My Flaming Hamster Wheel of Panic About Publicly Discussing Poetry in This Respected Forum
When I was asked by Poetry to write an article for them I was ecstatic. I was flattered. I felt important! I agreed immediately. About twenty minutes after sending my e-mail of acceptance I paused to triumphantly sharpen my claws on the bookcase when I noticed the blazing, neon writing on the wall. It said: YOU'VE NEVER EVEN PASSED ENGLISH 101 AND EVERYONE WHO READS THIS MAGAZINE WILL KNOW IT. Why do I care? I'm not sure. I think it's because I don't want to let poetry down. Poetry is such a delicate, pretty lady with a candy exoskeleton on the outside of her crepe-paper dress. I am an awkward, heavy-handed mule of a high school dropout. I guess I just need permission to be in the same room with poetry.
I think the fear began in about fifth grade. Right off the top they said poetry was supposed to have "form." Even writing a tiny haiku became a wrestling match with a Claymation Cyclops for me. (I watched a lot of Sinbad.) We aren't too cool for poetry; it's the other way around. At least that's the impression I took from public school. The fact that these feelings would remain into adulthood is ridiculous. We all have the right to poetry! How could I still think it's for other people? Smarter people. What's doubly confusing is I don't have the same reservations when poetry is accompanied by music. Perhaps I feel that way because there is music all around us — it's the wallpaper of our lives. It's not considered precious in American culture unless a symphony is performing it.
I do know when a string of printed words busts my little dam and the tears spill over and I sponge them up with my T-shirt. I couldn't give you that formula before it happens, it just hits me like a bat to the face. That's a sweet, hot, amazing, embarrassing moment. It even makes me feel a little included, as if I have to be "ready for the poetry" for it to be happening.
I can't choose which kind of poetry I like best. Sonnets? Prose? I don't know the terminology. I just blurt out some fragmented gibberish into the vast, woodsy country of poetry. It freezes in midair. Here come some examples now . . .
Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus haunts me. Aaron's death speech is veiled, venomous gospel music. I read it over and over even though I've already memorized it like a teenage girl in love. W.H. Auden scares me under the couch (even when he's being funny). I hold my flashlight on "The Witnesses," with its haunting "humpbacked surgeons/And the scissors man," until my arm shakes, my trusty dictionary in my other hand. Dorothy Parker makes me manic! I can't even make it through the first three lines of "The Godmother" without bursting into tears. Lynda Barry and Sherman Alexie save my life constantly. They battle identity crisis with a sense of humor and a language that speaks so hard to me because they came from my home, in my own time, and they talk to me in our special parlance. They tell me I'm not crazy because they remember it too. It really is the old Washington State that created my personal brain-picture ABC's. (D is for "Douglas fir.") The same Washington State I can never go back to. Barry and Alexie volunteer to go in my place. Their memories make friends with mine. I can't live without them.
What do these poets have in common? They don't write sycophantic, roman-numeral-volumed postcards to God. They don't get all "love-ity-love-love" either. I get the sense they imagine their audience and want to comfort them. They are so good at it they even have the ability to comfort us with scariness. Sadness too. I think that is a powerful magic. They don't just write poetry either; they are playwrights and painters and singers and novelists.
How can we help them out? I guess we keep on needing them, even if it's kind of a secret. If the poets handed out anonymous comment cards for us shy poetry lovers to fill out so they could get a better idea of what we needed, I would direct them to the Osbourne Brothers' bluegrass classic, "Rocky Top." They say in two lines what poets and writers "Anna Karenina" themselves to death to convey, about a girl who's "wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop/I still dream about that." If those lines were written about me I could lie down and die. It is perfection. Uncool Perfection.
Neko Case is a singer and songwriter. She performs solo under her own name, and with the Canadian-bred rock band The New Pornographers. She lives in the wilderness of Vermont with three dogs and two cats, in one bed.