Sunday, August 05, 2007

Poetry of Place

I am a fan of poetry of place, and most of the tanka I write is poetry of place. I have always bucked the trend for 'universiality' in poetry in favor of specificacity and locality. 'Universal' is another way of saying 'generic' and it takes a rare gift to say something new and fresh. By contrast, local places, by virtue of being local, having rarely been tapped and their creative fount is still fresh and far from being exhausted. If we are all human, then we can, through the door of the poem, enter into our universal humanity and find it very different and very much the same.

From my own experience, I can relate to the experience of others. From my own experience, I can teach others. Above and beyond poetry, I apply this to daily life. I volunteer about a skipjack, one of the last vessels in North America to fish commercially under sail. I must translate the unknown into the known and in doing so create a sense of the specialness of both. Looking up at the sails, they are merely 'big,' when I tell them they are 1942 square feet of canvas, the number still doesn't register, and then I tell them, "Think about how big your own house is and then you have an idea of the size of these sails." Their eyes pop. Along with the recognition of size comes the recognition of work -- the women can usually imagine how much work it takes to clean and care for their house, and then they say, "It must be a lot of work to take care of this boat." Yes it is.

It matters, too. It is the special things that create a sense of place, and a sense of place is essential for a sense of belonging. To not belong is to be alienated and rootless, to have no investment. To belong is to feel a sense of ownership, guardianship, and care. To belong it to conserve. To be alienated is to reject. The places in which we live, work, play, and worship are not permanent and infinite, but limited, fragile, and perishable. They require care. People who don't care don't take care of them. 'Places' then are the places that we value.

If we are wise, we see the value in all places and revel in their uniqueness and seek to preserve it and develop it. If we aren't wise, we see only our own selfish gratification -- the perfect green lawn, and not the algae blooms in the water caused by the fertilizer runoff from our property. Altruism is not an option but a necessity. It may be altruistic to change our habits to improve our environment and support our communities -- but it shouldn't be. It should be normal. It is enlightenment self-preservation to make certain that the place in which we live will continue to be a viable place while we live there and while our children live there afterwards.

Poetry of place is a regional art. Like the local folk arts and customs, it grows out of a keen appreciation for the past but is not nostalgia. Nostalgia is looking back and lamenting what is lost, dreaming about an imaginary past in which the cares of the world were escaped. Regionalism is not nostalgic but futuristic. It takes the customs of the past and projects them into the future, recognizes the potential for loss, and realizes the value of the past in mitigating the evils of rootlessness, abandonment, and decay. Poetry is the nutrition that keeps the heart rooted, engaged, and fertile.

There has been a rising interest in poetry of place concurrent with a rising awareness and appreciation by city planners, politicians, and concerned citizens who realize that a sense of place is a powerful antidote to the ills of modern society. Some developers are now seeking to identify and preserve that which is unique and valued, to protect and enhance such local uniqueness and value, and to contribute something of their own that truly 'develops' the locality instead of merely exploiting it. Unfortunately, there are not yet many examples of this, and while any step in this direction is to be appreciated, purely cosmetic steps are not enough.

There has been a similar direction in modern American poetry. Not surprisingly, since poetry reflects the lives of the people who write it, American poetry has become as rootless and alien as the malls and McMansions that blight the American landscape. Once upon a time poetry was something that all people shared and enjoyed, now it is the province of ivory tower academics or alienated young people screaming out profanity laden rap lyrics. While each sort of poetry is an authentic expression of the people who write it and the places in which they live, it does not speak to or for the average person. The average person no longer sees poetry as relevant and if very likely to cringe in dread when they discover someone they know is poet, justly fearing that the amateur is going to want to inflict bad verse upon them.

Yet rap is a sort of poetry of place: it directly and powerfully expresses urban poverty and the human customs and experiences in that environment. My students value it precisely because they believe it tells the truth about their lives -- and that is the duty of poetry: to tell us the truth we know about ourselves. If rap music is frightening to the average person, so is the environment in which it was born, where young men are more likely to die of murder than any other cause. Rappers have discovered the power of poetry: to speak in the ordinary idiom of the people from which they come and use it to name the joy and despair of their people. It is not an accident that rappers speak of 'the hood' and 'my people' against all others; they do not merely live in their neighborhood, but dwell in it, and that place is as deep in them as they are in it. For those who deplore rap, ask another question... what would those places be like without it? What silent despair would rule where now there is vibrant, embattled life? To be without poetry is to abide in the graveyard of the heart, silent as tombstones, our epitaphs our only communication.

The average American has gone so long without poetry that they don't know they're missing it. Sadly, when it is practiced, it is dumbed down. Children are taught that poetry is self-expression and that anything they want to write in stanza form is poetry. No. Poetry is NOT self-expression, it is literature, and there are standards that apply. While any topic and treatment is acceptable in poetry, that does not mean that all acts of expression are equally artistic. If it is pure self-expression, it is a journal entry and ought not be inflicted on others. No, in order to be poetry, it must speak 'to' something, as well as 'about' something. While the self has long been a topic for poets, it cannot be the only topic. Purely self-centered poetry is a kind of sophistry, the ultimate in alienation, and thus, the very opposite of what poetry truly is.

Poetry is nothing more or less than the manifestation of a spirit in the material world. So are all the arts. To worship the madness of creativity is to divorce ourselves from the spirit, building a great wall between ourselves and spirituality, a wall which can only be pierced by an act of self- mutilation, for the wall exists within ourselves and nowhere else. How much better to never build the wall to begin with! Let us tear down the false idea that a poet is something outside of the ordinary and that poetry is set apart from real life, and instead open our seven senses to fully experience our own lives. Then, if we choose, we can undertake the apprenticeship of words necessary to write it down.


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