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Why I Write to Strangers, Part the Second, in which I Discuss the Happy Accident

My last post promised a list of my top 10 reasons why I bother to respond when strangers write me letters. The problem is, I only posted 7.

Mostly what happened was the result of a failure to fully proof read. But what also happened was a break down in technology. I'm on the road, and the wi-fi I'd hijacked kicked me off in such a manner that I either had time to post my post or do a final proof of my post. I opted for posting. This meant I missed that pesky "10." Had that not happened, the greater Harriet-reading public would never have had to know that I had different original intentions. I mean, in some circles, 7 is an absolutely perfect number. Why bother with reasons 8 through 10? The only problem is that I wrote out an intention to go all the way to 10, and I hadn't yet covered my tracks.

This brings me to the point of today's post: In the world of poetry, mistakes might be just the thing we want. For today's post, I will list (about) 5 poems I love that are the direct result of pretty major mistakes. I'm listing them in no particular order because listing them in some particular order would almost certainly be a mistake.

1) "I Love You Sweatheart," Thomas Lux . Among other things, I like this poem because it has encouraged me to scan roadside graffiti for errors. The poem has helped me be significantly more attentive to the world around me. Isn't that one of the things art is supposed to do? Perhaps this particular poem acts in the same way as snickering in the classroom. Look at that goofball, the poem says. There but for the grace of God go you. I did not make this mistake, but I am implicated in it. I could do the same thing, or something even worse, at any time.

2) "Man Tries To Commit Suicide With a Crossbow," by Ross Gay. For one thing, this poem perfects that wonderful technique of the run-on title. You think one thing is going to happen and then things turn out some other way all together. That's what happens with the best kind of accident. Things start out moving in one direction, but in an instant they are heading a whole other way.

3) "Requiem," by Camille Dungy. Okay, so it's my own poem, but I have it on this list because it gives me faith. It's important that one's own poem can be the occasional source of faith. The accident that is important to me for this discussion is not the motor coach accident that precipitated the poem, but the typographical error that changed the word "sink" to "sing" and then allowed me to access a whole new lexicon. I'd been handwriting drafts of the poem and finally wanted to see it printed from the computer. In the process of transcription a K became a G and all of a sudden there were a whole new set of possibilities for how I could memorialize the man I saw killed. Since that accident I've made a point of moving from hand written to typed drafts, and I pay careful attention to what accidents reveal.

4. "I once knew a man," by Lucille Clifton. The way most of us treat the non-human world is a complete disaster, a train wreck, a huge mistake. Lucille Clifton's poem is amazing in that it simultaneously condemns and pities its subject. When I lived in Virginia there was a figure of speech that, when deployed in its best way, reminds me of this poem. A little old lady might excoriate a younger woman in the kindest and coolest of voices, pointing out all the many mistakes the younger woman is making with her life. She would end the indictment with a stroke of grace, "Bless her heart." For many people this phrase is rhetorical, emptied of its compassion, but in Lucille Clifton's poem both the compassion and the condemnation she feels for the man and his mistakes are palpable. How does she do that? I've studied this poem for years trying to decipher the secrets of its balance. Humans are forever committing mistakes. A poem like "I once knew a man" gives me some ideas about how to talk about these gravest of errors.

5. "Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It's as if Shelley reached back in time to copy edit Ozymandias. "Do you really want to say it like that?" he seems to be asking. "Perhaps you might want to be a little less ambiguous." But, of course, life is about ambiguity. We're constantly misspeaking, and we are constantly being completely misunderstood, or in the best scenarios, incompletely understood. I adore this poem purely because of the fact that there is no real way to know what Ozymandias means, nor Shelley for that matter. About what am I meant to despair? On Shelley's part this wasn't an accident, but his imagination allowed him to capitalize on a huge mix up. A happy accident, indeed.

And what, besides giving me a chance to correct my previous error, does all of this have to do with my talking to strangers? Well, the point is I don't know. Who knows who I will meet and what those meanings will mean for my future. The world is full of happy accidents. I could choose to hide from them, but they will come my way regardless. As I am the sort of writer who believes the world has plenty of fruitful surprises to offer, I might as well open myself up to the possibilities the world is offering me.

So here are reasons 8-10 why I talk to strangers: Because I never know what might happen; because the world is full of surprises; because the very thing I am most worried about might turn into the thing I need most.

Originally Published: April 23rd, 2012

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...