All Over Creation: Renewed Faith
On coming back to an appreciation of poetry's remarkable resonance and relevance
Okay, I admit it: Once upon a time, I wrote poetry.
Now, I know as confessions go, that doesn't exactly rank up there with "I was a Communist for the FBI," but I disclose it here as another way of saying, "Once upon a time, I believed in poetry" – not "believed" in the sense of holding poetry to be a venerable art form, rich in tradition and deserving of our study, no, "believed" in the sense of embracing poetry as a faith, as a channel to something deep in my being, deep in life, deep in the cosmos. Poetry struck a chord so powerfully in me that I felt impelled to communicate my own feelings through it and did so without any self-consciousness or embarrassment. I could do it because it felt natural and right to express myself through poems.
It may come as no surprise that this was during my adolescence, when one's fervor for many things burns hotter than normal – social justice, spirituality, that girl who sits beside you in algebra, Tolkien. Over time and through circumstance, the passion one feels for some of those things may cool, and so it was with me and poetry. I never lost my affection for it, and certain poems still have the power to pierce my soul as they always have, but I let go of the writing and largely left poetry on the shelf alongside The Lord of the Rings.
Poetry, however, won't let me be. It keeps insinuating itself back into my life, through friends who are published poets, through events where I'm asked to recite poems, and now through my position as Books editor for this publication. I knew of Austin's robust community of poets and the notable writing programs here that serve students in the field, but once these new volumes of verse began piling up on my desk, once it was my inbox being flooded with notices of readings and competitions and honors for local poets, I came to feel a responsibility for covering poetry. I've already run a review roundup of recent poetry releases ("Fall in re: Verse," Sept. 19), and I'm keeping track of who's publishing what and reading where to spread the word about more. (See some below.)
Then I was at Poems for Peace, an annual program that I've put together for the past three years (and which is one of those events that keeps pulling me back into poetry like the family business does Michael Corleone in Godfather III), and Carrie Fountain came over to me, pressed a book into my hands, and said in that no-nonsense way she has, "You should read this." As Carrie is a poet of note whose work I admire and adore, I said I would. To my surprise, though it was written by a poet – Tony Hoagland, who teaches at the University of Houston – this was not a book of poetry. Rather, it was about poetry, a collection of essays on how it is crafted (the use of language, idiom, and diction) and who Hoagland feels are some of its more accomplished contemporary craftsmen.
As interesting as that looked (and has indeed turned out to be, based on what I've read), what intrigued me most about the book was the essay that provided its title; I found the notion of Twenty Poems That Could Save America so tantalizing that I skipped to the back of the book to read it. In it, Hoagland acknowledges that his chosen literary form isn't in the mainstream of modern American culture and lays the blame on our educational system, which hasn't changed the way it teaches poetry – or the poems it teaches – in half a century. "The fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public school system," he declares, then calls for a rebooting of the American poetic canon and offers his choices for invigorating the poetry curriculum – most considerably more up-to-date than "Dover Beach" and "The Emperor of Ice Cream." These would give young people a sense that poems can be relevant in the language they use, the ethical questions they raise, the complexities of race and gender identity they address, that poems can be provocative and sexy and funny and more. In the cases he makes, Hoagland is both persuasive and inspiring, convincing us that, as he writes, "in everything we have to understand, poems can help."
In Austin, we don't have to look far to find working poets or their work. Readings and festivals abound, and one store even specializes in published poetry: Malvern Books. The more I take in, the more I find myself believing in poems again. I haven't yet written one, but it's only a matter of time.
Poetry happenings this week:
Michener Center for Writers alum Malachi Black, who teaches creative writing at the University of San Diego, will read from his collection, Storm Toward Morning, Thursday, Nov. 20, 7pm, Joynes Reading Room, CRD 007, UT campus.
Black also joins Austin writer Michael McGriff (Our Secret Life in the Movies) for an evening of readings Saturday, Nov. 22, 7pm, at Malvern Books, 613 W. 29th.
Derrick C. Brown, winner of the 2013 Texas Book of the Year prize, will hold a release party for Our Poison Horse, his new poetry collection, Saturday, Nov, 22, 8pm, Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo.