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What Poetry Does (An Expanding Folder of Notes)

Sun set over the desert

I begin by returning to something I have tried to write before:

My training in writing poetry allowed me to stay present—to literally not pass out—at the deaths of my mother and my brother-in-law. In those moments I had no faith in my body to stay upright and yet I did.

I watched the muscles of my mother’s face completely relax. The room was filled with the golden light of an April evening. The other room was dark and smelled of the lavender oil that had earlier been massaged on his feet when we knew the day had come. It was nearing the end of winter, and when his heart stopped, a heat rose up in my body. My sister also felt this. We looked at each other, asking each other if it was true.

I did not feel them slipping away; rather, I felt them entering into something new and beyond. And I would need new tools in order to access them. I thought poetry could help me.

In those moments poetry let me feel something like peacefulness and purpose alongside a splitting open, a caving in of my chest, pure disbelief, intense and new yearning.

In Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society,[1] anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes that poetry is not fanciful escape from life or language. It is a deepening, a coming closer. She notes that poetry’s utterances may contrast dramatically with other utterances. But this does not mean that the speaking self or context is unstable; it is poetry’s function to introduce nuance, plurality, a texture of speech and life that can’t be explained, and this is not a vector away, but a tunneling inside.

Perhaps “experimental” poetry pushes the envelope on this “can’t be explained” function, but nuance and plurality may also come through in perfectly narrative poetry.

In the last paragraph of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford pulls in the horizon like a “great fish-net” with “so much of life in its meshes!” Janie, who is remembering her dead and beloved Tea-Cake seizes this horizon “from around the waist of the world and drape(s) it over her shoulder.” “She called in her soul to come and see.”[2]

I love this passage in part because it provides me with an image of what poetry does. That poetry reaches out toward the world, and then lets me pull it all in safely—the connection with a body is never lost. Poetry is “ever-toward” and simultaneously “ever-returning.”

Paul Celan: “The heads, monstrous, the city,/they are building,/behind happiness.//If once more you were my pain, faithful to you,/and a lip came by, this side, at the/place, where I reach out of myself,//I would bring you through/this street/up front.”[3]

A poem as street of utterance. To be faithful to pain: there is no overcoming. Rather, a bringing through.

When I feel lost and need to remember poetry, I read contemporary anthropology and Paul Celan.

The study of “creative writing” in higher education lets students experience what poetry does.

Making poetry is an act that often resists the use of poetry to prove theories or support ideologies. The un-situated or difficult-to-situate utterance within a reified situation is poetry. Making poetry is to experience this liberating difficulty.

Looking at course enrollments, we are learning that students enjoy “creative writing.”

What does a training in writing poetry bring to scholarship? Even as I ask this, I am not sure that a search to articulate confluence and influence is important. Instead of instrumentalizing poetry to help scholars write better or differently—the flip side of the fairly prevalent belief that young poets should study literary theory and scholarship—I would like to consider the practice of poetry on its own terms and not in the service of something else.

Because making poetry is an act of pleasure, and even joy. Pleasure and joy do not mean “ease”—rather, I think of intensification, an encounter that is exuberant, electric, something new mixed with the familiar. There is flow, mystery, an unexpected outcome.

What roles do pleasure and joy play in our studies? I am not sure that most colleges and universities are equipped to structure learning around these states of being. But if we did, what might “rigorous” come to mean?

Sometimes I think that poetry can and should get you out of poetry.

For example, in a video produced by Semiotext(e), Gilles Deleuze once talked about his writings on “the fold,” and after the book where he discusses this concept came out he heard from two groups of people who said “we totally understand what you are saying”: a paper folding society and a group of surfers. He was pleased by this unforeseen connection and by its gift of distance from “intellectual” and “philosopher.”[4]

I often think about the connections I make outside of poetry by being a poet.

The first thing that comes to mind are those two intimate scenes of death that I began this writing with. The second thing that comes to mind is “holding court” at the workplace—listening to the person who knows how to tell a good story and we are all in their thrall.

There is a politics to both scenes, I believe. The first scene has to do with institutions: hospitals, systems of knowledge, modernity and the idea of bodies, a good life, a good death. The politics of the family may come to light—and I’m thinking of Rita Kothari who said, “families are distinctly political.”[5]

But the relationship between power and language is maybe more apparent and striking in the second scene because the really good storyteller at the workplace is rarely the boss. This fact makes the language of storytelling and the acts and events of giving and receiving very sweet.

Last night I dreamt that I took part in the closeness of a greeting where our foreheads touched, we held both of each other’s hands, and many phrases were exchanged.

Maybe there is no “other” that cannot be met in poetry. Meeting does not mean assimilation, agreement, or even compromise. The closeness of poetry allows for touch and for difference. There can be difficulty and beauty all at once. This is recognition.

To back out of a tunnel that is about to split into “right” and “wrong” is a training in poetry. This does not mean that the ethical self is wishy-washy. It means that there is poetry inside the ethical being.

Poetry shows us the way words slip out of reason’s linearity and belong in a soupy mix I would call “the gestalt of a scene of utterance.”

It is important, as a poet, to know that there are many poets who will never call themselves a poet.

My grandmother taught me to play the piano. One of the first songs I learned began with these lyrics: “wind through the olive trees softly doth blow.” I remember wondering what an olive tree looked like. Not knowing this, I still felt the beauty of that lyric, the syntax felt special and Bible-like, probably the scene also, and I thought that I would like to be wherever that olive tree and soft wind were.

On the Jordan highway that climbs up from the Dead Sea—a road flanked by olive groves cut into the sandy soil and supported by stone walls—I remembered this song. At the time when I was learning to play it, I didn’t think of it as a training in poetry nor did my grandmother frame it as such. She was not a poet and did not call herself an artist, but she thought it was good to live with things and practices that were “lovely.”

My mother loved jewel-toned colors, silk dresses, and high-heeled shoes. Church was an occasion to wear these. My mother and grandmother sewed beautiful dresses for my sister and me to wear to church. There is honor in appearing polished to go meet the unknown. 

To have grown up in a fundamentalist religion is not something that, in U.S. American poetry circles, one is usually proud of or confident enough in to speak about. So I don’t think I have articulated for this poetry community I write toward what a profound influence the Biblical story of David had on me as a child. It was my introduction to being a poet.

The image of David: sitting on a rock, staff in hand, writing, thinking, sheep around him sleeping or dotting the hills, grazing. The Psalms of David were my favorite verses of the Bible and I memorized not just the 23rd but the 27th. The 27th sets up an enemy and the poet uses words to overcome. Fear is addressed directly. Once I wrote how reciting those Psalms soothed my stomach aches and gave me confidence before tests at school.[6] I often come back to this as I collect thoughts on what poetry does.

To understand the danger that U.S. America is both generating and living in, we could remember that this situation is not new. Yet certain features of these times are new. The existence of so many disembodied forums for response—I’m talking about “social” media—may be a relatively new feature of this emergency situation.

Can poetry help shift utterance from condemnation to strategy and understanding? Why does the prevalence of the language of condemnation—especially on social media—make me anxious? In it I see a desire to establish stranger sociality, a large collective “we are not them.” This is very understandable. But I worry that the need to differentiate oneself from “them” might eclipse the act of looking at how “them” may be intimately related to “us”—how bound we both are by the same institutions, structures, and ways of thinking.

Just last month, my poet friend E. J. McAdams sent me this quote from Ruby Sales: “This whole business of demonization, I’ve been deeply concerned about it because it does not locate the good in people. It gives up on people. And you see that most especially in the right and the left. I have been very concerned about the demonization that comes out of right wing communities and also the demonization that I’ve heard on the left. And it comes from the same source of displaced whiteness.”[7]

To “place” whiteness would be to understand how it’s constructed. To place whiteness would be to understand there is not one whiteness, but that the oversimplification of whiteness functions, systematically, to place whiteness “above” in order to place color and integrated spaces “below.” Perhaps a critical articulation of whiteness also reveals, as Elizabeth Povinelli articulates, that there is a history of white desire voting against its own interests.[8]

Does white leftist rage and shock disguise that we may actually know, very well, how something like “these times” could come about? It is possible to know, and for some of us this may come from study, how the seeds of hate and violence have been cultivated differently yet steadily through the decades, the centuries. I remember something the artist Fred Wilson said a while back, and I’m paraphrasing: things have always been bad. Knowing this just depends on who you are.[9]

To talk about structures and institutions more often than personal stances, or to talk about how the personal is embedded within structures and institutions is to move away from the language of condemnation only. Recognition is important. What does this have to do with poetry?

“A poem is not you,” I tell my students, half believing this as I say it. I have to review what I mean:

A poem is a gift toward and from a shared structure, to a way of thinking. A poem is social, political. It is language that both comes from and reaches back toward the world without severing off from the body of the speaker. Perhaps knowing this changes the meaning of “you” more so than the word “personal”; a poem is utterly relational, as are so-called “individual” bodies.

Salaiman Juhni: “I am from the Middle East, but I live in Europe. When the bombs/explode in Baghdad, their shrapnel often reach my body. I have/fallen into a pool of my own blood many times; I fall in the public/square as if I had been hit by the idea of war. […]”[10]

Poetry can deliver radical language—radical as in “root.” How did we get here and in the same garden from what new patch of soil can we push up?

Especially now, I wonder: what is the cost of under- and unequally-funded public schools in U.S. America? Why should this matter to the poet?

An answer: not to develop audiences for our art, for our books. This is a moment for poets to drop careerist ambitions if we have picked such ambitions up along the way—and if we did, it would be kind to remember this probably happened because of economic precarity and the hope that visible success in poetry could help us secure a sustaining job.

But as Harryette Mullen has done, by “Imagining the Unimagined Reader,” we can entertain the idea that there are many among us, right now, starving for a nuanced and beautiful use of language. Mullen has written that a good portion of the joy of writing, for her, is to imagine people who would not be her usual audience: the reader yet to be born, the illiterate person, the person without access to books and literature.[11]

Reading Mullen, I wonder about the spaces I do not inhabit and probably never will. For example, what is going on in churches all over U.S. America? What poetry is there? What kind of rhetoric might be intensifying rather than satisfying the hunger for poetry—a hunger for nuance, comfort, and the acceptable discomfort of complexity? Do my poems or poems in general have a chance of making their way into these spaces? I think good public schools and access to higher education present us with the possibility for those cultural streams to even just temporarily merge. This merge is what happened in my life and when I look back and remember my college teachers who were willing to engage my theological challenges and questions, I am grateful.

This semester I am working with a student who wants to trouble the sacred/secular split. What language can crisscross this binary? Poetry, we think.

Poetry is a “yes, and” way to live.

Celan: “Line the wordcaves/with panther skins,//widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,/sense-hither and sense-thither,//give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors/and wildnesses, parietal,//and listen for their second/and each time second and second/tone.”[12]

As an invitation to “and,” poetry says that there is always something else and more. A “second and second tone.” Where language lives, Celan instructs, we should facilitate the echo.

Poetry: hot and cutting through. A sharp intervention.

Or, poetry: floating and cool. Last weekend I floated in the Dead Sea. Later that night the lights of Jerusalem came up over the hills across the way. Half of my body floating above, in sunlight, and half nestled below the water’s surface. If the exposed is a truth we enjoy sharing, feeling good about the heat and light on our bodies, then the murky underneath, the depths of the waters below may be a version of the enemy state. It exists, it is even buoyant to a body, it is true. Poetry, knowing this.


[1] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. University of California Press, 1986.

[2] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. First Perennial Classics Edition, 1998.

[3] Celan, Paul. Trans. Pierre Joris. Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014.

[4] “Gilles Deleuze: From A to Z.” Semiotext(e), 2012. Video.

[5] From my notes taken at her lecture at New York University Abu Dhabi, spring 2014.

[6] Magi, Jill. “I have begun again to read as I was taught.” Common-place.org, vol. 12, no. 4, July 2012.

[7] “Where Does It Hurt? An Interview with Ruby Sales.” Onbeing.org, September 15, 2016, quoted in a personal email from E. J. McAdams, September 4, 2017.

[8] Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism.” E-flux.com, published January 12, 2017.

[9] Wilson, Fred. Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000: Issues in Cultural Theory, No. 4. Farmer, John Alan and Antonia Gardner, Eds. Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture, 2002.

[10] Juhni, Salaiman. “Roots.” Published on Asymptote, spring 2017.

[11] American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Rankine, Claudia and Juliana Spahr, Eds. Wesleyan, 2002.

[12] Celan, Paul. Trans. Pierre Joris. Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014.

Originally Published: October 2nd, 2017

Jill Magi is a writer, artist, critic, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman, 2008), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), Cadastral Map (Shearsman, 2011), LABOR (Nightboat, 2014), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books, 2017), and a scholarly monograph on textimage hybridity:...