It’s All Too Much: the ‘Whatfore?’ of Poetry

Wordle: Gestures ‘Poetry, poetry, whatfore art thou poetry?’

In the previous post I wrote about the friable nature of digital media; but, often analogue media does not fare much better. Humans are not gentle beasts and the destruction, intentional or unintentional, of libraries, archives and museums is old as Alexandria and recent as Iraq (2003), Weimar (2004),  and Egypt (2011).

Some of them do make it; but, is trying to give words wings, making a poetic gesture – like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring – an endeavour that will be obscured in apathy and confusion, or flower into something enduring? Is writing worth it when the world is already full of really good poetry that not many bother to read anyway? Poetry, what for?

In answer I offer a quote from the poet Andrea Scarpino, featured in a recent issue of Blood Orange Review:

“There are millions of reasons not to write: earning an income, a beautiful fall day, that greasy brunch spot. What keeps me moving forward is a commitment to my own voice, my own stories, to sharing with others. A commitment to telling stories that I think need to be told. A commitment to sound and light and the ways in which language shapes our understanding of the world, the things that language can teach us about ourselves. And also, a rebelliousness. A friend once told me, ‘No one will make it easy for you to write.’ So sometimes, I sit down at my desk just to prove that I can. Because committing to my own writing can be such an act of rebellion, of going against the grain, of proving that no matter what the world thinks I should value, I value this.” – Andrea Scarpino

It is this gesture towards real communication, offered in the midst of the flash-flood of information that our culture deluges us with every morning as soon as we open our eyes, that is being offered by the poets who will be presented over the next 29 days. An arbitrary flower in the midst of chaos for you, the reader.

Take it.

Déjà vu: Poetry in Hand

As I mentioned in the previous post, poetry serves as a bridge across time and culture, carrying the author’s ‘voice’ across generations and places but what about the gesture, the language of the body? Will the YouTube video that I posted, or all of those digital photos carefully placed in albums on my hard drive, and on Face Book, last as long as an inscription on a clay tablet? As you read this sentence and I write it we both know that the answer is already, emphatically no. Yet, gesture does seem to have a life of its own…

When my daughter was tiny I noticed that her hands made shapes that I recognized from images of both Byzantine and Hindu art; I called them ‘baby mudras’. Where did these miniature, elegant gestures come from?

Those tiny conical fingers, with their slender tips and chubby bases that, for my husband and I, recalled 10 little Campari Soda bottles, eventually grew longer and more slender. One day, having eaten some toast at the kitchen table, my then two year old began sweeping crumbs along the yellow Formica surface and into the open face of her cupped palm. I recognized the gesture immediately as my mothers and only later caught my own hands in the act. So, from where had my mother received this gesture and just how old was it?

Although it is impossible to know either the source of the ‘baby mudra’ or the genealogy of that peculiar arc of the fingers as they sweep up crumbs, the questions scratched at that vague itch for meaning that seems so basic to being human.

Gestures that gives words wings, gestures that give wings to what cannot be said with words – evoking only questions; then there are the gestures that are meant to express something but somehow end up clanking emptily. Futile, hollow gestures…

Body Language and Poetry: giving words wings

“Written words, from the days of Sumerian tablets, were meant to be pronounced out loud, since the signs carried implicit, as if it were their soul, a particular sound. The classic phrase scripta manet, verba volat –– which has come to mean, in our time, ‘what is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into air’ –– used to express the exact opposite; it was coined in praise of the word said out loud, which has wings and can fly…”
Alberto Manguel from
A History of Reading

When IPM-2MXI closed last year I was thinking, as I often do, about how poetry serves as a bridge across time and culture. I was thinking back to poetry readings that I had done and that I had attended. I have vivid memories of a writers workshop sponsored by my high school where, among others, Max Apple, Frank H. Schaefer, and Tim Seibles came to read their work and talk about writing with interested students. We were lucky.

Funny thing is, what has stuck with me for thirty-odd years, is less what they had to say about writing (sorry guys) but their physical presence, the sound of their voices: how their bodies bore their words. Gesture: Max Apple, his narrow shoulders folded in, glanced up at the auditorium of expectant students and smiled before looking down at the podium and reading from The Oranging of America and Zip along with a poem about wanting visitation rights with his ex-wife’s breasts. His nasal, northern voice held back half of a laugh. Frank Schaefer, whose laconic, matter-of-fact tone somehow matched the arch of his bushy eyebrows and the way his arms swung from his shoulders, read from The Ghosts of Elkhorn and spoke to us about ballads and the art of story-telling. Tim Seibles, whose deep, impassioned voice matched the sweep of his arms, gave his words wings as he read Double Dutch, The Leap, and Big Mouth from his first book that was then yet to be published: Body Moves.

Years later I found that slender volume of Tim Seibles poetry in a bookshop and recognized his photo on the back cover. Inside the book were the poems he’d read, lots that he hadn’t, and the sound of his voice double-exposed over the written words. That book found it’s way into my apartment here in Northern Italy and makes part of the inspiration for this year’s theme. But of course there’s more…