Fighting Fire With Poetry

Readers who don’t live in California may still already know this, but just in case–we’re on fire. Worse than ever before. Hundreds are dead and more hundreds missing. Ash and smoke have rendered the air bad enough to close schools and other things; masks are being worn for hundreds of square miles.

What do poets do at a time like this? We write, of course. We write about what’s going on–and sometimes, for our own survival, we go on writing about other things too.

Or we write about what’s going on, but indirectly. We write things that come from ourselves after we strain current events through the cloth of our psyche. Odd inspirations that come to us, or characters inspired by people we met or heard about.

I had an experience like this a couple of nights ago when I read a wildfire-related poem at an open mic. It was a strange one–for some reason, what came from my psyche was a poem about visiting a friend in the psych ward while the fires were burning, and about the way his mental illness was severe enough to cut him off from being able to feel or care about them.

But strange can be good sometimes–as I know I’ve said before, writing about the same basic things from a million perspectives is what poets do, because you never know which angle will touch somebody.

 

Follow, Poet

Sometimes I wish I had what it takes to be the kind of poet who serves as a voice of our times. Oh, I occasionally write things in response to a current cause for passion, but they don’t come quickly and I don’t have the emotional and spiritual fortitude–or the consistent functionality–to narrate with poetry a real-time cry against the things happening to us.

Indonesia burns, children go hungry, black lives end in travesties of justice, masked gunmen open fire…does poetic language not come to my mind when I feel about these things? Of course it does. If I were a stronger person, with more time and energy, perhaps I could make of myself a poet who responds to the news. In one browser window, I’d gather information about every cause for distress. On a notebook in my lap, I’d scribble responses and mutate them, then type the results into another browser window and post it.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody could keep up. But there’s another reason my poetry isn’t going in that direction more consistently. I will tell you a secret: poems I write are often influenced by the news, but the link isn’t obvious. By the time my response makes it through my subconscious and out the other side, it may be unrecognizable. This makes them less useful for purposes of consciousness raising.

Must it be this way? For me, as I am now, it would appear so. Maybe W.H. Auden said it best:

…Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

–From “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

I’m not strong enough, not resistant enough to despair, to get a poem out until I’ve somehow “made a vineyard of the curse.” I can’t just paint the darkness until I can somehow make it shine. It’s selfish, in the short term. But it’s what I am, and I need to accept it in order to unlock the abilities I do have.