Prose from Poetry Magazine

Out There

Naming the things of the world.

by Lili Taylor

I was suffering from Weltschmerz one day (translation: woe for the world). My chest was hurting.

I call my dear friend, Marie (the poet Marie Howe).

“Marie, my heart hurts.”

“You have Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, right? There’s a poem at the beginning. I can’t remember the name. The first line is something like, ‘sorrow everywhere.’ Read it to me.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
From A Brief for the Defense

I finish reading the poem. Neither one of us says anything for a moment. Breathe. I look up. I see a tree through the window. I hear a robin singing. I see the sky. Clouds gently moving.

A poet told me that the job description of the poet is to say the unsayable. Another poet said no matter which way you cut it poems are about emotion. They are about deep emotion.

My work (acting) involves emotions. How do I translate the emotions into something actable? How do I sort through them? Specify and name them? A poet once told me that originally the poet’s job was to name things of this world.
In a way, I am trying to name things with my emotions.

When I begin work on a script I go from the beginning and distill each scene down to its essence. And then I try to name each scene with a word or two or more. It’s almost as if I’m trying to write a poem for each scene; articulating the inchoate, indescribable, unknowable. So, I go through the script and I go through and through it, with my mind and without it. Much the same way as when I’m reading a poem. And then I put the script down when the play or movie begins. Good acting, like a good poem, remains mysterious to me. I couldn’t tell you what it means, but I know it.

I used to try so hard to understand a poem. I was being vigilant instead of receptive. If the poem is saying the unsayable, I don’t need to articulate it back to myself with words. The poet has done that for me. If poems are about emotions, then that is the language I need to use when I’m reading them. Poetry has helped me become more versed, so to speak, in the language of emotion.

I would be thrilled if I could be as “out there” with my acting as poets are with their poems. Leaping toward that stuff which is bubbling around us, unseen but felt. It’s uncharted and raw—a kind of pure undiluted matter brought back for those who want it:

This sky like an infinite tenderness, I have caught
glimpses of that, often, so often, and never yet have
I described it, I can’t, somehow, I never will.

How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving
other human beings’ faces.

And wave after wave, the ocean smells like lilacs in
late August.
        —From Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, by Franz Wright

Originally Published: October 3, 2011


On October 4, 2011 at 10:42am Karry Dayton wrote:
Most of us so-called-poets, with our brooms and closets, where we nest in our words and sit on the eggs of our sentences, trying to sweep and hatch and hide, trying to glower and love, trying... most of us, swell in anguish at the depth of our emotion and it sweeps us into the foaming tides and washes us away, long before we have the talent to open our mouths, our pens, or notes, to take down a single word. Writing, especially emotional writing is like pulling atoms with forceps from the sun into which shaky broken hands try and grip speeding light evaporating into the ether. You, Ms. Taylor do so with beautiful reminder, approach closer than you think.

On October 9, 2011 at 10:32pm Franz Wright wrote:
I love Lili's Taylor's remarks, naturally, and am very grateful to be
mentioned, even quoted, alongside Marie Howe and Jack Gilbert. I just
want to add that while it may be true that poetry is about deep
emotion (remember "only emotion endures"?)--but if I were on the
line taking part in this wonderful conversation, I would want to add
(the obvious, perhaps) that poetry is about language as well, but in
the most curious way: I think it is also about the music of the
language the poet is writing in. And I also believe that poetry, at
certain moments, is closer to music than it is to other forms of
language such as narrative fiction. I am reminded of a lovely moment:
Jim Haba took me aside once at the massive and marvelous poetry
festival he serves as main organizer for, maybe he noticed I was
nervous or frightened before an event, and to distract me from my
own distress he approached and in a quiet, smiling, conspiratorial
voice asked me if I knew this one from Eliot: "Meaning in the poem is
the meat the thief brings with him to distract the guard dog while he
goes about his actual business." F.W.

On October 11, 2011 at 10:35pm Katherine Wessling wrote:
A lovely piece, and true! It brought back memories of my old acting
teacher, Gene Frankel, who always said that the art form closest to
acting is poetry. They are both about imagery, he'd say.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2011
 Lili  Taylor


Lili Taylor is a stage and screen actress.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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