The Church of Poetry
"Do something in a poem that makes you wake up in the night and blush." Lavinia Greenlaw
Now there is a challenge. Bushing is so hard for me. I can't tell when last I blushed. But then sometimes for me it is hard to tell. But I do blush. At least I think I do. I have blushed before. It started in my armpits and it came on me like a stinging. Of course no one noticed. But that is another story. Still, I can't say that anything I have written has made me blush. Well, again, not true. I have written something that someone who should not have read it read it and then I blushed for having been caught. But something in a poem that made me wake up in the night and blush? Nope. Here is how I know that one day my greatest fear is going to be realized. And here is the fear: that the world is going to find out that I am really not an authentic poet, just a faker with no commitment. My friend and I have a recurring observation about writers that goes something like this: "man, dem love it, iya." This is patois.
What it means is that the person we are observing is one of those genuinely committed writers, those literary types who take this writing stuff very seriously. Dem love it. There is something slightly disingenuous about this mockery coming from us, but it is our way of saying that we are just not as committed to and as serious about this idea of being writers. It is a way dampening the anxiety of failure. I learned this skill years ago as a teenager. If I treated whatever I was doing with nonchalance, then if I failed at it, I could pretend that it really did not mean so much to me.
But I say slightly disingenuous because I have arrived at the conclusion that being a poet and writing poems is not something that I dream about or wake up blushing about. And accepting this is part and parcel of my acceptance of my potential fraudulent ways. Shouldn't all true poets dream about writing poetry and wake up in the middle of the night sweating and blushing about some powerful line they have dreamed? Some things are just more important to me than poetry, I fear. The things that have woken me up blushing, have not been exactly poetic, and to repeat them here is actually going to make me blush, so I won't. But I can tell you that I was not dreaming of a poem. Yes some things are more important than poetry for me. And by some things, I don't mean just a few things. The list is fairly long.
I tried to make poetry a religion. That did not work too well. Part of the problem had to do with this fraud thing. You know, if I am a fraud, then I will live with one of Jimmy Baldwin's characters in heaven fully disappointed that it was all a waste of time that it was all a lie (its a great novel, you should read it). The other part had to do with the matter of rejections by editors and all the awards and prizes I have not won because I have not been deemed worthy here on earth. So I have started to believe in the poetry after life, which is the wonderful Gospel According to Hopkins--the idea that after we are gone we will be discovered for our true value and worth. Of course, we will be dead and so our pleasure in this great after life can come only through imagining what it will be like while we are still alive--which seems like a raw deal. Maybe this is true of all religions, but since I know that in America alone more than three thousand books of poetry are published each year (not counting the self-published works), I have to fear that my odds of achieving an amazing posthumous glory are worse than the Jehovah's Witnesses' 144,000 chosen.
And there is more. One of the painful realities of being a poetry acolyte is that this potential religion is marked by rejection. And of course, in order to not be broken by rejection, one must construct a myth of value, relevance and even greatness for ourselves. Well, this seems like too much work on my religion, and a part of me starts to wonder whether I am just making it all up. A religion of my own invention does not appeal to me. I can barely trust my own dreams as it is.
And then I have thought of fellow poets as my brothers and sisters in the faith of poetry. Oh dear. To love all these odd people I need something more than the notion that they believe in writing and reading poetry and love some kind of poetry to convince me that I should see myself as one with them. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some poets and it is kind of nice to know that other people think poetry is important. But after that, what? What else do they think is important? And I have to wonder whether the different tastes in poetry that we all have is the equivalent of the differences say between Baptists and Presbyterians in the Christian church. At least the church has Christ. We poets can't even agree on our savior. Perhaps poetry is a great religion, but I fear I am a bit of a fraud which is the equivalent of being an apostate, and so that is why I don't get that kind of love.
I know, I know, I am being a classic human being trying to define things through the prism of my limitations. I am using the template of Christian religion to try to define poetry as a religion and this is clearly problematic. But I have to say that the gut feeling that poetry won't do it for me is still there.
So what I am left with is the inadequacy of metaphor. And despite this I know that the poem is the road for me--a path that takes me places that I can't anticipate. The language of poetry alerts me, makes me turn around to see where the sound is coming from. Shaped right, the poem is a prayer, a sacrament, a mantra, a voice speaking back. And sometimes in the middle of making a poem I forget where I am and I travel. I give poetry all of these things. And I also give that were I told that I could never make a poem again, I would not take it well.
In these moments, I find solace in one poet who I think really found a way to work it out. Bob Marley made a simple declaration in one of his most beautiful songs, a statement that at the end of the day spoke to the uselessness of poetry even as it celebrated its usefulness in the world we live in. After asking us to break out of the entrapment of "mental slavery", and after lamenting the death of the prophets and our silent looking on, he returns to this simple statement: "Won't you help me sing these songs of freedom/ For all I ever had: Redemption Songs". Marley, a man fully aware of the pains of the world, and fully aware of the seeming madness of making music in the face of suffering, declares that among all the things he could be--a fighter, a solder, a politician, a welder, a gunman--he is simply a poet, a songster, and all he has are songs. Rasta was his religion, but poetry was his vocation. I can deal with that.
Tonight I will sleep and hope to wake in the middle of the night blushing. One can only hope. But if I wake at 4:45 AM as I do each morning, with my nose tingling with allergies and my body saying, "not now, not now!", I won't feel bad--at least I have this ordinary task of making poems to look forward to during the day, and that is fine. Then I will pray. selah
Linh Dinh, thanks for that poem. Funny. At least to me it was funny.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...