Winter 2014-15: The Arts Issue
The arts. They add color, texture, sound, and sensation to our lives. They help us see, hear, and experience the world more precisely and with a sense of wonder.
This issue of Keene State Today takes a look at alumni, students, and faculty who are engaged in the arts – some as professionals, some as amateurs, some as learners, and all as people who are following their passions.
Read through these pages for a celebration of things artistic and an affirmation of the importance of the arts in all of our lives.
Ernest Hebert’s Darby Chronicles and the KSC Connection
The kind of writing I do, so-called creative writing, is, at its root, a very selfish, even juvenile, activity. It is necessary for me to put myself in a childlike state of mind to be imaginative, to be innovative, to be daring, even to be silly. Without that eccentric kind of thinking I cannot create fiction up to the level of my capabilities.
Daring, imagination, innovation, and let’s include silliness – these are all virtuous and exemplary human qualities. But there is a dark side to the creative life, at least as I’ve experienced it. There’s an arrogance mixed with a terrible vulnerability.
One reason I write is that while I am working on a novel I feel grandiose, godlike. Believe me, it is a very heady feeling, and it’s why I look forward so eagerly every morning to take my place at my writing desk (which, by the way, these days is my couch, my writing tool a Google Chromebook Pixel laptop). As long as I am working I am buoyed by this feeling. When I was coming of age as a writer I was told that writing was hard. No, not for me. For me, writing is easy or it is impossible. It is never hard. I was told that writing is agony. No, just the opposite. For writers of my ilk the dirty little secret is that we like it. Writing is our cocaine.
Alas, this feeling of power vanishes the minute I show my work to somebody else. Now I’m a little kid again, begging for attention. In the end, what so many of us writers really crave is attention, financial reward, praise, the envy of our peers. We are not pure hearts. We are infants screaming for something – we’re not sure what. I suppose there are pure-heart writers of talent, but of the talented writers I know most are stuck in a narcissistic mind-frame. It’s not just writers, it’s actors, musicians, athletes, artists, and politicians – anyone who gains their identity, their self-esteem and/or their livelihood from what is reflected back from their efforts is at risk from drowning in their own juices. We narcissists do just fine when we are loved, admired, and rewarded. But what happens when our efforts are no longer appreciated? Writers, actors, singers, athletes, artists, politicians – when they cannot produce or when they find themselves no longer trendy – often discover that they have no self, no sustaining identity. They are what their admirers make of them. When the admirers go away, the artist discovers that there is no there there. When this event occurs, these people of accomplishment and talent find that even their families and loved ones cannot sustain them. It has been said that the two occupational hazards of the creative life are alcoholism and suicide. There’s good reason for this old saying: it is too often true.
In my case, I knew I needed another meaningful activity, something besides creative writing where it was not all about me and my accomplishments. I found that activity first in ten years of news writing, which is about as selfless a kind of writing as you can do, and later – indeed for the last three decades – in teaching.
Students don’t want their teachers to be super stars. They want you to know your stuff, but to be over the hill, on the down side, an admirable person but not a superior person. Their attitude, perhaps unconscious, is: “Thank you very much, but get out of the way, it’s my turn.” You have to enable them in this enterprise. Students can’t let loose their own powers if they are suppressed by a power figure. To be a good teacher you have to play down your wild side and your achievements. It doesn’t hurt to reveal your failings. In my case that was easy enough. You can be a good writer and a narcissist, but you can’t be a good teacher and a narcissist.
I think the great burden that many teachers carry, especially in these days when college instructors often teach four or more courses a term, is that they give so much to their students and to their institutions that they never have the time to develop their creative side. I was lucky. I was able to find a balance between the selflessness of the teaching life and the selfishness that is inherent in the creative life and perhaps even necessary for the creative life.
It was KSC President Barbara Seelye who gave me the break I needed to start a career in teaching. I walked into her office in 1984, or maybe it was 1985, and I said something to the effect of, “I’m a New Hampshire–born son of a Keene working family and a graduate of Keene State, and I’ve published three novels, and you should hire me to teach creative writing.” And you know what? She did. Without the subsequent two years of teaching experience at Keene State, I never would have been hired on the tenure track by Dartmouth College.
It was Dartmouth that gave me the balance I needed. I teach no more than two courses a term, with classes limited to 12 students, which leaves plenty of time for me to write. It was Barbara Seelye and Keene State that made the last 30 years of my life possible.
LET ME NOW go back in time. It’s November 22, 1963, White River Junction, Vermont. I am a 22-year-old somewhat athletic and nimble but not particularly skilled telephone company central office equipment installer, which is why I am sitting on a cable rack in a telephone company building with no windows. Cable racks run along the top of eight-foot tall bays of relay equipment. On hands and knees, the ceiling a foot from my head, I move cables down the racks to various bays. Below me are the older, more skilled telephone men. We are in White River Junction, because WRJ is the toll-switching center for northern New England, and it’s where the work is to make the changeover to the dial system. There’s a lull, and no one is feeding me cables to move, so I rest.
I sit on the cables and brood over my existence. My failures. Failed quarterback, failed student.
Ernie, you almost flunked out. Remember? Two D’s and two F’s in English your junior year. You are stupid.
No, I’m not.
Okay, mediocre, and at the low end of mediocrity.
Well, I was good at geometry.
Yeah, you got B’s – big deal. All the rest C’s and D’s. You never got an A. Never, not even in grammar school. Look what happened when you applied for admission at Keene State College.
My inner voice reminds me that I took the ACT test and ended up with a 6 percentile in English. Ninety-four percent of the people who took the test did better than I did. Fred Barry, the then–dean of men at KSC (and who, by the way, later became a friend), told me that some people are just not suited for college. I was denied admission. I joined the army, six months on active duty as a reservist; in 1961 I served another year during the Berlin wall crisis.
Failure! the voice shouts in my head.
But I read, I read a lot, I say to the voice, and feel self-conscious because I realize my lips are moving. I may even have whispered my thoughts. I want to go college. I want to learn.
You’ll never do it. Deep down you’re afraid.
Afraid you just don’t have what it takes to succeed in anything. You’d just embarrass yourself in college. Stick with this job. It’s the best you’ll ever do.
It was my inferiority that I was brooding about that day on the cable rack.
The lull seemed to go on too long, and then I heard some of the telephone guys walking down the aisle. Though I couldn’t see anybody from my position, I could tell there was something wrong by the tone of their voices. Moments later I could hear them clearly. President Kennedy had been shot. The news affected me in an odd way. Suddenly, I experienced my isolation, a great distance from my fellow workers. It was as if this cable rack was in outer space and I was alone, far away from people, far away from my planet. Unless I took some action I was going to die up here on this cable rack. That night I made the decision to reapply to Keene State. My president’s life had ended; mine had just begun.
I WAS ACCEPTED second time around at Keene State and matriculated in the fall of 1964.
I will always be grateful for the support of my parents. They were suspicious of this move. My father, a weaver in a textile mill with only eight years of education, couldn’t understand why I would leave a good job just to go to school. My mother, a nurse, feared that “you’ll lose your faith.” What she didn’t know was that I never had faith. Even as a child I was a hopeless agnostic, a skeptic, an epicurean, an absurdist, a surrealist, an existentialist; I had the feelings, though I didn’t have the language available to me in those days to understand those feelings. Maybe that was why I was going to college: to find the lingo to express my deepest self. I think today that such a search is the best reason for a young person to seek higher learning. Despite my parents’ reservations, once I’d made the decision they stuck by me. Indeed, I lived in their house freshman year without paying rent and eating their food for free.
I was 23 years old and I was terrified of failing in school. I decided to spend my time doing nothing but studying. I did my assignments and then some. No social life, no recreation time – I just hit the books. And … and … I was happy. I started studying out fear and ended up studying out of love for the learning life. Freshman year was miraculous for me. After my first freshman composition, the instructor, Mr. Francgon Jones, called me into his office and handed me my paper. There was an “A” on it. It was the first A I’d ever received. Mr. Jones told me I had writing talent. How he was able to divine talent from one paper I don’t know. All I remember is that it was the first time anybody had ever told me that I might be good at something.
By the second semester, I was writing for the school newspaper, then called The Monadnock, and the editor, Ros Gessner, gave me my own column, Hebert Says. It’s a little embarrassing to think about today, but what the hell. I published a piece in The Keene Shopper News, a satire on motorcyclists. Kind of ironic since a couple years later I became a mad motorcyclist myself. I was paid five cents a column inch, my first payday as a writer, and the editor, Barbara Shakour, offered me a full-time job, which I declined because by now school meant everything to me. I will forever be grateful to Mrs. Shakour for showing faith in my potential.
How I went from being a non-writer – never wrote letters, nor diary entries, never wrote anything – to being almost instantly a pretty good writer remains a mystery to me, but it might have something to do with my ability to diagram sentences that I learned from the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph’s School. Diagramming sentences and geometry were the only topics I was halfway good at in school. Somehow without actually writing I had acquired a good understanding of how words are put together to make meaning – the architectural floor plan of the English language, if you will. When I started to write I was ready.
I finished my freshman year with all A’s and one B, tied with a senior for the highest average in the school, and a place on the President’s List for academic excellence. All my insecurities vanished or, more likely, were suppressed by this sudden success. I transitioned from insecurity to confidence, even cockiness. Probably I was a horse’s ass, I dunno.
I moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment with fellow students Jeff Parsons and Dwight Conant. Later we were joined by Larry Howard and Jack Brouse. I was with those guys for the remainder of my college career. I remember many heated discussions over issues – philosophy, art, literature, politics, the meaning of life; but we never had a serious argument. I think a college education is founded on a three-legged stool of academics, mentors, and peers. I was fortunate in all three areas.
During this period I worked a number of part time jobs – factory worker, landscaper, gas pumper, laundry man at Elliot Community Hospital, now Elliot Hall, and my favorite job, taxi driver. Tuition was low in those days, and thanks to my part time work, savings, and GI bill I was able to graduate debt free. I even had a little money left over in the bank to make my way to graduate school at Stanford University in California. My grades declined sophomore year, but really my education had just begun. I established a major in English and a minor in history. I latched on to mentors – Ella Keene, David Battenfeld, Malcom Keddy, William Felton, David Leinster, James Smart, Robert Collins, Peter Riley, Chris Barnes, Fred Fosher, and, yes, Fred Barry, to name a few. I am sure I am leaving somebody out. Forgive me.
My apartment on 152 Church Street in Keene and later on Pinnacle Mountain with the roommates and girlfriends and male friends was always full of music, conversation, and good times, but it was not a place for meditation or even for sustained reading. When I wanted to read and be alone I retreated to my favorite building on campus, the library. For one thing, I liked the librarian, Chris Barnes. He ran the library with great efficiency. At the same time, he had a sense of humor; he made you feel welcome.
I did most of my reading and study at library tables. I often took breaks and wandered around the stacks looking for treasures packed with words. I loved the smell and feel of books. One day I happened upon the collected letters of Mark Twain and his pal William Dean Howells, two big fat volumes. I never signed out either book. I would go to the location, which was on a lower shelf, and I would remove one of the volumes, find the place where I left off, and, sitting on the floor, read a letter or two or three. Over the courses of my junior year I read all two volumes. Twain and Howells wrote to each other about literature, politics, people in the news, but many of the passages revolved around their families. In the end I think I derived a clear and accurate understanding of what a writer’s life was all about. It seemed to me the kind of life I might be suited for.
I think the most important part of my college experience, the part that set me on a life course, occurred in, of all places – hold your breath now folks – the classroom.
MR. MALCOLM KEDDY’S creative writing workshop, limited to 12 students, produced at least three writers who went on to publish books – not bad for a small state college: myself, Joe Citro, author of 13 novels and nonfiction books, and Marilyn Treat, author of a book of poems, Green Apples for Dr. Dave. Last I heard she was a dean at Brewster Academy. That class got me started in creative writing and also established the workshop model that I use in my own teaching today.
Dr. David Battenfeld taught a course in 20th-century American literature. I loved the class and I loved Battenfeld, who went on to be my number one mentor at Keene State, but I did not love the writers we studied. As a young man from a working class background, I was looking for models in literature that I could relate to in some way that would help me grow as an individual. I didn’t find those models in the authors we studied. Here are my thoughts about those writers. You’ll note that my comments cannot be considered literary criticism, but pure gut reaction.
Ernest Hemingway’s characters were strangers to me, his macho philosophy outside my own sensibilities, his descriptions kind of vague. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, though I thought it shallow. I loathed The Great Gatsby for its sneering portrayal of working people. To this day The Great Gatsby, that so-called great American novel, remains in my mind tied with James Dickey’s Deliverance as my favorite books to hate. I loved John Steinbeck’s writing style and that he wrote about ordinary working people, though I felt he overly romanticized them. I pretended to like William Faulkner, but secretly I thought he was a windbag and a bore. My books in the Darby Chronicles are sometimes compared to Faulkner’s works, and every time I hear the comparison I want to puke.
Women writers? The only one offered in the course was Gertrude Stein and then only because she mentored the big-shot male writers of the time. Stein’s writing struck me as pretentious and not very interesting. The only woman literary writer I read in those days was Willa Cather, who was not even assigned reading. Her novel Death Comes to the Archbishop remains one of my all-time favorites. I identified with Jack Kerouac, not because of his writing or his connection with the Beat generation, which struck me as immature and smug, but because like myself he had French-Canadian ancestry and New Hampshire roots (his family was from Nashua). My favorite American narrative of the period was not even a novel. It was Wanderer, a memoir by actor Sterling Hayden. I admired Evan S. Connell’s sad, satirical novel Mrs. Bridge and Norman Mailer’s crazy self-indulgent reportage Army’s of the Night and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, but really none of these books touched me in any deep, personal way.
I found the literary models I was looking for in a 20th-Century British Literature course taught by Dr. Robert Collins.
In D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the working guy gets the girl. That never happened in the American novels I read. I was fascinated by Lawrence’s adventures in New Mexico and by his essays, which were daring and insightful. Example: Lawrence postulated that the Victorian idea that sex was dirty probably came from fear of sexually transmitted diseases.
A character in E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End greatly moved me. In Leonard Bast, an ordinary, clueless guy trying to better himself, I saw moi. The Howard’s End theme of big city values and demographics spreading into small towns and screwing them up resonated with me when I was writing the first Darby Chronicles novel, The Dogs of March. I felt so indebted to Forster that I named my protagonist Howard in honor of Forster’s book title. In fact, the working title of The Dogs of March was Howard’s End, and six books later the working title of the latest of the Darby Chronicles, Howard Elman’s Farewell, was also Howard’s End. One of the books that played a role in my development as a novelist was Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.
Another work by an English author that affected me deeply was Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. That book greatly influenced two future-fiction books that I’ve written, Mad Boys and I Love U. That’s the letter “u,” a reference to Wiqi Durocher, a dyslexic cyborg who is a co-protagonist with Luci Sanz, another humane cyborg. Those characters, by the way, appear in Howard Elman’s Farewell. Are they robots or real people? Howard doesn’t know, and I’m not so sure myself.
Dr. Collins also assigned The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I never did understand what was going on in that book, still don’t, and yet Woolf’s interior monologue in The Waves and in other works greatly influenced my own desire later to interrogate the inner lives of my characters. It’s the inner world of characters that most interests me as a writer.
I never took a course in James Joyce, but read him on my own. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man remains one of my favorite novels. Joyce’s Ulysses might be considered one of the great novels all time, but it only annoyed me. Why didn’t Joyce just underline or put in italic all the interior monologue? It would have made my job as a reader more pleasurable. Also, I realized that I was as much Buck Milligan as Stephen Daedalus.
The writer who most affected me, my greatest influence, and who remains a hero to me today, was George Orwell. Dr. Collins didn’t have us read Orwell’s signature works, 1984 and Animal Farm. Instead, we read an obscure novel called Coming Up for Air. For me, reading that book was a transformative experience. The plot is simple. A middle-aged man goes back to his hometown and finds it ruined by so-called progress. In a sense what that book did was give me permission to write about regular people.
Other Orwell books, in particular Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, books that focus on working people in an honest, insightful way without any romanticized balderdash, inspired me, gave me courage to write about people that I knew even then were not going to put me on the bestseller list. I can pick up any Orwell book or essay, crack it open on any page, and find myself engrossed.
It was these British authors – Lawrence, Forster, Woolf, Huxley, and above all Orwell – that gave me the background and nerve I needed to be a writer and in particular to write the Darby novels. I’d like to end by saying that I am indebted to you all – my teachers, my roommates, my fellow students at KSC. Thank you, and thank you too to the KSC people of today who have welcomed me back with open arms. In particular, thank you, Barbara Hall. I think you know why. And to you in the audience, thank you for coming today to hear this old alum speak his piece.
A Conversation Between Poets Laureate
Not one, but two of New England’s state poets laureate have ties to Keene State College. Wesley McNair ’63, the author of 20 books, including 10 of poetry, and professor emeritus at the University of Maine at Farmington, is poet laureate of Maine. Alice B. Fogel, a lecturer in Keene State’s English Department, author of four books of poetry and a handbook for reading poetry, is poet laureate of New Hampshire. For the Arts Issue, Keene State Today invited the two to join in an expansive email “conversation” about the art of poetry, where it fits in today’s world, and why it matters.
Keene State Today: How do you each see your role as state poet laureate?
Alice: Literature deepens and broadens our relationships to others, to ourselves, to the natural world, to history, time, and the mystery of being alive. In particular, the language of poetry is the translation or expression of experience. But it isn’t only that; the language of poetry is experience. When we read or listen to the exploded moment of a poem, our only limits are in our abilities to set ourselves aside and bring empathy there instead. There isn’t a lot going on in the world today, as ever, that couldn’t be alleviated by bringing a greater empathy to the root of actions based in our individual or collective points of view. For starters, if people are willing to be more exposed to poetry’s vast variety, less judgmental of it, and less judgmental of ourselves when we don’t “get” it, then more people would understand that its voiced mysteries are actually profoundly useful to our lives. To this end, I want to be a sort of ambassador of poetry, increasing people’s openness to it and comfort level with it, as readers, from all walks of life.
Wes: I like your emphasis on bringing poetry to the people, Alice, because I’m out to do the same thing. I sometimes think of it as restoring the broken connection between poetry and the general public. Not so long ago in these parts, ordinary people knew poems by heart and recited them for their families or local Grange meetings. Maine’s most famous poets, Longfellow, Robinson, and Millay, were best-selling authors. Poetry was simply part of the culture, unlike today, when poetry has become the property of a small literary circuit. Yet people outside the circuit continue to value poetry. They understand the poem’s unique power to express the feelings that matter most to us. That’s why they turn to poetry on milestone occasions like weddings and funerals and commencement exercises. So over the past four years I’ve been working on a series of statewide initiatives that remind them that poetry isn’t only for special occasions, but for every day of our lives.
ALICE: Wes, what you’re saying about poetry’s slippage from the culture is, I think, a symptom of a larger unfortunate issue in our society, a long but gradually developing attitude of suspicion for what is considered intellectual or elitist. I won’t go further into that, but I’m glad to see you thinking about it at the level of poetry for the people. I’d like to hear about those state-wide initiatives. How are you getting more people to poetry in their daily lives?
WES: I was going to say don’t get me started, but since you already have, here’s my story, as brief as I can make it. Each April at the governor’s mansion we sponsor a poetry day, and at each one I introduce a new statewide poetry initiative. There have been four of these initiatives so far.
The first one was a column for newspapers called “Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry,” now in 30 Maine newspapers and magazines with a combined circulation of 250,000 readers, and in the first of two anthologies from Down East Books. The second initiative was “The Maine Poetry Express,” a series of 20 events in towns and cities across the state, each event featuring area poets reading from their work, along with five or six ordinary citizens (grocery clerks, town officials, lobstermen) who read two favorite poems apiece from three Maine anthologies I’ve edited and explain what the poems mean to them personally.
Are we there yet? Not quite – two more, including an initiative called “Poets in Public,” a series of videos featuring Maine poets reading and discussing their work for YouTube and a special poetry website. Then there’s my current initiative, called “Imagination 101: Poetry in the Schools,” featuring a statewide tour of Maine schools by a team of poets – one a “page” poet, another a hip-hop poet, and the third a spoken word poet – with the aim of revolutionizing poetry in the schools. That project comes with a website for school use and a set of online poetry resources I’ve developed for teachers and students. But it’s my guess, Alice, that you’ve had your own projects as poet laureate of New Hampshire. What have you been up to?
ALICE: I am roaming the state doing readings, talks, workshops, and reading (how to appreciate poetry without necessarily “getting” it) programs for people to take in more and more poetry. I’ve compiled a list of all the living and recently deceased New Hampshire poets who have published at least one book, organized not only by name but by town and county, and sent that list to all the libraries in the state, encouraging librarians to carry their neighbors’ books and invite them in to read to their communities. I’m planning a state-wide library-hosted event for April, during which anyone of any age and background can come and share a poem they like, and if that goes well, maybe it can become an annual event. Other plans are afoot, but not solidified yet.
Keene State Today: Would you each write a bit about a poem that was important to you early in life or early in your career? WES: Your question takes me back to my days at Keene State, where I studied poetry with Malcolm Keddy and took History of the English Language, taught by Sprague Drenan. One of Drenan’s assignments was to learn by heart the first part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. This led me to memorize other poems, including some by Dylan Thomas and the most famous sonnets of John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” As I look back those sonnets, the first written in two sentences, the second in just one, I see that they gave me early lessons in how to create sentences in poetry that both unfold and gather momentum as they go. “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” which is based on the despair Keats felt about his impending death from tuberculosis, also showed me how important it is to fling your whole self into a poem, including your deepest grief and suffering.
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
– John Keats
ALICE: When I was in high school I was actively pursuing poems everywhere. I was inspired by Whitman, enchanted by Leonard Cohen, transported by Milton, and thunderstruck by T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” Then this poem, Robert Creeley’s “Words,” came my way – I don’t remember how. It seemed to me to address my own need for finding words not so much to express but to explore and understand perception. I still don’t know what happens grammatically at the end of it but that weird change in direction never ceases to awe me. Sentences are my obsession, but within my love of the unit that orders thought lies the temptation to alter expectation to the point of dismissing punctuation and twisting syntax. Creeley did it, so maybe I can too.
Here it might make sense to confess that I am what is referred to as a “non-immersive” poet. An immersive writer makes words disappear on the page or in the ear, and we are transported FROM OR BY THEM to places and feelings as if by alchemy. The non-immersive writer cares perhaps more about language in itself than its message or meaning; she wants you to notice the words and their shapes on the page, to be transported INTO their sounds and arrangements and beauty. Not that I don’t want you to see images or consider ideas or feel something, but I also want the words to leap off the page and do a little dance in your throat.
You are always
there is never
place. But if
in the twisted
or fear only,
but a tongue
rotten with what
it tastes– There is
of water, of
food, when hungry.
will not be
this one, then
words like a
– Robert Creeley
KEENE STATE TODAY: I know that in your public lives as poets laureate – and in your private “writer” lives, too, as you both write poems that can be appreciated on many levels – you are interested in breaking down that wall that’s gone up between the general public and poems. What do you say to people when they ask how to read or listen to or understand a poem?
ALICE: This question addresses an issue of huge importance to me. I do not entirely understand the “wall” that many people have between them and poetry, but I suspect that it is also blocking their way to other aspects of their inner lives and our shared humanity. Our culture itself can often be that wall. But whether someone “understands” a poem is not the main point for me. I don’t care about understanding so much as experiencing, being open to creating a relationship between the reader and the poem that lets each enter the other, and through that connection opening up our relationship to our shared humanity.
This is really what the main point of my book Strange Terrain is: that there are some simple ways that anyone can find to enter a poem’s world – through its language, its images or sounds, the feelings and thoughts it turns on inside you – AND that no matter how much you understand of what goes into a poem, or how to get into a poem, you are still going to feel mystified most of the time when you read a poem. This is not a fault in you or the poem; it’s a blessing. This truth echoes the mystery of life itself, and thank goodness we have some opportunities in the midst of our crazy lives to feel and know that, through whatever means we can find for practicing awe – music, visual art, prayer, hiking up mountains, a poem.
So if the wall is “I don’t get it,” then that wall is really not made of anything other than a perception that we are supposed to “get” poems. If we let go of that false rule, then we will see that there is, in fact, no wall at all.
WES: I agree with you, Alice, that experiencing the poem is the main issue. A poem only wants us, as the poet Philip Booth once said, to “come to our senses” – not only to our five senses, but to the intuitive sense of the world we were all born with. The best poems awaken our intuitive selves, which are our deepest and truest selves.
Poetry returns us to mystery, too, as you say, by naming this life we thought we knew in a new way. But I have to differ with you about the subject of understanding, because it seems to me that understanding is an important aim for many poems. The ones I love most say, “Brother or sister of mine, this is what I have cared about, this is what matters to me.” They increase our awareness of what life is really about down underneath the distractions, and they help us to live it.
So I would advise the uninitiated reader not to read the poem only once, as we might do with an article in the newspaper, but two, three, or more times in order to take it all in, realizing that every good poem is measuring us, and not the other way around. I would also tell the reader to be alert to a certain movement many poems have – the movement, that is, toward a final turn, where we somehow discover how the specific thing observed relates to a larger thought or consideration. Every poem depends on a change of mind or a change of heart, and the final turn is often the source of that change.
Follow these links for more information about stories in the Winter 2014-2015 issue of Keene State Today.
- Link to the website of the Riverwood Poetry Series, which presented the New England poets laureate in a reading in November.
- Learn more about the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.
- Learn more about Dr. Kristen Porter-Utley and her passionflower research.
- Link to the trailer for The Next Great American Game.
- Learn more about Jonathan Gitelson’s artwork at his website.
- Learn about the Mass MoCA Bibliothecaphilia exhibit.
- Link to Natali Pope’s website.
- KSC Giving: How can you donate? Let us count the ways.
- Make a donation online.