Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 5: Practice and Meditation, continued—10 Poems That Have Changed Your Life

I spotted this book at a garage sale: 10 Poems That Will Change Your Life. The title was both intriguing and audacious. I disagreed with the premise implied by the title, but I had to read it—the price was right, and I needed to see what the choices were and how the anthologist asserted each poem’s significance as a “life changer”.

Let me start by saying that I completely agree with the idea that interacting with poetry can be a life altering, perspective changing enterprise. I firmly believe this. Czeslew Milosz’s poem “Dedication” positively aches with these lines:

What poetry does not
save  a nation
 or a people?

I believe in the uplifting and healing power of poetry. Poetry is, for one thing, a compendium of human history, of humanity’s struggle, resilience and survival, if not also of transcendence.

I am suspicious, however, of a programmatic approach—to me this smacks of didacticism, rather than a sincere attempt at guiding others toward portals and new ways of thinking. This, incidentally, is why I tend to read books of literary criticism with a skeptical eye.

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are among the most beautiful poetic testaments ever crafted, but if you know that Eliot was an elite member of the intelligentsia of his time, and that he was writing with an eye toward programming others of his rank to work in support of the prevailing Tory, oligarchic “power elite”, this rather colors one’s reading of the work, doesn’t it?

I will not write an apologia for Eliot; he was a class-conscious bigot who used his position in the publishing world to promote philosophies for the uncommon man, and that these philosophies were conveniently conformative and acceptable to what the ruling class wanted the public to think. There is no doubt that he placed himself in a position of authority among the intelligentsia, and allowed his work to be used as a political tool. While I find it repugnant that he used his undeniable talent and vision to promulgate a sociopolitical cultural agenda, I cannot deny that the Four Quartets are a brilliantly crafted collection of works. These poems are utterly beautiful, and the messages they convey (if you don’t follow up on all the references; these would require several volumes of annotation and particular readings of American and British history) are ultimately transformative.

What I suggest is that if you encounter this body of work by Eliot without benefit (or detriment) of the foreknowledge of Eliot’s cultural agenda, you are likely to have a much different, more uplifting and transcendent reading of the pieces than after you have read a biography of Eliot, literary criticism of his work by other authors and one or two of his plays, which positively ooze with disdain for the common man. It is too bad that Eliot set himself apart to be an arbiter and that his intended audience was so small and narrow. It is also too bad that one must have read so much beforehand to really understand what Eliot meant by all of what he wrote in those four final poetic writings of his career.

The work stands on its own and transcends the purpose its author made for it. I treasure these works because of their unintended message to me.

Returning to my thoughts on 10 Poems That Will Change Your Life, the well-intentioned author of this small anthology spends much of the space in the book telling us how the ten selections were life altering for him. If you remove that commentary, the biographies of the authors of the poems and the suggested further reading, then this book really offers very little for its retail price of $14.00 plus applicable sales tax. You and I could spend that much money on a much larger anthology or on the collected works of a single author, then to mull over the work on our own, without being told what to think about it.

I considered the selection of poems offered, and wondered at it. Yes, there are some interesting selections. Whitman’s Song of Myself makes total sense. Mary Oliver’s The Journey is also a powerful statement. But out of all the 27,000 lines of poetry by Rumi, why select Zero Circle?  And, if you are presenting one poem by a Persian poet, why then take a selection from another Persian poet? Why not represent a Chinese or Japanese zen poet?

The small sampling in this thin volume is a highly subjective one, and while the dust jacket claims they are “astonishing poems” that “can inspire you to live what you always knew in your bones, but never had the words for”, I wonder. In fact, I think the book failed to do that for the original owner, which is why I found it at the garage sale. Ultimately, the book failed to do that for me, as well. Why should I care about how the anthologist experienced these poems?

I long ago came to the conclusion that individuals cannot (although they try to do so) buy or sell personal experience. The people who try to sell their own experience to others are false prophets; the people who try to buy someone else’s experience are abdicating their own. The publishing industry should heed this, if it wants to survive.

To his credit, the anthologist does acknowledge his small sampling to be a starting point, but I think he missed something by not proposing a next step, which I will do now: to create a practice around the poetry that inspires you.

How would such a practice work? You could start with a short list of poems that have inspired you. Copy them into a notebook and think about them. Recognizing that such exercises are naturally subjective, write what you think about the poems, cite reasons why you love them and why they inspire you. Use this as springboard to your own thinking, thought process, analysis and writing.

A friend of mine told me that she had shown her work to a mentor who offered the criticism that too much of her life was reflected in the writing!!! Well, for heaven’s sake, your writing is a subjective experience, and it should be—it is your experience!

When asked by someone “What should I write?” the author advised, “Write what you know.”



Next time: Trial and Error, Blank Pages and Failures