Gregory Orr is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved and How Beautiful the Beloved (both from Copper Canyon). Long known for his condensed and crafted style, in his recent work, Orr demonstrates a shift toward the personal lyric at its most stripped-down, essential, and mythical. Mary Oliver has called Orr “a Walt Whitman without an inch of Whitman’s bunting or oratory.” In addition to his collections of poetry, Orr has written numerous books of nonfiction, including Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press) and a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books). He has received numerous grants and awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Orr is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he founded and directed the MFA program in creative writing. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was interviewed by Aaron Baker.
Image: The idea of song as a means of transcending time recurs often in your work. What does this mean to you as a lyric poet?
Gregory Orr: To me, song is a validation of lyric poetry’s primal nature. Song exists inside time to express individual feeling, but it also has the capacity to transcend time. Song emanates from individuals and rises up out of time. Lyric poetry speaks from the very middle of this mystery. Song and lyric poetry have a lot to do with my thinking about the Book.
Image: You write a number of poems about “the Book.” What do you mean by the Book?
GO: The Book I am imagining is a gigantic anthology filled with every poem and song ever written. All poems and songs feed into it. The Book is an ultimate jukebox, an iPod as big as the moon from which each person can download that playlist that will help them live. We go to it not for entertainment (as the jukebox or iPod metaphor might imply) but to find the words we need to sustain us. The Book is a huge, accessible repository of testimony about the mysteries and catastrophes and wonders that we experience. We’re there to sustain the Book, too, with what we sing, write, and compose. When you write a poem, it’s here in time, functioning in your own individual life, and maybe the lives of the people around you. But your poem also goes into the Book, where it has its own life, the span of which may be much longer and much different than you’ve imagined.
Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn’s Ferry” which addresses us in a future generation, tells us we’re in Whitman’s thoughts. It’s one of the few poems I know that seemed to intuit the existence of the Book. Of course, Whitman may have thought his poems were the only ones destined to be in the Book, but in my thinking, the Book is a tremendous human project we’re all involved in—and have been since lyric poetry and song have existed. There’s something “superfluous” in a lyric or song—and that superfluity goes into the Book, to wait for future readers or needers or seekers.
Image: You’ve written about songs that are inherent in the natural world. How does this connect to your image of the Book?
GO: The foundational document of Japanese lyric, Tsurayuki’s introduction to the ninth-century anthology the Kokinshu, talks about poetry being a natural response to nature’s songs. My thinking is a variation on that. The frog, the bird, the tree—each thing’s existence in the world is the song of its own being. The tree’s song is silent, whereas a frog or a bird also does a little vocal contribution. But we humans have access to language—so not only are we the song of our being, but we also have the extraordinary gift and responsibility of being able to make songs out of our own innerness—our individual joys and sorrows, and in addition, songs responding to the world outside us. In one of my poems, a tree moves its branches in the wind as if it were trying to invent an alphabet—but it doesn’t happen. It’s we humans who have that burden and joy. Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is about a childhood memory of listening to a mockingbird’s song and how that connects him with the mythical, natural origin of lyric poetry, and with his own purpose as a poet. He sees a pair of mockingbirds on Long Island and watches their nest. The female disappears, and he hears her mate looking for her, and singing for her. The boy Whitman translates that bird’s song of grief and desperate love. He knows that this bird has, in singing out its grief, inspired him to sing. He says, “For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you, / Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake.” From that moment on, he knows what his purpose in life is: to sing expressively, as the bird does. But, having human language, he also knows he has a thousand more and more complex songs than a mockingbird. He has that joy of plenitude, but also the responsibility that goes with plenitude.
Image: The new poems seem very compact, stripped down, almost elemental. In your critical work you write about how lyrical poetry stands in opposition to time, seeking the eternal, finding the song. In this light, the poems seem to represent an enormously ambitious project. Do you think of them as wedding your ideas to your practice?
GO: The poems from Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved and How Beautiful the Beloved are very stripped down, very direct. I’ve given myself permission to use concept words I discourage my students from using, words like “love” and “loss.” My deference to Pound’s wisdom, where he advises young poets “Go in fear of abstractions”—that’s not operative with me anymore.
In the winter of 2003, I woke to a phrase in my head: “the book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.” I intuited that it was referring to that repository of poems and songs that dramatize what it is to be a person, and I felt inspired to explore its further implications. The poems I’ve written since have emerged from that phrase. And a number of them have been about poetry itself, which is another kind of self-censorship I’d operated with for years: I’d tried not to write poems about poetry.
I’ve always believed in lyric poetry, always been aware of its function in my own life as a method of emotional and spiritual survival. But with the last two books, I’ve given myself permission to write poems about poetry itself, to celebrate and quote a number of my favorite poets—Sappho, Keats, Whitman, Nâzim Hikmet—because their poems (and everyone’s) are in the Book.
Prior to that, I’d told myself that, as a lyric poet, my territory was large and honorable: the mysteries of love and loss, the mystery of being a body in time. But when I heard that phrase that morning, I knew I’d left out a central mystery: the mystery of poetry itself. How poetry and song are a central affirmation of the human story. It came to me with a shock of joy. Poetry itself: what is lovelier or more important to me for its power to illumine my existence? The simple fact that lyric poetry exists both inside and outside time stuns me. When I read Sappho’s Fragment 16 and she says, “Whatever one loves most is beautiful,” I feel as though I’ve been struck by a wondrous lightning bolt. She wrote that three thousand years ago. How does meaning transcend time like that? The difference between lyric poetry and philosophy and religion is that lyric poetry involves an individualized feeling. It emerges from this passionate person who is Sappho, and the language, even in translation, is still saturated with the intensity of her being.
Image: You’ve talked about the different functions of philosophy, religion, and poetry. Can you say something about what role philosophy and religion play for you in the writing of your own poetry?
GO: Religion, philosophy, poetry—these are three huge cultural repositories of meaning. And we need meanings to live. One of the crucial events of my life was my brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. He was eight. I was holding the gun, and it killed him. I killed him. That was a sudden cataclysmic experience of loss and guilt and grief—and also silence, because in my family, as in many, grief leads to silence, and each member feels a moral duty to silently lift up their own individual, invisible cross of feeling and carry it with them to the grave. On that very same day my brother died, a friend of my parents came into my room, where I was hiding and crying, and, intending to comfort me, said, “Peter is all right. He’s already with Jesus. He’s sitting down right now at God’s table.” The image she presented was vivid to me from a number of stained-glass windows I’d seen, probably even one in the church I attended—Jesus sharing a meal with others. But that day, every time I closed my eyes—and I really couldn’t open them much that day, I tried to keep them closed—I saw my brother dead at my feet. That was the last image I had of him in the world. Her image of Peter happy and in heaven and my image of him lying dead at my feet collided—and the stained-glass scene shattered—the image of his inert body abolished any other-world possibility for me. That death and my mother’s sudden death two years later abolished all easy and consoling meanings, meanings dependent on security and love. And they established for me the vivid possibility that as a mortal being one could vanish at any moment. In my mother’s case, again, it was overnight. That’s a particularly startling form of loss.
Conventional meanings and understandings, the safe life I’d lived until then, the life I thought I understood, were abolished in that moment. So were the consolations of conventional religion, as primitively expressed by that notion that my brother was already in heaven, that as soon as you’re done here, you’re immediately transported to another place where things are fine. We could call that premature consolation. Instead of consoling, it precipitated a kind of violent disbelief. I didn’t argue with her, but I experienced what you could call a traumatic disbelief.
I believe in the spiritual, but being a lyric poet trumps both philosophy and religion for me as a source of meaning. Being a lyric poet is like being given your own giant scroll. You unroll it and discover that it’s blank, but it has the potential to be a star chart. As a poet, you put the stars on it yourself. Each time you write a poem you’re making a meaning, placing a point of light on this blank chart, dotting it over time with your own meanings, your own stars. You’re making an image of a night sky on the scroll. Most people, I hope, are given their charts with a few stable stars already in place—the North Star, Orion, and so forth. But mine was blank. Any early stars were just wiped out with those early deaths.
Stars in the night sky have a kind of wonder and beauty, but they’re a systemless system. You feel awe and wonder at them, but they don’t all hold together. Religion, philosophy—those seem to me to be systems that try to become internally coherent, arrange themselves into one huge constellation, but what I love about lyric poetry is that, like the stars, it’s just an array. It’s an open system that’s mysteriously radiant with significance.
Image: It seems that epistemology, and philosophy of language in particular, are important to a lot of poets now. Religion may be on the wane, or at least somewhat less mainstream than it was before. Have you noticed that?
GO: I have. During my lifetime, a lot of poets have become very excited about Saussurean linguistics, and especially the observation that the connection between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, that words don’t really connect to things the way we think they do. That strikes at the heart of lyric poetry as a meaning-making project for me. It doesn’t interest me at all, and seems to have in it the seeds of nihilism and solipsism, enemies of lyric poetry. What interests me is much more primitive, much more like Adam in the Garden, naming the creatures that are brought before him. George Steiner talks about “the covenant between the word and the world,” and I love the notion of such a covenant underlying poetry. Language connects us to the creaturely and material world, even though it also separates us from it. In “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Whitman talks about standing alone on a promontory, separated from everything, and words being like a spider’s filaments, bright threads of language that the spider flings out to connect itself to things in the world.
I’m personally out of sync with all these new epistemologies. When I try to figure out my situation as a poet, I go back to a striking fact: that we in the West do not have a positive foundational document for lyric poetry—for what it is and why it is. Our first beautiful and intelligent statement about poetry is Plato’s fierce but brilliant attack against it. He says lyric poetry is irrational; it concerns pleasure and pain instead of reason—and of course reason is Plato’s hero. His plan for saving human beings from their emotional selves is by banishing the poets and repressing the emotional life. From the point of view of idealistic philosophy, it’s absolutely the right attack. Poetry is irrational and subversive of civic order. But what Plato seems to miss is that the whole point of lyric poetry is to integrate this irrational element of human nature into a larger coherence. You can banish poets, but you can’t banish emotions or the irrational—you have to have some project to welcome them into a comprehensive image of being. And lyric poetry can do that—not always, but often enough to prove its use and purpose.
In China, Japan, and India, there are foundational documents that establish a positive purpose for lyric poetry. They were written very early on in those civilizations, and poets and readers can look back at them and orient themselves. In China, there’s the “Great Preface to the Book of Songs.” (It’s only two paragraphs, but they call it “the Great Preface.”) It was written around the fourth century, and it’s attached to this primal anthology called the Book of Songs that was written down about 600 B.C. I’ve already mentioned Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshu in ninth-century Japan. Both cultures, because of these founding documents, relate poetry to individual emotional well-being. Later Chinese or Japanese poets might disagree or quibble with the formulation, as a fair number did over the centuries, but they almost always write in relation to it.
Both the Chinese and the Japanese say that lyric is poetry’s basic form. It’s the form in which human innerness responds to the world, or wells up and needs to be reconciled to what’s outside us—the inner nature and the outer nature meet and are reconciled in the poem. As I said in Poetry as Survival, lyric poetry exists in every culture at every time. It’s a human birthright, an urgent option for individual expression in every culture—we want and need to turn our feelings into rhythmic language.
Image: We were talking about how the sorrows of your boyhood and young adulthood became an impetus for your poetry, and you’ve described also how, for the lyric poet, the ordering principles of poetry can provide at least a provisional means of imposing order upon disorder. After the poem is written, what do you take from the experience of writing it? How durable is any consolation, if there is consolation?
GO: Ah, you’ve touched on the Achilles’ heel of the lyric. There’s definitely consolation, but I fear Robert Frost is also right when he claims that poems are “a momentary stay against confusion.” In a four-page essay called “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he says that compared with religion and philosophy the consolations of the lyric are only temporarily efficacious. On the other hand, they emerge from crises: falling passionately in love, or losing love, or situations of grief and confusion. I wouldn’t say they’re always written while the crisis is happening—but for dramatic purposes they tend to locate themselves in that crisis moment, and that’s when we, as readers, most need poems, during our crises. We need poets when we’re deliriously happy, and the delirium threatens our stability, when we’re crazy with love. We need them when we’re crazed with grief and despair—then they’re a momentary stay against our confusion, a momentary clarification. Then they have the power to re-stabilize us. Wordsworth has a beautiful insight when he defines poetry twice in his “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”: first as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”—that would be a poem written in crisis—and then a few pages later as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In my opinion, that second definition could be paraphrased as “trauma revisited when it’s safe to remember it.” Often the poem about sorrow or trauma gets written well afterward. The ability to shape it, to find meaning, is not there in the moment. It took me seven years of writing poetry before I could write about my brother’s death, even though I knew early on that for my own spiritual and emotional survival I needed to do it.
Image: Why did you delay?
GO: For one thing, I lacked the linguistic and emotional skills to shape it, because it was an extremely complicated experience, and my imagination had not yet been able to dramatize it in a way that seemed adequate. As a young poet, I lacked the ability to speak directly. When I finally wrote the poem “Gathering the Bones Together,” I was already on my second collection, and I still spoke mostly through images. But I needed to find images adequate to that experience. I can remember, for instance, one section of the poem tries to express what it’s like to be in a house in the immediate aftermath of a sudden death. The image that came to me was of a house filling with smoke. If you live in the country, as we did, and something obstructs the chimney when you’ve got a fire in the fireplace, very quickly smoke spreads to every room, and before you know it, you can’t see clearly and people seem to become ghosts. It completely saturates your senses—the smell is so intense and your eyes hurt. And when the smoke vanishes, the smell has penetrated everything. That was my image of the house after my brother’s death. That section ends, “We will smell it in pillows when we lie down to sleep.” Not that I couldn’t say: when you lie down to sleep after a horrible trauma in a family you’re going to think about it; it’s going to be with you all night; it’s going to dominate your dreams. All this is true, but stated directly those are platitudes. My imagination then was always looking for the adequate image. As a young poet I had a faith that images could incarnate meanings and reveal them in a non-rational, vivid way.
Image: Did you ever try to write about your brother’s death through narrative, or did you just instinctively know that it was going to happen through images, through the lyric mode?
GO: Much later in my life, only about eight years ago, I was able to write about it in a prose memoir, The Blessing. But as a young person I desperately needed to write about it in that form of concentrated encounter that is a poem. Looking back at “Gathering the Bones Together,” which is a series in seven parts, I find it psychologically interesting that the poem doesn’t immediately address the scene of my brother’s death—that takes place in the second poem. The first poem is in the form of a premonitory dream that a boy sleeping in a barn has about the imminent death—it’s an invented scene, a kind of merciful foretaste I granted the boy who was me, because the horror of sudden death is so great that it’s almost unbearable. The other thing that strikes me is that section two, which describes the moments leading up to the death and the scene of the death itself, is absolutely descriptive narrative. There’s not a single image or metaphor in it—it’s stripped bare of all image or ornament. Even though I thought and wrote constantly in images then, I think it would have felt like a desecration of the existential horror and reality of his death to have used metaphors. The five sections that come after it are filled with images—snails gliding across black leaves like “little death-swans” on a pond, and so on, and those surreal images were emblems of the emotional impact of an event. But the event itself—my imagination resisted any transformation of that into image or metaphor. The second poem could only state or describe. But the aftermath of that death was internalized. From that moment on, for a long, long time, everything in my life was internalized. I couldn’t speak to anybody around me about what happened. I couldn’t speak to my family. I lived in a very small town, and everyone knew what had happened, but that didn’t make it any easier to speak about it, so I turned completely inward. My life became these images: either nightmare images or—you hope, in poetry—beautiful, meaningful images.
Image: Your career has extended over several decades, and you’re getting further from your genesis as a poet every day. Has anything changed or evolved about what drives your writing?
GO: I’m very aware of the distance from my genesis, partly because I teach, so I’m constantly engaging young poets and I’m aware what huge gulfs there are between their world and mine. My understanding of poetry has changed in some ways, but in other ways it’s still the same. I’ve taken to trying to persuade my students that there are two aspects of poetry-writing: craft and quest. Craft is everything that you could possibly learn about writing poems, working with language—and the good news is that you’re going to spend your whole life on it and only conquer the smallest corner of it. Craft is a vast, mysterious realm, and you may be frustrated exploring it, but you won’t be bored because there’s always more you don’t know, things you long to do but can’t. In my opinion, you can never master craft, and that’s marvelous.
But just as important is quest. Why are you as an individual drawn to poetry? Why is poetry knocking on your door and saying: “There’s something I want to do with you?” How does your life intersect with this ambition to write poems? It’s exciting to try to answer those and related questions as a young poet.
One way of approaching those questions is by considering the poets you most love—because they are your imaginative family, your poetry family, and who they are is almost as important to your development as your biological family was to your earlier life. To find your imaginative relatives—Great-great-grandfather Wordsworth, or mad Great-great-uncle William Blake, or strange and amazing Aunt Emily Dickinson. That necessity for young poets to read everything—it’s partly to expand your craft knowledge, but just as important is to find your spiritual kin, to fill in your poetic family tree. Part of becoming a poet is being reborn into poetry, and your poetic parents and all your relatives—they’re the poets you love most.
Image: It sounds very Christian.
GO: Well, you’re born again as a poet. That’s a powerful experience many young poets go through—a spiritual experience. Becoming a poet is obviously not a sensible career choice. There must be a spiritual dimension to it, or else you’re an idiot. If poetry were simply an ego experience, it would be foolish, even depressing, but it’s not. We all know that.
Image: You’ve written about how the great mysteries of Eros and Thanatos, along with the lesser mysteries like joy, suffering, and rebirth, have the power to move us beyond the ego. In the creation of poems, does the ego progress toward some kind of extinction, towards a Buddhist absence of desire?
GO: No, not at all, not in my experience. Maybe my early trauma experience gave me too-concentrated an experience of ego, an almost toxic sense of individual identity. After my brother’s death, in order to hold myself together in the chaos, I formulated an image for myself: Cain. For having killed his own brother, Cain is under God’s curse; he’s marked. Cain begs God to kill him, but God says, “No way. You’re going to live in the world.” Cain would rather have died, and I could relate to that. Cain is in a state of total isolation and alienation. He is the epitome of the negative existence of ego, the opposite of Whitman’s spider connecting through the filaments. But my imagination doesn’t want to extinguish the ego, to eliminate the self, not even to disperse a toxicity like Cain’s. My imagination, as it is now, exists in order to bring the self into relation with the beloved. The motive for relationship is desire, though not necessarily erotic desire. The motive is desire for connection, and the model for a self-beloved relationship is one of reciprocity: to love and to be loved, to give love and to receive it. The beloved for me is first and foremost another person—but the beloved could be any aspect of reality that takes us out of ourselves, out of isolation into relationship, because relationship is meaning. The beloved could be a person, a place, a creature, I suppose it could even be a cause, though one has to be careful about causes. Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century English poet confined in a madhouse, writes a long, beautiful poem called Jubilate Agno—“Praise to the Lamb.” About seventy lines of that poem are a celebration of his only companion, his cat Jeoffry. He writes about his cat and how much spiritual wisdom he keeps getting from it, just by noticing precisely and lovingly those cat behaviors all cat people know and love. That cat is Christopher Smart’s beloved: something he loves that is giving him love. Or, for someone like that poor grim Robinson Jeffers, the beloved was not people, but it was a place, the Big Sur region of California and the hawks he saw there. I wouldn’t want to use the word sin, but a big spiritual mistake would be not to have any beloved in the world, not to want any beloved. Of course we are constantly losing beloveds; that’s a condition of our situation in the world: we live in time and everything vanishes. But to live in a world devoid of beloveds would be emotionally, spiritually catastrophic.
Image: What poets are important to you now? Who are your spiritual kin? Who do you find yourself going back to?
GO: Emerson says something in his journals that I simply love: “make your own Bibles.” He lists some of the people whose bits of wisdom and insight would find a place in his text—religious figures and philosophers and poets. I don’t mind saying who’s in my book, my small version of the great Book of poems and songs. But part of what I’m excited about is trying to persuade people that they should make their own books, their own urgent anthologies. That’s an important part of the quest, part of understanding who you are as a spiritual being as opposed to a person who just stumbles through the world.
The songs and poems in my book haven’t just filled my life with meaning in a particular moment (though that is important), they also continue to do it over time. I go back to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” every two or three years. The poem keeps changing. I don’t know why. You’d think that the words would stay the same, but what it means to me now is entirely different than what it meant thirty or forty years ago when I first read it. It means something different but it still means to me; it still feeds my life.
But you asked about my people. Often they’re poets long gone—Sappho, for her lyric intensity. Keats, Whitman, Wordsworth, Izumi Shikibu, Blake, Emily Dickinson. Stanley Kunitz was terribly important. He was more than just a poet for me—he was a teacher.
Image: Your wife, Trisha, is a painter. I know you’ve collaborated on various projects. Painting is more of a physical act than writing a poem. Is the collaboration between body and spirit, language and physical action—which seems to be a thematic preoccupation of your poems—mirrored in these projects?
GO: I’d like to have been a painter, early on, but that didn’t happen for various reasons. I envy the sensory immediacy of paintings. Trisha is a life-long painter, a still-life painter. Wordsworth talked about how the poet’s attention makes the world radiant; his poet is a sort of secular priest who has the power to “consecrate.” That’s what her paintings do. They look at the world so intently that her painted objects become more real and amazing than actual objects. That kind of intensification is already the lyric project.
About fifteen years ago, I first had a chance to write poems to go with a show of hers. I wrote about looking at her paintings, noticing things in them and talking about what was happening. That was okay; it was fun and it worked. But the next time we had a chance to do something together she said, “Why don’t you try something different. Why don’t you write poems that are equivalents to my paintings rather than descriptions?” The paintings still had priority, the poems were inspired by the paintings, but now they were parallel—the poems weren’t obviously dependent on the paintings. With the last two books, what I’ve called the Beloved poems, Trisha got intrigued by the poems themselves. She’s never been an abstract painter, but she decided to paint some of the poems she really liked—to paint the words on a grid on the canvas—and they became these things we call poem-paintings. You can see them on her website. I’m thrilled by them, besides being flattered.
I have always loved the way a strong painting arrests you and pulls you into a reverie—a back-and-forth state between the visual stimulus before your eyes and your imagination, memories, thoughts, and feelings. That’s what I’d want a poem to do also—to set ideas and associations going in the reader. I’d want them to follow the words of the poem, but also to pause and go into their own thoughts, their own reverie, and then return to the words on the page. I’ve heard from people who have responded to the new poems in that way and I’m pleased by that.
Image: In Richer Entanglements you quote the French poet Paul Valéry: “Nothing leads more certainly to perfect barbarity than an exclusive attachment to the pure spirit. I have been intimately acquainted with this fanaticism.” Could you speak about that?
GO: Myself, I believe Valéry was writing partly in the context of his time—a time when the barbarity of Nazism arose in the midst of a German culture that revered pure spirit and abstract thinking. Purity is not part of the human story, and to believe so is to open ourselves up to many dangers, both individually and collectively. The human story needs to take place down here on earth, where purity is not necessarily an option. Plato, my nemesis, wanted to abstract the principles of love and beauty and remove them from bodies, to move them up into his non-corporeal world of ideas. No. We live in mortal bodies; we love mortal bodies; the world we love is saturated with mortality. Spirit is here, but when you try to purify spirit too much, you betray reality. Before you know it, that can turn sinister. Poetry is a complicated negotiation between abstraction and concrete embodiment, between spirituality and groundedness in the world.
Image: How do you gauge the success of one of your finished poems? What satisfies you, or fails to satisfy you, about a completed piece?
GO: Intensity. And lucidity. I’m satisfied now when a poem speaks clearly and directly—which isn’t something I used to aspire to when I wrote with more reliance on metaphors and images.
The poems I’m writing now feel like a gift, like I’m giving something to the world—and there’s a lot of risk in that. With some of the very cryptic poems I wrote earlier in my career, I think I sometimes asked more of my readers than I gave to them. We poets, especially those of us who matured in the twentieth century, frequently talk about the pleasures of the difficult poem. We’ve noticed that reading a poem is an active process, and that readers enjoy a challenge. They enjoy meeting a poem halfway. If a poem sits down in your lap and gives you a big kiss, that seems a little too free and easy. This negotiation between a reader’s intelligence and emotions and a poem’s intelligence and emotions is an exciting event. Nevertheless, I worry about just taking; I don’t want to only take energy from a reader. I feel like the poems I’m writing now have the potential to give energy. I’m grateful for the new poems because they’ve changed my relationship to poetry entirely.
Image: You’re teaching a class called “How Poetry Can Save Your Life.” How can it do that?
GO: It did save my life. You meet many people whose lives were saved by poetry. We’re in danger of dying all of the time—not physically, but of living our lives as if we were dead. All of us lapse into death-in-life, into an unawareness that being alive is a blessing and a gift, and the only gift we’re going to be given.
The writing of poems, primarily lyric poems, saves poets’ lives all the time—it’s saved my life countless times and the lives of most poets I know. But the reading of poems—that also saves lives. What does Emily Dickinson say? “The Province of the Saved / Should be the Art—To save— / Through Skill obtained in Themselves….” Poets are those who have been saved by poetry, and sometimes their task is to help others survive and regain vitality and discover meaning in existence. I wrote about this a fair bit in Poetry as Survival.
The making of poems is the making of meanings. To write a lyric poem is to take the confusion and chaos inside you and translate it into words. Those words get organized onto a page; and if they’re being organized into a poem as opposed to a novel, they’re being highly organized into an intense pattern, a concentrated coherence. When you suffer trauma, you mostly do that passively, as a victim. But when you translate that experience into words and shape it, you become active. You are no longer a passive endurer of experience, but an active shaper of it. You’ve redeemed something from that chaos. Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone. Someone else felt this. Someone else went through what you are going through and they survived, even triumphed. The poem is the proof of that survival and triumph. This person who fell madly in love or suffered great grief was able to turn the suffering into an object that we call a poem and put it out in the world.
Stanley Kunitz has a wonderful line about lyric poetry: “It’s the voice of the solitary that makes others less alone.” One threat to survival, it seems to me, is feeling all alone, feeling that there’s no connection between you and others, and that there can’t be. Sometimes you can’t have a connection with people who are physically around you. But connection for you could come through a poem written twelve hundred years ago in T’ang dynasty China, a poem that speaks about grief. This is part of the curious intimacy of lyric poems—no matter when it was written, you can feel as if someone is speaking to you. You hear the voice of that individual poet. With philosophy, those large abstract schemes, you don’t feel that intimacy. The poem is like the body of the beloved. It’s a human form. It’s a voice emanating from a body, bringing a message of connection.
But to the question of the class itself—there’s a bit of trickery involved. I told my students the first day: poetry won’t save your life if you are passive, but you can save your life by having an active relationship with poetry, by finding and cherishing and pondering those poems you most love—those that speak directly and forcefully to your reality, or those that evoke the mysteries and confusions you recognize as not just the poet’s, but your own. To save your own life through a vital relationship with powerful poems—that’s something worth doing.