and the Duty of the Poet
from West Branch, Fall/Winter 2010
I see the water as extension of my mind,
The troubled part ...
Don't write about New Orleans.
—A New Orleanian
When I moved back to New Orleans after the hurricane and flood of 2005, one of my friends told me not to write about New Orleans. I think I understand why he said this. Writings about disaster and extremity are easily vexed by cliché, sentimentality, and horrifyingly easy conclusions, all of which reduce and even strip the disaster down from what was, as an event, unspeakably terrible. Sentimentality isn't just bad craft, it's a sloppy mind, a hurried answer, a generalized emotion. After 9/11, after the Indonesian tsunami, after Haiti's earthquake that likely, according to NASA, shook the earth slightly off its axis, after the uncanny speed of Chile's earthquake right on the heels of Haiti's—after all of this, if a writer were to say, ''I'm going to write about Haiti," or "I'm writing about terrorism," something in us recoils. It's the right reaction, a reaction that serves, for a writer, as a warning: Your reader will likely balk at your subject, but not because it has to do with natural and unnatural disasters befalling American and world cities. A reader recoils at the thought of large, painful subjects being written about poorly.
How, then, do we write about cities torn apart by violence or environmental disaster? How do we write inside and beyond such places?
I have conflicted feelings about this question, as I tend to think a poet should not sit down with a chosen subject in mind, but must learn the subject during the act of composition. Sitting down to write about a particular city's catastrophe, then, is problematic not only because of the risks of sentimentality and cliché, but because choosing to write "about" something drags along with it the possibility of poetic confinement during the act of composition. The willfulness of the poet who begins with a subject in mind will be felt all over a page, pushing the poem into the desired subject, even as the poem wants to stray and find its own way. "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting," Robert Frost said. It is the melting that is the poem's will, its organic and secretive path. Whichever way the ice melts, it is not so much a matter of a poet's choice as it is the demands of the imagination and countless factors of emotion, psychology, music, literary influence, and, perhaps above all, confusion that melt the ice. If a poet begins inside of an unsettled feeling, a "not knowing," asking during composition where the poem will go, where it will end up, what turn it will make, what surprise or idea might arrive next, then the reader likely will, too. Heat, invisible and effective, melts ice into its natural, unforced path.
Perhaps, then, poets should not set before themselves the task of writing "about" anything in particular. Our task is blind, we find our way by feel—a sensation that can grow confident and nimble in the absence of full sightedness. Poetic composition requires an openness so bare a poet's thoughts are vulnerable to destruction. Ideas you thought were true about a particular subject often become wrecked ships hauled back to port, not fit for sailor transport. The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art. The poet dies a little—or a lot—with every poem. Octavio Paz says it another way: "Every poem is fulfilled at the poet's expense."
It is a shocking art, partaking richly in that old definition of "creativity" as part invention, part destruction. If cities appear in our writing, fine, but the true subject must be the destruction of our lies, our falsehoods, and our shallows. That destruction is, for me, subject matter.
I hope New Orleans was never my subject matter. I lived there between 2003 and 2006, first in what is called uptown and then in a neighborhood called the Faubourg Marigny, a district of New Orleans where artists and bohemians tend to live. My husband and I saw things there we'll likely never see again—a man who made a full band of himself by attaching dozens of instruments to his body, honking his horn while he tugged a rope that would strike a drum strapped to his back. A neighbor who walked a dog, a cat, and a goat, all in a little line strung one to the next. Three generations of one family, all sitting on the porch of a house with no air conditioning on what New Orleanians call "century days"—100 degrees and 100% humidity. Mardi Gras beads in the trees and poisonous, stinging caterpillars falling from the live oaks. And one more thing, something I hope never to see again—the eerie light and panicked air of a place that has a category five storm off its coast, its "storm track" predicting it will head straight for the city, a city below sea level, a city whose federal levees couldn't (and still can't) withstand even a category three hurricane. A city shaped like a bowl about to be filled.
Details of cities—of course—make their way into poems as they become necessary during composition, but city "happenings," whether hurricanes, earthquakes, or falling towers, are not revelations. The poem wants, like the layers of the earth, to drive itself core-ward, each layer—topsoil, crust, mantle, outer core, inner core—separated by the task its depth decides. Cities can be starting points for poems—topsoils or crusts—but far deeper than any chosen location is that other setting: the mind of the poet. I think the mind is the only revelatory setting we really have.
If we write with a place as our subject—without reaching towards some other revelation—our writing will reach only the reader who has an inherent interest in that place, a history there, or plans to go there as a tourist. William James calls these incidental, crossover intrigues "added secondary" emotional effects, effects that give rise to the "the awakening of memory and association." In other words, emotions might be evoked in me if I read a poem about a girl growing up in Oregon because I, too, was a girl growing up in Oregon. Many, many books today sell because of these secondary effects: I like to knit, so I buy books on knitting; I am interested in neurology, so I buy The Brain that Changes Itself, and so on. Poets, however, cannot allow themselves to rely on secondary effects. We can't write only for those readers who have something in common with us. Appealing to a commonality (or worse, utterly relying on it) diminishes the poetic task entirely.
In addition to teaching us about the secondary emotional effects, William James discusses, in his epic work of 1890, The Principles of Psychology, what he calls "the subtler emotions" evoked by art:
In listening to poetry, drama, or heroic narrative we are often surprised at the cutaneous shiver which like a sudden wave flows over us, and at the heart-swelling and the lachrymal effusions that unexpectedly catch us at intervals. In listening to music the same is even more strikingly true.
Images—here James discusses the images we see and hear in the arts—have physiological effects; of this there is no doubt, James says. In other words, art works on the body, not only on what we call the emotions, whatever those may be. James' theory of emotion, in short form, is this: the body is changed in response to "an exciting fact," and the emotion follows the physiological change. Prior to James, it was long held that just the opposite was true—that we have an emotional response to an "exciting fact," and then our bodies respond to our emotions. We are sad and then we cry, for instance. No, James said, we are sad because we cry. Our bodies change at the sight, sound, taste, smell or tactile sensation of something, and then emotion arises. We are happy because we laugh. We are scared because our bodies are fleeing.
James' theory has excited criticism, as all radical theories do, yet neurologists, scientists, and theorists today acknowledge there is something true in what James wrote. Emily Dickinson knew this, too. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," she said. "I know that it is poetry."
Change me physiologically, and I will listen to you. Art works on the body, James says.
How do we know whether a city, village, or slaughterhouse, whether Sudan's horrors or New Orleans' drowned neighborhoods or the disasters of our ecosystem ought to be our subject? I've suggested that these things can be the surface concern or earliest images of our poem's conception, but that they ought never be the heart of the poet's work. The subject, instead, is what we've discovered or felt about such places through the compositional process itself and should not be a conclusion drawn prior to the act of writing. A writer's task is nothing less than revelation.
This past winter at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, I heard the poet and translator Marie Ponsot say it another way. In response to the question, "What is the duty of the writer?" she said, "In the country of the poem, we are governed by the poem." We are bound, she continued, only to "the welfare of the poem." That is our only duty as poets: the welfare of the poem. "Anxiety about subjects," Ponsot said, "is useless. It is not a question for working poets."
Perhaps it should not be a concern or worry which "places" we attend to in our writing and which we do not. I have never felt, for instance, a lack of countryside or cities in the work I've read. I feel, instead, a lack of emotion. A lack of originality. A lack of gravity. When I leave untransformed, I'm disappointed. As a reader, I want to be changed, and I care very little what land- or city-scape I'm visualizing. As a poet, if I fret that I have forgotten the meadow, the suburb, the fields or the coal town I pass every day on the train, if I worry that I must, since I lived through America's largest natural disaster, write about New Orleans, I enact an enormous force, or will, upon the poem. And that is a trespass against the poem, and does not have the poem's welfare in mind.
Writing is a living transaction between artist and art. A poem is not simply a "made thing," which is a slightly crude, if accurate, definition of a poem. It "makes" the artist too, makes her until there is enough there to destroy. After the destruction, there is more making. The Canadian poet, essayist, and classicist Anne Carson writes of Leonardo da Vinci's process of painting the Mona Lisa in this way:
Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back. Don't tell me he was painting his mother, lust, et cetera. There is a moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other—what a thirst it was, and he supposed that when the canvas became completely empty he would stop. But women are strong. She knew vessels, she knew water, she knew mortal thirst.
Perhaps this can be our instruction as we move forward to write "in or beyond the city." If the city haunts, if the suburbs are pouring questions into you, if the farmland vexes you, if a place makes a vessel of you into which it pours its waters, whether foul or fair, if a certain landscape is requiring your mind, if it feels endless in its questions, then begin there. The gravity of the place might pull you in. And, if you find you were wrong, if you find there is no world of ideas and discoveries for you beneath that topsoil or crust, you will have to abandon that city or village. You will have to begin the world again.
This essay was originally written for "Souk Ukaz: A Marketplace of Ideas," a symposium of international writers in Fes, Morocco in May of 2009. The symposium was organized by The International Writing Program of The University of Iowa, and its theme was "Writing In and Beyond the City."
About the Author
Katie Ford is the author of Deposition and Colosseum. Her recent poems appear in The New Yorker, Smartish Pace, Bayou, and Blackbird. She teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Philadelphia.
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