Poets among us1
By Ed Risden
Associate Professor of English
Most people, Henry Thoreau wrote, lead lives of quiet desperation. Poets lead lives of noisy desperation. That’s why we need them. They confront the turmoil of thought and emotion into which the glories and tragedies of life fling us, and they try to make both logical and visceral sense of a chaotic world.
Despairing at the spread of AIDS among poverty-stricken nations, drowned in the devastation of tsunami, spiritually fragged by the latest suicide bombing, poets cry out like the prophets of old, driven to speak by some force they hardly understand, driven to turn themselves inside-out for public view, to claim the passing privilege to observe and record, to stanch tragedy and horror with a thin gauze of something beautiful—
Beauty that must die ...
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips, as Keats romantically expressed the ache of our garrulous transience. Poets past and present—including poets here at St. Norbert College—examine not the beauty of pain, but the beauty that makes possible resistance to pain.
Kristin Alberts ’04 won poetry awards while at St. Norbert College and now awaits publication of her first book, “Where Water Might Be Blue,” forthcoming this summer from William Caxton in Ellison Bay, Wis.
In “The Possibility of Multiple Explanations” she writes:
Poetry is untied shoelaces dragging
through the street collecting a cocktail
of grime. And the poet:
a dead door-gunner rising
from the ashes to kill again,
a loaded weapon
dropping spent cartridges
to the floor with a soft metallic clink.
The poet, Alberts explains, doesn’t shy away from life, but grapples with what Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Poets have continued to confront the world and all its grime.
Allen Ginsberg howled his weed-dream at the rumbling grumbling boxcars boxcars; e. e. cummings reminded us that the bullets that killed American teenagers came from recycled bits of the old Fifth Avenue el track; Gwendolyn Brooks, maybe the best American poet of the second half of the twentieth century, showed us again and again what being black and female meant in a time when the culture ignored voices that questioned the prevailing world order.
Reporters and broadcasters, our supposed realists, have replaced news with a culture of homespun, teeming fears to keep us racing madly with busy-ness. Poets, meanwhile, often lost in their own depredations and desecrations, have continued to shout and claw and keen and insinuate and declaim that the world has too much beauty for us to continue our wanton destruction.
Tolkien’s Frodo gives up the Ring of Power only under the insistence of Gollum’s incisors—even the good need help, occasionally painful help from an unwanted source, to reject death by egotism, to find health in compassion.
Those of us who believe in poetry continue to listen for voices that cut through the fear and say something we can believe. Though they feel it as much as anyone else, poets don’t submit to fear—they know that if they don’t speak out, no one will.
Poets need not spar with pundits nor wrestle with international abuses, but they know they must inevitably, eventually, intensely confront all the difficulties of living—everything from birth to death, with all the splinters, lesions and eructations in between.
In “Float” writer-in-residence Laurie Mac Diarmid records the moment of giving birth:
they bound me arms out to the table—
cut me open, pulled with grunts and a strange cracking
that perhaps I imagined—
hoisted you up, silent behind the green sheet,
hid you across the room ...
the new world bled into focus
as we broke the surface together,
burning with air.
In “Braid” she parallels the pre-partem and post partem with what we create and what we’ve lost:
You stretched hard into my ribs.
Filled with water and old dreams,
I waded my father’s world.
He offered the kind of advice the dead give the living:
don’t look back.
I held your sweaty head in my hands,
I disobeyed my father,
I cried as I looked for traces of his lost face.
In a poem by Jerry Hauser (Education), “It is Always Winter in Our Attic,” the narrator recalls how his uncle would frighten him with a vision that he would fall and shatter into a thousand pieces:
That vision has remained with me.
When I am cold, I see it.
Myself separating into so many broken parts.
Pieces of nose, eyeball, lips, fingers, toes ...
All of me scattered on the fading linoleum
of our back hallway.
All of it … Brittle and mixed up.”
The odd thing about such scenes of pain or terror—the poets manage them with an astonishing hallucinatory, dadaist beauty.
A common misconception assumes that only young, old, infirm or bloodless folk write poetry. Twenty years ago, one critic observed that at the time 10 million Americans wrote poetry—while only 20,000 took time to read any. Yet colleges like St. Norbert hire poets as their writers-in-residence. Our student groups mount their poetry slams and jams, and we invite professional poets here to share not only their work, but also their ideas and methods. Our students present their verse at readings on and off campus, or between the pages of the College literary magazines, Graphos and Quick Ink.
Many of us, whether we admit it beyond our most trustworthy friends or not, indulge in the occasional verse for the sentimental nonce, but some few persist in reading and writing, trying to understand, record and communicate small, ugly, mettlesome kernels of experience in immaculately groomed phrases that echo lasting truths, either bitter or sweet.
For example, Steve Bellin (English) in his “April, Pontchartrain Flats,” creates honesty where the narrator can’t admit it to his thoughts:
If someone’s missing you,
it’s not me ...
Nothing’s wrong here—
buttons find their way
back on to shirts,
the tight knot of muscle
in my back unwinds by itself ...
the bones in my wrist
grind against themselves
and trees hover over the lawn
like giant umbrellas.
Michael Marsden (Academic Affairs) explores the space between sacred and profane:
The clown mediates
The sacred and the secular
At home in the inner ring
As much as the outer.
Julie Ennenbach ’06 captures, in “Come In,” the ache of loneliness that people confront even in the midst of proximity:
Drill a hole between my ribs
and crawl in
It’s easy really
I’ve done it
while you were asleep.
In “Meals on Wheels,” her narrator confronts a similar feeling when proximity no longer remains a possibility:
The absence of grandpa
had collected on top
of camping gear and tool boxes.
His odor leaked out
of bags and clothes,
filling the room with
a past I had to imagine.
Poetry, you see, has eminently practical applications, as practical as that of any field of study one can name, because it deals with first principles—it helps us learn to try, to endure, to live. We struggle to say something true, something memorable, and that’s harder and more important than it sounds.
Boats in the Rhone—after Van Gogh’s Rhônebarques, 1888
by Kristen Alberts ’04
Boats float easy in the thick river.
Ropes are heavy and hand-twisted,
made by some old man with leather hands,
half-blind from gazing at rising suns and
braiding frayed string ends
that now bind the floating to the steady,
boat to shore, man to land.
Planks lie crossways flat, paths between
boats and docks, waving walkways
on which sea-legged men stagger under
heavy loads of supplies, ants emerging from hills
hauling grains on their backs, filling the vessel
with all land can offer the sea as sacrifice,
armfuls of wood for fires at night, trunks of dried
meat, drinking water kegs, and heavier
loads of dreams and wishes for where waves
might take them, only the ropes holding them back
from finding days and places where water might be blue.