This past month, spring thus far, has been one of changes and transformations for me as I begin the transition from the classroom to the world of poetry. April, especially, has propelled me deeper into this world due to traveling around the state to attend readings, slams, and workshops. On Wednesday evening I attended my first “spoken word” workshop, given by Lizzy Fox in Burlington, Vermont, at ArtsRiot. Her workshops, she explained, tend to be place-based, and she took us on a meditation journey to the places we have been. After roaming back through all the places I lived as a child (I moved 11 times by the time I was 14) and all the states and countries I’ve traveled to, I found myself concentrating on my current place, my home. As these things go, I had just received an email from my friend Nancy about spring peepers. So it is with inspiration from Lizzy and Nancy that I drafted the following poem.
Alas, it wouldn’t be a very good “spoken word” poem, but maybe, someday, I’ll get there.
It is always about this time in April
when I open my window wide to sleep
and spring peepers – those tiny tree frogs
with sticky fingers – begin to call.
At first, a few of the love-sick amphibians
chirrup their quaint country song,
vibrating the air with their pulsating
throats. Each night that follows
those first throbbings, the chorus
increases until, perhaps a week later,
a crescendo of frenzied deafening decibels
crashes through my window, drowns
out the last of winter’s silence.
When I first moved to this place,
I couldn’t sleep for the cacophony
of a million peepers. I never thought
they were speaking to me. This spring,
I hear them for the first time, knowing
the serenity they have broken
was just emptiness, knowing
that some nights they sing,
other nights they pray, and tonight,
tonight they whoop with joy.
Poetry of Place
The topic of place has been forefront in my mind since March 23. This was the day I was contacted by a third cousin I never knew existed who saw some photos of our ancestors that I had posted on ancestry.com. His research confirmed mine and proved that my ancestor – my great, great, great, great, great, great – count ’em, six – grandfather settled a town in the 1700’s just a half an hour from where I currently live. This might not be such a big deal but his descendants – my ancestors – moved to the midwest in the 1800’s and here I am, almost three hundred years later, in this same place.
If this weren’t enough, I attended a workshop on Monday evening with the great Mary Jane Dickerson. In the workshop she spoke of place, of writing through exploring place, “from one to many” as we explore the individual experience and connect it to the larger world. Listen to Mary Jane here:
Then, there was Lizzy’s workshop.
What is it about place? Poet Wendell Berry said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are involves a multi-layered, multi-dimensional awareness of the past and present, of people, land, politics, ecology, and even geology, as Baron Wormser points out in his book Teaching the Art of Poetry (279). (Whenever I walk in the woods behind my house, I am in awe of the 12 feet high boulders that came to a skidding halt from a long-ago glacier and that are now neatly tucked in between maple and hemlock trees).
In his article, “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s ‘The Secret of Light,‘ James Galvin writes, that “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty.” I have a hard time understanding this. Perhaps, Galvin is saying the same thing as Mark Johnson in his book The Body in the Mind, and which Terry Hermsen discusses in his book, Poetry of Place. This is the point that we cannot touch ‘the real world,’ cannot step out of our bodies and minds to experience place objectively. In order to do that, we must reduce the self so that place is the essence.
I’m still not sure I buy it.
What I do buy is that in order to experience place in all its dimensions, we need to look to metaphor, which is rooted in the senses. We must look at things “in terms of another” as Frost said. Hermsen has an excellent discussion of metaphor in the beginning chapter of his book, citing Russian semiotician Roman Jakobson and his distinction between the function of transferring of information that metonymy offers and the connecting function of metaphor.
Metaphor connects the physical world with language and potentially with understanding. Communicating a point in time and space – that is, place – and all the history, emotion, mystery, and weight of that time and space, is the poet’s challenge.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
National Geographic: Spring Peepers
Russian Linguist Roman Jakobson
Metaphor, metonymy (and other tropes) – a discussion from the University of Chicago