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“For oh, I fear”
I’ve spent at least eight hours of each of the past four days reading other people’s poems. I am attending to word choice, comma placement, the arrangement of lines on the page. I am remembering, in this process, how vulnerable we poets make ourselves each time we take first the risk of writing poems and then the subsequent risk of sending these poems out into the world. This can be a terrifying prospect, writing and then sharing poetry. What I like to read, now and again, are poems that speak directly to the perils of this art.
I thought of this idea when I ran across this poem:
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee,
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up—
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth—
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)
Czeslaw Milosz writes, “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…” (“Ars Poetica?”). The Claude McKay of “Poetry” seems to concur. The poem provides a glimpse into the poet’s terrors. Against it’s rigid form and taut, archaic language, the poem quivers with emotion and fragility. I am smitten by its revelations of vulnerability.
Later in “Ars Poetica?,” Milosz writes, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” And here we are, reading and judging the articulations of a poet’s mind and heart. Certainly this is what we sign up for when we decide to be writers. We want people to read the deepest articulations of our minds and hearts. And yet…and yet… It is a perilous proposition, sometimes, opening our doors to who knows whom.
Moreover, there is always the question of whether anyone will want to bother to read our admissions. In his poem, “Berryman,” W. S. Merwin writes of how his teacher once addressed such fears:
…I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you write is any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Berryman’s words speak to the truth we all know, the peril continues so long as we pursue this art. Sometimes we can secure ourselves against it, but never for too long lest we stop taking risks and opening doors and doing the things that get us in trouble (and into poems!) every time.
I’ve got to get back to reading this pile of other people’s poems (little windows, doorways even, for they’ve chosen to admit me). I’ll end this post with one last poem. Marianne Moore took a crack at describing how she felt in the face of poetry. First in 1921, and again in 1935, and finally, in her brief 1967 version, thus:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading, it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.