Recently I was talking to my freshmen about the value of silence. I am embarrassed to admit how long it took before I recognized the inherent absurdity of the situation. I was like a member of the audience in Lisel Mueller's "Brendel Playing Schubert":Read More
Filtering by Tag: Gregory Orr
I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. —Gregory Orr (as posted by Image Journal)
This quote comes up on my Facebook feed while I am straining for a wireless signal from a humid guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I am a few days into a work trip as a staff writer at a disaster relief and community development agency. Sweat gathers in my back. My eyes are dry from a full day in contact lenses I rarely wear. I have just finished a supper of spicy beef and beans over rice accompanied by bread and mango juice, both fresh.
I am safely accommodated here in this bustling metropolis, where honking cars and colorful tap tap crowd the narrow streets bordered by litter-clogged gutters. Here, where bright purple flowers spill out over barbed wire-topped gates and roadside vendors sell wares ranging from intricate handcrafted metal art to unlabeled pill bottles.
Safety and comfort have been rare commodities in Haiti. Just over twenty-one decades ago, this nation claimed independence after the first successful slave revolt in human history. Just over five years ago, a horrific shaking of the earth killed an estimated two hundred thousand people and reduced buildings in the city and countryside to rubble.
What might it mean to believe in poetry as “a way of surviving” here, in this place of concrete streets and mountain crests, poverty and creativity, political corruption and revolution? As a visitor—a foreigner with a notepad and a fixed agenda—I cannot of course know completely. I can only glimpse and theorize and listen as I meet with project leaders and literacy students in my path.
In addition to learning about beginner literacy programs already underway, I’m also here to see a new program in its seminal stage. It is a post-alpha program giving those with basic reading and writing skills the chance to grow in their capacity to read and write and their love for these activities. These lessons focus heavily on the form of poetry. Students memorize poems and learn how devices such as rhythm, meter, metaphor, and rhyme give language its deep music. Eventually they work at their own creations.
Gregory Orr’s words of belief enter my tired mind with a fitting weight as I think of these learners perched on poetry’s earliest threshold. I’ve read Orr’s books, even heard him give a lecture. I know his personal story of a life marked by violence, addiction, civil disobedience, and a tragic shooting accident that claimed his brother’s life in childhood. He does not speak lightly of suffering or survival. He reminds me that poetry is a generative spark. A lifeline. A rush of breath, a new light. Pick your survival metaphor; they all click with some power here where daily life is a struggle for many.
These literacy classes are not about bringing poetry to Haiti. I bristle at that word, so often used in missions-speak about “bringing God” to a country or community. God is always there and everywhere, already. He is present. His Spirit is moving, working.
I believe it is the same with poetry. It is already present in this country, woven into its history and the new legacies made by those who have cause to speak heavy of both great affliction and great joy. Every country is a country of creators. Literacy is about naming and shaping what we, as creative people, read and make. Oh Lord, what a gift. Help me see it freshly in this place.
(Read Part 2 here)
It’s coming on autumn. Soon, I will feel compelled to read a poem by Gregory Orr to my senior class. I might ask each of them to read it aloud again for themselves. I will likely do the same in the spring, before they leave.
Ghosts at Her Grandmother's House
It is autumn and I can see the lake because leaves have fallen. The distant water becomes blue leaves on the bare branches of oaks.
I look back at the house: two empty armchairs on the porch. She is sitting in one of them, and my wife is a child in her arms.
I will say this poem for their sakes, but also for my own. To read a poem is to breathe where it breathes, know as it knows. Inhabiting the consciousness of this poem, I become as composed as I struggle to be in life, as capable of seeing and trusting in the endurance of life, as capable of love. To read such a poem is a rehearsal.
After all, I am standing outside a house that holds few or no memories for me, within the gathering cold of a season of harvest and dying, and the rhythm of my perception is so untroubled, I feel at home. In such stillness, I am given to see living water, present to my sense precisely because the apparent fell away. In apprehending this moment, what’s far grows near. Distant blue (that mirrors sky and holds life unseen) limns the weathered trees before me. The convergence is so complete — conflating, as it does, earth and sky, water and air — it should shock my cognition, disorient, leave me bewildered, but the rhythm goes on being serene. The images that arrive are of deep rehabilitation, and they come as though expected: ghosts, guests. The attended imagination, I understand, is nothing to be feared.
How easy it would be now for me to become entranced, fall in love with the richness of the vision I've been given. Instead, in this consciousness, I turn. I turn from the element that filled an earthly depression and dazzlingly replenished life thought to be lost; I turn as though guided by what I saw, as though looking for its kin. I turn toward the life of my beloved. Again, loss and death are transfigured—necessary conditions, I see now, for me to see what I see now: the unending nature of remembered life. Here is my wife, years before the time I say I came to know her. And here is her grandmother, on this same porch, cradling the girl I will call my wife. Standing in the open air of autumn, I love what they love, and love them more for knowing them more.
For the time it takes to say the poem, I feel and know what it is for my self to dissolve into attentiveness, for time to coalesce, and for love to become more present.
And so, when soon I say this poem out loud and ask others to do the same (for I am a teacher), I will do so in the belief that when the bell propels us from the poem’s depths up to our own clamorous surfaces, and sends us out toward other people within a world that seems to be falling apart, something of this poem's consciousness will stay with us as we go.
We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.
– William Butler Yeats
I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he'd made, and directed us to a page that lay, purposefully out of time, between Wordsworth and Sappho. Upon it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:
Washing My Face
Last night's dreams disappear. They are like the sink draining: a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.
I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.
Though I did not know Emerson's work at the time, I was starting to see what that cheerful visionary said was "easily seen": metaphors "are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there," but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been "placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him." He described this relationship as a "radical correspondence," root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel "full of life."
Wakeful life is draining; it can come to feel empty. That is why I read, and why I write, and why I try to teach. It is twenty-four years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr's transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.