Ireland, Poetry & The Good Art of Being Alone
I woke up this morning thinking of the Irish. In midtown Manhattan the parade barreled through and people wore their green sweaters and talked about their heritage and well, drank some. Mainly, I thought of cultures that are inherently linked to poetry, where the legacy of poetry is something highly celebrated, is viewed as an essential commodity. Perhaps I’m dreaming that up (it’s easy to fantasize about other countries when you’re living in another, like admiring someone else’s meal). Also, today I was thinking of Yeats. Okay, while it may seem almost cliché to bring up Yeats (like bringing up Paz on Cinco de Mayo), I stare at this quote everyday on my desk:
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
And so I thought I would. Bring him up, that is. Forgive me, my average-self. This quote is also on my refrigerator, and sometimes, on days when I need it; it’s in my pocket. Also, I think, the poem in its entirety is in my memory. I see it as an instigator.
When I am at a loss for words or find myself searching for a subject to write about, it helps. It points me in the right direction. Yeats says (you all know this, I’m sure) in the beginning of the poem, “I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/I sought it daily for six weeks or so./ Maybe at last, being but a broken man,/ I must be satisfied with my heart.” And so, the direction the poem points me in (and this is the hard truth of the matter, isn’t it?) is back to me. Oh no. Not me again.
With the recent NEA report revealing the decline of reading across the board and one theory behind that being that teens believe that reading is lonely, well, I sort of had to agree. Reading is lonely. Or rather, you do it alone. As you do writing. If it all, as Yeats says, begins with ourselves, then so be it. What strikes me as key though, is that no one is saying that being alone can be a good thing. I think it is. We spend so much time checking our IM, our e-mails, our texts, that we’re hardly ever alone with our own thoughts. We’ve got this big parade of the world going through our brains at high speed and we can get caught up in the roar. So, maybe in order to read more, write more, and foster a community that cares for poetry as a cultural necessity, we must first relearn how to be alone. Calm ourselves down enough at the end of the day to hear that voice in our head. That voice where writing enters, the voice that reads and responds to those great writers we love, the voice that begins and ends “in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...