I was suffering from Weltschmerz one day (translation: woe for the world). My chest was hurting.
I call my dear friend, Marie (the poet Marie Howe).
“Marie, my heart hurts.”
“You have Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, right? There’s a poem at the beginning. I can’t remember the name. The first line is something like, ‘sorrow everywhere.’ Read it to me.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
—From A Brief for the Defense
I finish reading the poem. Neither one of us says anything for a moment. Breathe. I look up. I see a tree through the window. I hear a robin singing. I see the sky. Clouds gently moving.
A poet told me that the job description of the poet is to say the unsayable. Another poet said no matter which way you cut it poems are about emotion. They are about deep emotion.
My work (acting) involves emotions. How do I translate the emotions into something actable? How do I sort through them? Specify and name them? A poet once told me that originally the poet’s job was to name things of this world.
In a way, I am trying to name things with my emotions.
When I begin work on a script I go from the beginning and distill each scene down to its essence. And then I try to name each scene with a word or two or more. It’s almost as if I’m trying to write a poem for each scene; articulating the inchoate, indescribable, unknowable. So, I go through the script and I go through and through it, with my mind and without it. Much the same way as when I’m reading a poem. And then I put the script down when the play or movie begins. Good acting, like a good poem, remains mysterious to me. I couldn’t tell you what it means, but I know it.
I used to try so hard to understand a poem. I was being vigilant instead of receptive. If the poem is saying the unsayable, I don’t need to articulate it back to myself with words. The poet has done that for me. If poems are about emotions, then that is the language I need to use when I’m reading them. Poetry has helped me become more versed, so to speak, in the language of emotion.
I would be thrilled if I could be as “out there” with my acting as poets are with their poems. Leaping toward that stuff which is bubbling around us, unseen but felt. It’s uncharted and raw—a kind of pure undiluted matter brought back for those who want it:
This sky like an infinite tenderness, I have caught
glimpses of that, often, so often, and never yet have
I described it, I can’t, somehow, I never will.
How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving
other human beings’ faces.
And wave after wave, the ocean smells like lilacs in
—From Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, by Franz Wright