Discovering the Relevance of Words
“The Power of Poetry: I Want to Keep Happening”
I’m hesitant to write about the power of poetry because I don’t want to romanticize anything. Anne Sexton said “It’s the poetry that seems to be saving me” and she still eventually killed herself. I can’t forget this. I can’t talk about the power of poetry without recognizing the limits of the power of poetry. Nothing is pure, not even a poem, except if you want to get meta and note that poems can be pure in their impurity, which is to say their realness, which is to say truth.
This is how I see things: from all angles. From the angles of each angle. From the underbelly of the underbelly. Which also means that I see the limits within my sight, the infinite space around me. For every word I say there are a thousand words left unsaid, and for every word left unsaid there are a thousand more _____ that language cannot shape. But still I prefer writing over speaking, since in writing I have room to pull in more of the angles I see, to create a mood and tone that bump up against truth, something I am not able to do in my everyday speech. Experiencing the world like this, though, is depressing. I’m so sensitive to the intricacies of the webs that hold everything together I can’t help but feel like a bystander to life more than a participant. Maybe this is why Anne felt so pulled toward her own death, the moment she could fully participate in her life without time to observe it or its aftermath. Death as birth back into oneself. Death as the only purity. Maybe this is why we are often so fearful of death, the Great Unknown: what do any of us know of purity?
Still I echo Anne in saying “It’s the poetry that seems to be saving me” because the act of writing a poem (or essay or prose or genre-less body of text) is what takes me from being a mere observer of my life to an active participant in it. Writing makes tangible the movement that is living, the movement that is one realm of consciousness rolling into the next. Poem as evidence of a life lived. Poem as gravestone. Poem as death of the self I have outgrown. Writing as the shedding of this dead skin/ poem as this dead skin. An artifact. This is why my poems have nothing to do with me (the title of my first book) any more than a carcass has to do with the person who lived inside it. My poems are exhaled breaths: necessary to my survival but now meaningless to me beyond this function. My poems do not tell you anything about me, the person I am right now, in this present moment, since by the time you read them I will have already taken so many more breaths, lived so many more moments, escaped so many dead versions of myself.
What keeps you alive is not the breath itself but the act of breathing, and in order to survive I must keep breathing. What matters is not the poem but what happened to you while you were writing it. This is why my poems don’t interest me. They are old news. I am most interested in what’s happening now, in what I am about to write. I want to know who I am becoming. I want to keep happening. Poetry as anti-suicide.
I so want to end the essay there but that would be irresponsible and selfish. Because while my own poems eventually feel like nothing more than shed skin, I don’t want to absolve poets of our ethical responsibility for the way we choose to contribute to the shaping of reality. The power of poetry also lies in the power of language, which is a political power, since language has the power to reinforce oppressive beliefs as well as the power to challenge them. I believe in poetry. I don’t know if I believe that poets will stop fucking it up. Men aestheticizing violence against women and calling it provocative, white people reenacting racism and calling it conceptual, for two common examples, are no less oppressive simply because someone labeled them as Art. Poems that reenact oppression are poems that matter in that they are acts of violence and need to be burned.
And poems are not worthless. Sometimes the small light we gather from someone else’s words is enough light to get us to the end of the day. I have written myself out of moments of despair. The power of poetry is a healing power. And while this isn’t always enough – the power of poetry cannot promise to save your life, or perhaps Anne would still be with us – maybe it is enough to get you home tonight. Maybe, for a moment, you can rest. It’d be unrealistic to expect anything more.