters into them. That, too, may change a soul, enliven it.
In all honesty, I talk a good game, but there are days when it’s difficult to believe that any of this writing and photographing and art-making really matters. There are times when a person is just overtaken by a sadness. One morning, I woke up feeling particularly sad, gripped by it. I grabbed my coffee, pet the dog a little, watched Rob go downstairs to his studio. 6am in the morning. Bleary eyed I go to my computer, look at the photos I’d taken the previous day. The photos aren’t particularly sad, but I start looking for ‘sad’ poems. What I come up with is Katie Ford’s “Song after Sadness,” which ends, “Don’t say it’s the beautiful / I praise. I praise the human, / gutted and rising.” The beautiful isn’t what matters, nor the bowl, nor the poem. It’s the human, the gutted and rising, the broken, and the stapled back together.
Nevertheless, I go on feeling “less than brilliant,” which is a line taken from a poem from Tony Hoagland, “A Color of the Sky.” It’s worth seeking out for the image of the dogwood “losing its mind” and for the lines:
Its been doing that all week:
and throwing it away,
and making more.
I read these lines and sit back. I breathe. I think, so that’s what this is then. A chance. An attempt. After the sadness, during. To make beauty, to throw it away, so that more can be made.
Of course we are gutted. Of course we rise.