The Fortieth Prompt : Why Bother?

A lot of people wonder why we bother with poetry. Nobody wonders why we bother with groceries, or gasoline, or silverware. But poetry? They wonder. Maybe I should tell you a little bit about why I bother: and the prompt this week will be to write a poem about why poetry matters to you. Or why it doesn’t….

Regularly in the late 20th and now into the 21st century, critics, thinkers, people in the know ask if poetry matters, is poetry dead, what is poetry? Doesn’t that sound a little bit like does God matter, is God dead, what is God? For me, poetry — and I believe this applies to all arts, but poetry is my art — is like God. An idea, a force, an organizing principle, a beloved, a set of rules and expectations, a community — something I can’t live without, something unexplainable, something I think about and try to understand every single day of my life. Something I believe in. Like gravity. I look at the world always, over and over, as a place where I might find poetry. I don’t mean this comparison to be sacrilegious, but rather to elevate poetry in your understanding. Poetry is not my religion; I don’t worship poetry.  But there are/were gods and goddesses of poetry, and you could worship one of them… (smiley face).

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And yet, the comparison still works: many would say their religion is their context for living, and for me, that’s what poetry is: the context in which I live my life. (Wow, this is getting pretty serious…)

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But, of course, poetry is useless, pointless, worth nothing at all. Poets don’t get any respect, they can’t sell their work, they’re awkward, congregate in dark places, spend way too much time staring out the window and day dreaming. Good for nothings. You can’t get the news from poetry. (William Carlos Williams and Adrienne Rich have talked about this a lot).

Poetry is something I put my faith in. When I don’t know what to do next, I take a deep breath, look around, and see where the poem will appear. I listen and wait and a poem comes both up from inside my heart and in from outside my body. (Yeah, this might be getting rather maudlin, but I want you to understand how seriously I take this stuff.)

When I realized I was writing my fortieth prompt today, I went to poets.org and typed “forty” in the search box. This very funny sarcastic sweet terrible (as in, strikes terror in your heart) prose poem appeared, called “Forty-Seven Minutes” by Nick Flynn — it made me both laugh and shudder. (Nick Flynn is exactly as old as I am, but his poems are better – or at least he’s more famous. Read more of his work.)

What is he trying to do by starting the poem with “Years later,” — where was he before this poem began?  I love how he leans in close at the end, both threatening and laughing, full of the power of poetry and the complete ridiculous futility of it.

I hope you’ll see how Flynn’s poem is simultaneously a statement of faith, a swagger, and an acknowledgement of longing. Poets are really rather pathetic silly egomaniacal loners. People who make art with nothing but words. Whoever heard of making art with nothing? Those people be poets. I am proud and resigned to call them my tribe.

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Leave me a comment, a note, a curse, something, anything, to let me know you’re listening.

Prompt #17: Surrealistic Football

So much to write about this weekend: Chinese New Year, February and how it brings spring to California, and today, rain! But I was supposed to write this prompt yesterday and was planning to write about football, so I will stick to my plan. More people (in the US) will be interested in the Super Bowl today than in the rain, although I’m wiling to guess that most Cupertinians are thinking about the rain first and foremost. And almost nobody is thinking about poetry, but that’s nothing I can change. Except maybe with today’s poem. (From the Poetry 180 website, “A poem a day for American high schools.”)

This is my favorite football poem of all time, aptly titled “Football” by Louis Jenkins; it’s fun to read and to teach. It’s written in a prose poem form, which may seem “just wrong” to many poetry traditionalists, but which is, in fact, not “new” or “modern” and has been accepted as a true form by many literati.

My favorite things about this poem are its conversational tone — the way the speaker of the poem invites us into the experience and then asks us to share his surprise — and the surrealistic quality of the imagery. Most kids love that freaky question: how indeed could a football transform into a shoe? I’ve taught it together with Salvidor Dali paintings and sculptures  — the images of his lobster phone and melting clocks always delight younger children and seem aptly bizarre to teens.

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But kids also respond to the speaker’s outrage, and they instinctively understand the fraud perpetrated on all of us by corn syrup masquerading as maple. (This is usually where I divert the lesson into a discussion of faux vs. true and what types of things accept in our lives because we can’t have/don’t want/aren’t allowed to have the originals.)

The end of the poem is a point of personal decision, where humor and  seriousness converge: “One has certain responsibilities, one has to make choices. This isn’t right and I’m not going to throw it.” I especially love how the word “throw” conveys both the physical act of hurling a ball down field, but also means to purposefully cheat — “throwing the game” to let the other team win.

And this is where today’s prompt comes in. Take several minutes to think about these questions and to write down your thoughts:

  • What choices do you face, both serious and lighthearted, where if you cheat, you might win?
  • What objects can you think of where the substitute is generally accepted but not really welcomed? (fur coats, fat-free potato chips, faux leather jackets, boots, purses?) What is better or worse about the substitute?
  • What objects are related to each other in a way that you wouldn’t expect? A football is like a shoe, as a guitar is like a cigar box, as a book is like a cereal box. What is the one thing they have in common; what are the important ways they differ?

See if a poem arises from one or more of these musings. And, if all that is too strange, difficult, or just weird, then write a poem about football — about the tastes, smells, sounds, as well as the visuals associated with this violent secular national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday.