I was asked recently if I cultivated a public image, and in response, I noted that I’m just trying not to embarrass myself. I was being a bit glib, perhaps, but I think it’s also a fairly accurate summation of my approach to interactions with the large, anonymous bodies to which the term “public” might reasonably apply.

One way to avoid embarrassment is to say as little as possible. Yet here I am, in public, opening my big mouth, saying things.

I’m wary of committing myself on paper (or in pixels) in any other form but poetry. “Committing myself” is an apt phrase because it is, in a way, about commitment. I feel noncommittal about many things. One of these things, oddly, is poetry. Not the practice of it, or whether or not it lives (a question we seem so fond of asking), but rather, ideas about poetry: how poetry works, what it does, where it's going, theories therein, and so on.

I love poetry, but I worry sometimes that I am not interested enough in poetry. I love to read it, I love to write it, I love to grapple with it, but I don’t love to explain it. I’m not always eager to analyze something I’d rather just co-exist with. Hence I was a terrible English major.

Sometimes I feel I’m supposed to make pronouncements about poetry, and poets, and what poets and poetry are doing, or have done, or will do, or should do, that I’m suppose to want to. But I don’t. Not really. I have ideas, yes. I ponder, I pontificate. But I’m never quite sure. I change my mind. I can’t decide. And I don’t really want to. I’m more comfortable with poetry being a landscape of shifting sand than a cement lot. I love the possibility and the multiplicity in that.

I guess my feeling is: what do I know? I know a few things, but in the grand scheme it adds up to so little. I can’t be sure of much of anything except what I feel, what poetry can do to me.

I’ve been reading Kate Greenstreet’s book Young Tambling, and the other day, I was struck by this dialogue within it:

—Do you think of poetry as useful?

—Yes, it has been to me.

—Tell me some of the ways it has been useful to you personally.

—It makes me feel that being human is a good thing. Being human, and even just being the way I am … I’m not completely alone.

—So a use of poetry is to feel connected to people?

—To feel human. And to feel that being human is … an okay thing.

—It makes you feel that being human is an okay thing because it allows a connection between you and others?

—I guess. I guess it makes me feel like we’re all okay somehow. [starts to cry]

—How does poetry cause that feeling?

—I don’t know.

I love this exchange because of the way the person being questioned struggles to explain themself, and poetry, and what poetry does and how it does it, and maybe fails and then gives in. I love how basic the response is, this basic need to feel like we’re okay, that being human is “an okay thing.” I love that as the questioned is pressed to justify poetry’s usefulness, to pin it down and account for how it makes her feel, the person starts to cry. It’s as if the attempt to explain how poetry works and define its purpose verges into this tender territory, this precious and vulnerable place within.

I can relate. If you asked me the same questions, I could try to answer. I could make something up, wax academic, give you my best guess. But I’d probably just want to cry, too, and admit that I don’t know why, exactly, but it is important. It’s immeasurable, what it means to me. Maybe this is why I’m tentative about analysis and declarations. I don’t want to embarrass myself, that’s true. But, also, we’re all okay. And I’m hesitant to go poking around and disturb the perch where poetry has made its home in me.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2014

Born in Portland, Oregon, poet Camille Rankine earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at Columbia University. Rankine’s nimble, urgent poems are often concerned with landscape, history, and intimacy. Slow Dance with Trip Wire (2011) was chosen by poet Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s New...