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Blog

The Current

William Coleman

27 Cafe A few years ago I was asked to write an essay on the importance of poetry in our time and place. I did not accept right away. The task was daunting; my impulse was to say no.

At the same time, however, I’d been teaching improvisation, and the first rule of improv is to say yes.

And so, though I felt panicked, I said yes, and the moment I did, an extraordinary thing happened. I felt like some Midwestern Robert Burns, composing a tune: “My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme … [and] I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom…”

With the theme I’d been given playing always in the background, I experienced the world differently. The news of the day, the way my daughter turned a phrase, the words of a student’s essay: everything felt charged with meaning with which I wanted to connect. I extended every conversation with my wife. I read more. I took walks.

I was seeking what T.S. Eliot sought: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,” he writes in “The Metaphysical Poets." "[I]t is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

I started to feel what Wordsworth longed for us to feel: a sense of a consciousness that experiences the world and its inhabitants not as commodities to be gained and spent but as possible occasions for the marvelous:

Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

And when some unforeseen experience—receiving W.S. Merwin’s Migration as a Christmas present from my wife and daughter, or hearing a young couple in a coffee shop discussing Kierkegaard’s sense of irony—chimed with what I was trying to discover, I felt the jolt David Kirby felt when composing “Get Up, Please,” one of his witty poetic fugues:

“Anybody can stitch a bunch of parts together to make a creature—the secret is to know when to apply the current. In this case, the limbs and torso of my poem were just lying there when a stranger slipped them the juice.”

Throughout the Christmas holiday and well into the New Year, I grew more attentive, and so my relationships flourished. Because I was compelled by the rules of play to say yes to writing, I came to love the world more. I came to love life more.

“So here’s to music, poetry, and chance encounters that give you exactly what you need,” Kirby continues, “especially when you don’t know it’s coming your way.”