Walking amid bougainvillaea and banana trees, traveling by trolley through half-empty streets in the Garden District, heart shadowed by the wrecked but not quite ruined beauty of New Orleans, I met one day a few years ago a newly minted assistant professor: cultured, elegant, delicately beautiful.
We talked of many things: books we loved, our shared Caribbean roots, food and especially our best beloved dishes in that magic if half-empty city. But upon learning I was a poet, the conversation hit a full stop and a look — shamefaced, nearly haunted — shadowed her liquid dark eyes.
Finally the truth spilled out: “I’m afraid of poetry,” she said, not quite daring to look me full in the face — it was, after all, quite an admission for someone who will spend the next third of her life in a literature classroom to confess that she had never so much as dipped a toe in that ocean of words that connects Sappho to the Psalms to Phillis Wheatley, Pound to Hayden and Brooks and the giants of our own era, Komunyakaa and Dove.
“Honestly,” she went on. “I never learned it — I just don’t understand it.” And I felt saddened — for her, for her students — and also puzzled, for “what poetry is” is hardly a secret. Artists, after all, have been shouting poetry from the treetops and the towers, into deep-throated mountain hollers and coffeehouse microphones for nearly six thousand years. And while the language is constantly changing, tastes and technology ever marching on, the quintessence of the endeavor remains unaltered.
Yes, poetry is about that moment of observation — as my friend Sam Witt, a Southern poet of amazing gifts, calls it: “that stinkbug in the window with the red underwings” moment. But poetry does far more — it tosses that stinkbug, that immediately physical manifestation of the lived, into a deep well of dark water. And in following it there, we are harrowed, laid open, and ultimately, at least in my poetic practice, healed.
Critically, too, poetry is not just the experience; it is a language: a language of riddling, song, spell, and incantation that itself becomes a making, both Apollonian and Dionysiac, of the intellect and imagination and the blood and the bone and the muck.
You must take care with what you speak into the poem for you may summon a spirit: an efrit or the goddess Oshun draped in cowries and bearing honey or the archangel Michael with his fiery sword. These spirits stand with us as we chant and drum and hum our connection to that hidden world that stands beside and inside the one in which we pay our taxes and take out the trash and watch cities dissolving into madness and despair from Wall Street to Tehran to Tripoli .
Many have said this—it is not original with me, though I certainly agree — that the fundamental responsibility of the artist is to remind us of our mortality: from Homer’s warriors chanting of their great deeds and everlasting fame to Thomas and Beulah dancing, weeping, laughing and dying over three-quarters of a bewildered century.
It is all these things and it is everything between and beyond. For that is poetry’s great power and its greatest gift: It allows us to see, to be, to live fully into our own lives and those of others, to bear witness to it all … while, blessedly, relieving us of the burden of our names.