A pop musician is not an artist and someone who keeps a journal is not an artist (usually).
Although seemingly on opposite ends of the public-private spectrum, pop musicians and private writers are not artists for a similar reason. They are not actively engaging with social and political ideas, neither are hoping to arouse change or action in a larger population. While exceptions always exist, and while pop musicians are reaching a large audience, I would claim that the majority of pop music today is simply entertainment as opposed to art, thus making them entertainers instead of artists. Similarly, anyone who writes, or paints, or draws, or even plays music in the comfort of their home, or behind closed doors, is not an artist. They are a writer, painter, illustrator or animator, or a musician, or a user of whatever medium they choose, but that does not make them an artist. Every square is a rectangle, not every rectangle is a square; every artist is a user of a medium, not every user is an artist.
John Cage was an artist because he took risks in cultural, social, and political spheres.
Having recently read John Gallaher’s In A Landscape, I cannot help but point to the man who inspired Gallaher in multiple ways, John Cage. Two examples are his composition 4’33” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4) and his question posed to world leaders (cited in Gallaher’s poem): “Why do we kill people?”
I don’t mean to discourage anyone from expressing themselves creatively because I am in full support of all forms of expression, they are meaningful for the development of self and even for relationships. However, there is a reason we question the responsibilities of an artist; they have responsibilities in their interactions with society.
I’ve been meaning to write a poem where the title functions also as the beginning line. Personally, titles are tricky for me to come up with. Other times, they smack you in the face in a burst of brilliant clarity. When I set out to do this as a writing exercise, I found that it was a lot more natural to just start writing and see where the poem ends up, then going back and figuring out what could function as the title. Here’s my attempt:
The Worst Part
will be the mornings stretched
thin like skin
over hollow bones
cotton wool inside the brain, white
despite the blood that drips
down the interior
of the esophagus
old habits die hard
they are so alive
If anyone tries this out, I’d love to read what you come up with!
I thought it was only right to ride out my previous idea until the end of the month, so I’ve decided to post about another poem by a black poet. This past Saturday I was in Rochester, which I hadn’t previously realized is bisected by the alarmingly fast Genesee River. I hate to be the guy who is reminded of poems by stuff he sees in real life, but I’d been reading Langston Hughes that morning, and it wasn’t a very big stretch to connect the river I was looking at to “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, which Hughes wrote on a train journey when he was eighteen. The poem is as follows:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Many of the literary techniques that Hughes uses here work towards evoking the sound and visual appearance of a river. Sibilant sounds, which bring to mind the constant flowing sound of water, can be found in every line of this poem, although they are not so rife as to be overtly noticeable or overpower the other sounds of the poem. Real rivers, after all, don’t flow at the same speed at every place in their course, and Hughes’ use of varied cadence evokes this as well. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a poem rich in assonance, and when consonants do appear, they tend towards being soft – there are many uses of d‘s and l‘s, which lend themselves to the sound of a gentler sort of river. The poem’s physical appearance itself also evokes a river – the enjambment of “flow of human blood in human veins” and “went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy / bosom turn all golden in the sunset” are strongly reminiscent of the twists of a river, and those lines themselves directly address flow: that of blood in veins, and the course of the Mississippi.
Poetry is gnawing at your insides. It is screeching owls. It is creaking wood of a house –you are alone- at night. It demands your attention. That’s what writing poetry has become for me. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that I was trying to sleep the other night and words were embroidering themselves into my brain. Threads of blue, and red, and sunrise. I couldn’t stop my mind from envisioning them on a page, in the world. So I resolved to get out of bed, turn my laptop back on, and finish what the words had already started. The words were writing the poem through me; I was just the intermediary.
Before there was even an inkling in my mind that I wanted to dip my pen into poetry, I considered myself a writer of fiction. It always seemed that poetry was something reserved for the elites. That’s probably what happens when you grow up reading Dickinson, Poe, Frost, and Shakespeare in high school English classes. But it couldn’t evade me for long. Once a year a poetry class was offered by one teacher. Taking that class transformed my entire outlook and I became consumed with poetry. Honestly, and unfortunately, I haven’t written a piece of fiction I’ve been very proud of since. The same cannot be said for poetry.
This begs the question: why are younger students seemingly programmed to choose prose over verse? It appears that there is a stigma that if you don’t consider yourself the next Sylvia Plath or E. E. Cummings, then it’s useless for you to try. Might as well write a novel. Maybe it’s a result of the popularity of the modern novel and the accessibility of publishing nowadays. There is a greater chance for profit, the Bestseller lists, the possibility of film adaptations. (Now, let’s talk about film adaptations of poems –that would be intriguing. Making a film of an entire collection!)
Poetry is compelling. It eats at me in a way that I haven’t yet experienced with fiction. Once, it was a staple in popular literary culture. Now it has fallen to what people are viewing as an “elite” few. It’s wrong. It needs to become more accessible to the population; it is imperative that readers cease viewing it with intimidation and feel more confidence in their ability to read and enjoy it.
John Gallaher’s autobiographical poem, In a Landscape, consists of seventy-one poems in which Gallaher lays bare his thoughts, intimate experiences, and personal life.
In his poem titled XXVII (http://pinwheeljournal.com/poets/john-gallaher/) Gallaher creates a three-stanza (in this case more like paragraphs) arc, a common tactic used throughout his prose-style poems. Early in the first paragraph, a question is posed, “Is this what thinking is like?” that acts as an inciting incident (first part of a formal narrative arc). Gallaher conjures up images of dirt and flowers, uses a cultural reference to plant the idea of “getting somewhere,” and ends the first paragraph with a question that proves that the paragraph has an arc of its own: “It’s why we’re said to come back as ghosts, right?” A simple arc: question, idea, question.
The second paragraph chooses to explore the first question regarding thinking. Gallaher hypothesizes an image: a group of people in a room, quietly thinking their own private thoughts, and he explores why that drives him crazy. The momentum is propelled halfway through with a sentence starting with and, and an “inevitable question” about the purpose of our thinking. He neatly ties ideas back in from the first stanza, probing at our idea that thinking is getting us somewhere, and that there may be a bouquet of flowers there. By the close of this paragraph, the reader is juggling, thinking, getting somewhere, and flowers.
Then, in the final paragraph, Gallaher, making sure to tie up loose ends, returns to ghosts. With brief and clear images he brings the poem into his home where ghosts are having their way, until “Halloween is over.” In the middle of this paragraph he quickens the pace with longer sentences, and lines that roll over by having one word hang on the end of a line, helping the reader “get somewhere.” His final three lines broaden the scope again to bring these “accruing” thoughts together. The reader is left with an unexpected and poignant image of Gallaher playing clarinet in high school in the second chair, wondering where their thoughts might get them.
In the spirit of politics and poetry, I wanted to talk about the United States Inaugural Poet. For the past five presidential inaugurations, the United States as chosen a poet to read their work as part of the ceremony. I didn’t even know this was a part of the ceremony until I read about it online a few days ago, but I couldn’t get over how cool it is that the U.S. would make this a part of their political culture. Go America!
Way back in 2012, Richard Blanco was chosen to read during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was a huge deal for a number of reasons: not only was he the youngest (he was 44 at the time), he was the first immigrant (he was born in Cuba), first Latino, and first openly gay poet to read at the ceremony. I’ll include the full text of the poem at the bottom of this post, but you can listen to him read it in the video below (notice the awkward clapping when they introduce him as a poet – people don’t know what to make of us)
In an interview with Maayan Silver for NPR Milwaukee, he stated that “poetry makes us slow down and pay attention to things, to really pause and focus on those things that seemingly pass us by everyday as inconsequential.” When asked how he manages to notices these ordinary occurrences, he talks about how one day, while his mother was cooking dinner, he begin thinking about how many times he’s seen her in the kitchen, doing the same motions over and over, and how meaningful these motions meant over the course of his life. He states, “These are the quiet moments that speak to something infinite and important to our lives.” His poems are an attempt to slow down time, to make us meditate on a moment that otherwise would be taken for granted. He also mentions William Carlos Williams “Red Wheel Barrow,” which we’ve discussed in class as being a testament to the ordinary items we overlook. The poem is so very, very slow, but the effect on the reader is that we look closer at the item, and realize it function is truly extraordinary. The so called “ordinary” is transformed into a reflection on the beauty of it’s place in our world.
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
For my latest writing exercise on the pantoum / villanelle, I wrote a piece called “I’m sorry”, around the recent passing of my grandfather and how over the course of the last few days (since the 11th), certain phrases in different languages are not only not interchangeable, but impossible to use across the same context.
In English or I suppose Western societies, saying “I’m sorry” conveys empathy and sympathy. At a funeral, or in the context of loss, you are saying that you are there for company, consolation. When my grandfather passed away, I was at a loss for words – not because I was not sure what to say, but when I automatically went to say “I’m sorry” to my parents, it made no sense in Korean. I could instantly hear their reply in Korean, in genuine confusion as they would ask me what I am sorry for or why I am apologising. Instead, I asked how their flight was and attempted to distract my mother from the loss of her father.
I think this shows the priorities in a culture/language, that in English we instantly attempt to show empathy whereas in Korean or other languages, we focus on the present and future, consoling and attempting to live for those still present.
I have been thinking about the question, “Why do we write?” I am taking creative writing senior seminar this semester, and preparing to graduate and remove myself from the bubble of academia that is college. Much of the content of senior seminar focuses on the “practical” value of writing: how to make money, or prestige. I find myself thinking cynically about the reasons that we write publicly. Why must writers subject themselves to criticism, a relentless judgment of good and bad, an entrance into a system of capital and an exclusive network of social connections? Does all of this serve the purpose of writing?
I recently read The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, a correspondence between poet James Wright and writer Leslie Marmon Silko. The letters highlighted the value of writing at its most simple: a way to communicate thoughts to another. The correspondence began when Wright wrote to Silko after hearing her read at a writer’s conference. Wright reveals in his first letter that he felt he needed to reach out to Silko after reading her novel Ceremony. He writes, “I am trying to say that my very life means more to me than it would have meant if you hadn’t written Ceremony.” The relationship forged through these letters is built on a foundation of mutual admiration of published writing, and reveals that writing is really about attempting to add something to the world that will be of value to others.
The letters show us the raw building blocks of a close relationship, exemplify incredible craft, and are a testament to the power and necessity of writing. Both writers express their confidence, and frustration that their relationship exists beyond the reaches of the written word. The correspondence ended when Wright died. His last writing to her was a postcard on which he wrote only, “I can’t write much of a message. Please write to me.” In her response, which arrived after his death, Silko wrote, “No matter if written words are seldom because we know, Jim, we know.” This record of the interaction of great writers reveals that writing is not about selling books, or getting awards, but about building something powerful enough to defy the hold of the words that comprise the practical existence of the writing.
In class the other day, Evan mentioned the intersection between politics and art, and Oliver and Mary mentioned the intersection of music and poetry. This got me thinking about the inherent healing power of the arts. I started thinking about the outcome of intersecting two distinct disciplines like politics and art—and how, many people view poetry as a way of writing about something in a “fluffy” or “softer” way—but it’s super interesting to me that the opposite is usually true. I like to think that what we hear in poetry is always more universally accessible because there is room to stretch across both imagination and interpretation.
But, I digress. I’m super interested in how poetry functions to highlight larger issues that may be political or sociological in nature; just as I am about the intersection of psychology or medicine to art and creative expression, specifically poetry. Last class, we discussed which books we will be reviewing, and I didn’t have one chosen at the time. After much thought, and a burst of analytical thought sparked by my peers, I’ve decided to include in my post a book I am leaning towards using for the book review. It is a collection of poetry (self-called a ‘poetic memoir’) that captures a lifetime of recovering memories erased by traumatic events, and is very self-reflective in nature.
The book is called “Overexposed: A Poetic Memoir,” written by Terri Muuss. Muuss is a poet from Long Island who is also a school social worker, inspirational speaker, and actor. I discovered Terri unintentionally—my best friend back home and I had gone to a poetry reading of Jeanann Verlee at a local bar in Patchogue. Terri was one of the performers—although she does not call herself a slam poet, many of her poems she acts out, which I found to be very animated and all the more poignant and emotional for the content of her poems. One of her poems, a litany called “If” describes all the ways we try to find a way out of our sadness or to avoid problems; for her personally, they are all the ways she tried to forget her trauma—her life. After the performances and readings, my friend and I approached Terri after the show for some words of gratitude and appreciation, and I was struck by how HAPPY she was. Seriously. She had such a full, bright smile and it was entirely contagious, and she gave the biggest hug to both of us. I bought her book here, and met her husband, Matt Pasca, who is also a published poet.
Here is the book trailer that she released prior to the publication of her memoir. The video gives a great insight into the content of the book and also touches on how it was an act of healing and recovering:
Since this poetry reading I have kept in contact with Terri, who I like to refer to as one of my writing inspirations, or, rather, my powerful female friends that I want to be just like, in some aspect, one day. Ok whatever. Well, Terri and her husband would invite me to poetry events on Long Island all the time, so I got to see both of them perform many more times, met her children, and came to understand her story and history all the more.
Terri is an incest survivor, having lived a childhood where her own father was responsible for her first traumatic event. When she was an adolescent, Terri was raped four times. She battled addiction and alcoholism, depression, suicidal tendencies, and more. Knowing all of this and having read her memoir, and seeing where she is now, and especially how happy she is—it’s truly inspiring.
Terri Muuss and I have talked many times about the importance of art and therapy. Having undergone intensive therapy and treatment throughout her life, she can attest to the power of writing to open doors within our minds and to uncover a piece of information or memory that maybe we can’t find the words to express in regular therapy. Once we uncover these little pieces, we can start to talk about them out loud—facilitating the healing process.
I’m very interested in the connection between poetry and trauma recovery. Often times, distance is needed in order to write about something you have experienced; I feel it is this very distance that also makes it near impossible to retrieve memory about the experience, especially if it was a traumatic one. But even free writing will resurface some things, not dependent on time or distance. I’m sure there are many more advantages of writing in relation to recovering from trauma.
I hope to learn more about this when I re-read Terri Muuss’s poetic memoir.
Last week I typed out a frantic post equating poetry and essay in a highly convoluted and not particularly articulate manner. This week I intend to do the same, but plan to add an extra layer of pretension by suggestion that above all, I’d like my poetry to be the music of Mozart. I say this knowing full well that my essays (in my belief and for what it’s worth) come out as rock ‘n’ roll: jagged phrasing, subversive language against The Man, and a voice akin to a shotgun’s blast.
There’s an element of formal balance to Mozart’s requiem mass that I’d like to be able to emulate in my poetry. He knows all the rules and how to use them but bends them to his will. There’s subtlety and rolling thunder between each well punctuated cadence. Each movement advances the theme while simultaneously distinguishing itself from the last.
Each phrase is inventive and actively gorgeous in both rhythm and sound. The prescribed Latin text of the mass is reflected in the sound, the equivalent of form as an extension of content, I suppose.
I don’t necessarily think that this means I should align myself with “The Tradition,” I think that’s a dangerous game. The idea of following another dead white guy should, frankly, be avoided. Any viewing, of Amadeus tells us that the royalty often disregarded performances for having too many notes, for being too radical or obscene. This sort of appeals to me. The balance of tone, the precision of effects. The rests and swells and reinvention of something that everyone already knows.
I don’t know if this makes sense to everyone. I’m not sure that it makes sense to me. Music and poetry aren’t the same thing, music passes moment to moment as the composer decides. Poetry can choose words that read a little quicker, but we can choose to re-read lines and read them at our own speed. Symbols can be misinterpreted and rhythm might be missed by imperfect punctuation. But turn on the record and the sounds sound the same to everyone—even if they might not sound as pleasurable.
It is here that I have to ask, what kind of music is your poetry and what would you like it to be?