Over the past month, I have been organizing my house, my barn, my life. I cannot write poetry while organizing. Organizing and writing poetry require engaging different parts of the brain. Or I should say creating poetry. Revising poetry and organizing work okay together. While the straightened desk, stacked hay bale, or polished floor is a sign of outward control, there is nothing like the feeling of a poem rising. The absence of poetry is a sign that the inner self is floundering about, or worse, vacant. When a poem starts to rise, there’s something going on inside.
Open Up Each Man’s Basement Until All The Girls Are Found
We should not stop at three missing girls who saved themselves
by pounding at the door from the inside until a neighbor,
uneducated and ignorant enough, became involved,
investigated, and did something about it. Where are the others?
In the night I settle down on my belly on the sheets, arms raised
over my head in utter vulnerability, happy, so happy, to be here,
safe in my soft bed, looking forward to morning, to sipping coffee,
to…to…when those women I don’t know find me, enter my mind.
I don’t know them but I know of them. I don’t know their lives
but I know of their lives, beaten, buried in a basement, spit on,
raped repeatedly. They’ve been bound and made to do whatever.
I see men. I see them. I open up to all possibilities. I’m too frozen
to sleep now unless I return to myself, here, in my bed, ignore
all that exists outside my quiet walls, ignore shrouds over living
bodies, ignore don’t act like a girl, ignore all men’s basements, ignore
everything outside my soft and safe body. Now, I can also sleep.
Content vs. Form
In the past week or so, I’ve felt several poems arise, have recognized ideas and/or moments for poems and started them on paper or at least recorded them for development later. The moment that “won out,” so to speak, appears here today due to the essay I read this morning by Alice Fulton, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge” found in Green Mountains Review: 25th Anniversary Poetry Retrospective.
Fulton addresses the form vs. content debate head on: “Should questions concerning meaning and structure come up, someone inevitably posits their indivisibility. In service to this belief, responsible discussions of content always invoke form. I’ve noticed, however, that interrelatedness does not work both ways: Discussion of form seldom include content.” (94).
This is mind boggling to me. How does one write a poem without thinking that content is why we write the poem and form is the means of delivery? (This is not to say that the form doesn’t/can’t/shouldn’t impact the meaning of the content). What am I missing here?
Fulton goes on to discuss the importance of focusing on content rather than form:
“If we refuse to consider the implications of our words, our poems will reflect rather than revise aesthetic and cultural norms. If, on the other hand, we focus on content, we might notice – and counter – the complacency and complicity within poetry. The dominant culture is as invisible as it is invidious: we partake in its assumptions unthinkingly. To write mindfully, however, we must disinter and interrogate its premises, revising or accepting as necessary.” (97). This, of course, is also Audre Lorde’s message in her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (the first four words of her essay, “The quality of light…” gave this blog its name). We must first write, not craft; we must be mindful of our message, not only of our words.
The title of Fulton’s essay, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,” refers to the following paragraph, which I think is worth repeating here, in which she writes,
“Since the dominant culture is as omnipresent as air, subordinate groups learn about it simply by being alive. The divested also become unwilling anthropologists, studying the empowered in order to anticipate – and if necessary manipulate – their behavior. The enfranchised, on the other hand, do not inevitably learn about those on the margins; the culturally endorsed, if they are to know, must actively pursue awareness of the unendorsed. To approach otherness, not clinically but heartfully, is difficult; it takes humility. A poetry of inconvenient knowledge asks men to think deeply about women’s historical and biological situation, a request that entails some empathy, if not self-effacement. And as a white woman, I am asked to think about race; as a member of the middle class, I must encounter poverty; as an American, I can’t efface the third world.” (100).
Yes, it is rather “inconvenient” to think about “the culturally unendorsed,” and the knowledge we gain from experiences that link us to worlds beyond our own should make us, at the minimum, uncomfortable, and at the most, should spur us in to action. How many things do we keep from our minds in order to sleep at night? Unfortunately, way too many people sleep soundly in the world.
In the poem above, the content is what is mostly important, yet the form is intentional. To me, the topic of female subordination is not one about which I should mince words, and the long line, in addition to allowing more words, presses the issue, and presses on with the issue. Within the orderly quatrains is our un-orderly world in which girls are kidnapped and treated cruelly, horribly. Or, perhaps this reflects that this IS the order of the world.
Often, we don’t know how ignorant we are. I share the following anecdote to show how woefully ignorant we can be of our ignorances: In a forum on female discrimination that was held at my MFA program, one male reminded us all how far we’ve come in America regarding our rights. “Don’t forget how much better you have it here in this country compared to other countries,” he made sure to add to the discussion. Did he want us to say, “Never mind! It ain’t so bad for some of us, so we better stop complaining.” The fact that it IS better for some of us is all the more reason to push on for others who are not as fortunate as us – or as “them.”
The shear definition of a poem demands attention to both content and form. This is directly related to placing our lives in order. Gregory Orr, in his book Poetry As Survival, discusses how “The awareness of disorder generates in the human mind a spontaneous ordering response.” (16). We want order in our lives and poetry is a logical means (to me) for making internal order. Poetry allows that “a sense of some patterns or enduring principles are at work in our lives.” (16). It is a way of dealing with an otherwise overwhelming world.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
The Missing White Woman Syndrome – or the White Damsel in Distress sells the news.
Green Mountains Review
Neil Shepard, Senior/Founding Editor, Green Mountains Review