Discovering the Relevance of Words
“The Power of Poetry” by JENNY DRAI
I remember the poem that made me want to be a poet—it was Paul Celan’s “Night Ray” (“Nachtstrahl”) from Poppy and Memory. (I first encountered Celan as an undergraduate German major. Up to that point, I had written almost exclusively fiction and my grand plan in life was to become a world-famous novelist, preferably by the age of twenty-five. You know.) But that poem, that ray of light, struck me as particularly surreal, heartfelt, lonely. I was a baby poet—we were, after all, required to write poems in my Intro to Creative Writing class—and at that time I was just beginning to struggle with what would eventually be diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. I pretty much stumbled through your average day existing on a surreal, heartfelt, lonely plane. That poem, however, made me want to understand myself in the odd mirror that only the angles of language can create for us. Words, it seemed, could collide into completely new meanings that nonetheless managed to seem somewhat familiar. And I wanted familiar. But in my then state of mind, it was easy to be strange at the same time. So I picked up my pen and started to write. (And perhaps, just as importantly, I started to read.) This is what I found: Emotion / Thought / Expression of Curiosity.
There are those who divide the processes of the brain into absolute, and separate, functions. I am not one of those people. And there are those who think emotions are constructs, but I am pretty sure I have witnessed young babies express emotion so I don’t agree with that line of reasoning either. Instead I have come to believe that one of the great powers of poetry is to express the emotional thought, the thoughtful emotion. But I also read and write a great deal of fiction, and fiction does this too. Therefore, the question becomes, how does poetry achieve this effect differently, uniquely? The thoughtful emotion then (or the emotional thought, or some combination of the two) takes place not in the possibility of narrative—though I love a good story as much as anyone—but in the bones, sinew, marrow of individual words. In the way two words link to make a joint. I think this is what we are talking about when we talk about syntax. In my opinion—granted, this is only my opinion and probably hugely indicative of the type of poetry I like to read and write—it is possible to tell a story, to insert narrative, if you will, through syntax. Through the elbows and ankles of words joining words alone. In other words, it becomes more than possible to create at least some type of narrative without writing what we often refer to as “a narrative poem.” And if we can begin with the concept that all writing is, to some degree, autobiographical, could we not argue that syntax too can reflect autobiography? Perhaps it is the syntax of our poems that locates us within our own sense of humanity.
Humanity isn’t singular. Rather it is a shared concept. And a pretty glorious, degrading, used up, magnificent, rambunctious concept at that. If I wrote a poem about a bee hive in a particular style of syntax, that poem would be about the bee hive, about everything the reader finds hidden in the description of the bee hive, and about the humanity of the order of the words, the manner of their having been chosen; said another way, syntax. Poetry, which allows (and often encourages) unusual constructions—more than mainstream literary fiction, at any rate—allows us, more than any other genre of literature, to witness humanity at its building blocks, to feel the whole damn fucking rush.
About twenty years have passed since I first read “Night Ray.” I still return to it on occasion. But in the time between then and now, between the then of the raw college student on fire for all the wrong reasons and the now of a comparatively peaceful existence, I’ve told my own story many times over, inserted my own autobiography—the proof that I am human—into the syntax of my poetry. Over and over I’ve written rupture into smoothness. Created raised seams. As if to say, “Something has happened but is happening no longer but is still here.” What poetry specifically has allowed me to do is to repeat this refrain—from line to line, stanza to stanza, poem to poem—even as I change theme, take on new subjects, explore all of my myriad curiosities. Of which there are many. Simply put, when I write poetry, I can be a self and an other. Therein lies power.