Poetry: Rhyming not necessary but some assembly required

This sense of viral isolation, dread and global make-over (for good and worse) gets the proverbial juices flowing of our local and national bards. It’s not a stretch to say there are many people on our coast and farther east who consider themselves to be “poets.”

With a liberal dose of simile, any number of cultural and natural events hearken the phrase, “Blank is like poetry in action.”

Ever see a dolphin in the wild under water? Ever see Carl Lewis compete in the long jump? Ever see a skateboarder compete in an extreme sports competition? Ever see a peregrine falcon dive at over 220 miles an hour?

“Poetry in action.”

April is deemed National Poetry Month. Through the work of the Academy of American Poets who saw the success of other celebrations such as Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), writers, poets and teachers helped found Poetry Month.

The aim is simple:

• highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,
• encourage the reading of poems,
• assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,
• increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,
• encourage increased publication and distribution of poetry books; and,
• encourage support for poets and poetry

Where I now live, the Oregon Coast celebrates writers – poets – through conferences, workshops, organizations and, of course, readings. For now, like the summer Olympics, the live lyrical works and in-your-face performances by poets have been cancelled.

However, there are on-line options. Our own count librarians are putting up more resources and are encouraging poets (and other writers) to record their performances. AAP’s web site has plethora of live filmed readings and activities for young and old.

I asked the Toledo, Oregon, head librarian her take on the written word’s value in a time of crisis. Deborah Trusty stated: “So, the value of literature is great, as it has always been because it speaks to the universal human experiences. ‘Now,’ whenever now is for anyone, is always a good time for literature and an opportunity to contemplate the deeper feelings and experiences of what it means to be a human BEING.”

Yes, poetry can be dreaded, only because it has been poorly taught and presented.

Portland poet Marianne Klekacz states clearly, “ I think many people are intimidated by poetry, a reaction that probably dates back to middle or high school. Elementary school students seem to get it immediately, because, I suspect, they haven’t had the imagination trained out of them yet.”

She told me she once hosted the annual William Stafford birthday party in January and the April Poetry Month readings at the Newport Library. “My book [“When Words Fail”] was published in 2009. It can be found in the library, but since that is now quarantined, if you’ll send me a mailing address, I’d be happy to send you a copy.”

William Stafford is one of the country’s preeminent poets, one whose work is relevant in this time of Covid-19. His son Kim (also a Willamette University faculty member) was poet laureate of Oregon until last year.

Here are some definitions of poetry:

Mary Oliver — “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.”

Salvatore Quasimodo — “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.”

Rita Dove ¬– “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”

James K. Baxter ¬¬– “The poem is a plank laid over the lion’s den.”

When I requested writers in our area to tell me what they believe the value of poetry is, many failed to respond. A sign of poetic solitude? A dystopian look at the world from one of the country’s most beautiful places from which to create words, music, art, dance and more?

Marianne was profuse in her responses, as was the Toledo head librarian.
Marianne recommends Peter Sears’ work – he was Oregon’s poet Laureate a few years ago.

She said, “I got involved with poetry late in life, pretty much by accident, and have wallowed in it ever since. I probably have more books of poetry (as opposed to books about poetry) than the Newport Library.”

Poet Leanne Grabel too recommends Sears. “Peter was a friend. I used this in classes often to teach metaphor. Taught in lock-down residential treatment. Kids loved this.” Here is the Sears poem Leanne adores:

My Emptiness Rides in the Back Seat, Propped UP

Don’t look now but that’s my emptiness smiling at us
from the back seat of the car with the hat on that’s too small.
I give him hats that fit and he chucks them out the window.
Then flops over, face down,
probably laughing his eyeballs out. I prop him up.
Maybe I should get him like a baby chair.
Or tape him to the back seat.
Yesterday he caught me looking at him
in the rearview mirror.
That smile, I can’t take it.
I threw fresh mints back over my shoulder at him
as hard as I could.
I threw the towel at him that I use to wipe the windshield
and almost piled into a Dodge 4×4.
That’s it. I stop the car, take him out, sit him
on a wooden bench in the park, and walk back to the car.
Yeah, just leave him there.
He’s my emptiness, I can do what I want with him.
He’s such a baby. Maybe he should have to do it on his own.
Well, I barely get around the block
when I whip the car around and head back for the little whuss.
I mean, how long can he last on his own?
So I am getting out of my car
when I happen to glance at the back seat.
There he is, my emptiness, with one of those dumb hats on,
waving my car keys.

Over at Dissent Magazine, there is a great interview of Carolyn Forché.

[“Witnessing War, with Carolyn Forché” — The author of What You Have Heard Is True talks about her political education in El Salvador, by Patrick Iber]

I cut my teeth on Forché. She ended in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. After, she toured the US — 49 states in a sort of Blitzkrieg of truth telling about the despotic regime in Salvador propped up and trained by USA. Americans doubted her experiences, denying the realities of the death squad imperium of the School of the Americas murder college.

I spoke with her at the University of Arizona where she appeared at the Poetry Center, and I met her years later at a reading at the University of Texas — El Paso. Heck, here is an old Dissident Voice piece I did, This Land is Their Land, and We Are the Illegal Aliens

I ended up working with Salvadoran refugees in El Paso, and that story was written several times, including the El Paso Herald Post which then sent it out to their sister newspapers.

Here, a recent update of that experience with Casa Annunciation, Shifting Baselines in a Time of Climate Change, Systems Stagnation, Life and Death in a Time of Amnesia

Time of Amnesia

Here, some art therapy from some of the children at the refugee center.

Time of Amnesia

Again, there is this huge tension between MFA/masters of fine arts creative writing “poets” living off of tenure track jobs, and those of us who are revolutionary. This poem, by Forché, is powerful now, and then, 1978:

The Colonel

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
— May 1978

Paul Kirk Haeder has covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/ community journalism in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, and PK12 distrcits. He organized part-time faulty. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. He blogs from Waldport, Oregon. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.