Often, when I tell people I write poetry, they tell me that they used to write poems a long time ago, when they were younger. I’ve always felt fond of this admission because it suggests that poetry may not be as mysterious and untenable as various literary circles have made it out to be. When I was in high school, I self-published my poems on Tumblr for an audience of about five enthusiastic readers. They were confessional ballads, odes to adolescence – I wrote about the field beside the pastor’s guest house where we had unsupervised parties after Homecoming and Prom, about feeling awkward and silly and inadequate, about driving beside the railroad tracks until we got to the abandoned paper mill and then sitting on its crumbling concrete steps. I never would have showed these poems to anyone I actually knew and I think that’s how some people consider poems their entire lives – as secret, embarrassing things.
In a sophomore year Creative Writing class, we were all asked to bring in a poem to read aloud. A classmate brought James Wright’s “Northern Pike.” The poem is stunning. In the first lines, Wright extends a hand “All right. Try this then,” just to pull it away when you’ve taken the bait, “Every body I know and care for and every body else, is going to die in a loneliness I can’t imagine and a pain I don’t know.” Whenever I am stuck on the opening lines of a poem, I still think to myself, “All right. Try this then.”
For a long time, I was embarrassed to tell people that James Wright was the poet that influenced me to begin writing poems myself. Wright and I are not alike. He was a white man from a white Midwestern town, an army vet who participated in the occupation of Japan, an alcoholic for most of his life. I felt worried that the scope of his poetry was limited to the self, that Wright lived the sordid and solitary life of many artists who are blinded into believing their art to be more precious, perhaps, than life itself. Such thinking has often led me down a rabbit hole of believing that perhaps poetry has no real role in the collective struggle I think is necessary globally today and in the months and years to come.
And yet I know this to be untrue. “Northern Pike,” after its introductory instruction and assertion goes through the physical motions of preparing and consuming a fish the speaker has caught on the river, illegally. After he and his companion eat the fish, Wright writes, “There must be something very beautiful in my body. I am so happy.” And yet, in the course of the poem, we are asked to reckon with both the fish’s mortality and our own and the strange and often slanted circumstances that determine them both. The language is sparse and basic, told as though to a friend, nothing too cerebral, and yet it’s stuck with me for almost a decade since I first read it. The poem is an unsettling analysis of justice that I think could only be offered the way Wright offers it: “Slit … open from the hinge of the tail to a place beneath the chin I wish I could sing of.”
We are all forced to live with a lot of uncertainty and, although that’s no different in our current moment than it ever has been, I think we’re having to come to terms with the fact that the structures we thought governed our lives are more idea than actuality. Perhaps this is why I gravitate toward poetry that examines power structures – because these structures are so abstract they appear invisible. Fanny Howe once wrote, “one definition of lyric might be that it is a method of searching for something that can’t be found.” All literature can and should seek to describe those invisible structures and can, perhaps, do so in a much more accessible and elegant way than other forms of rhetoric. The way a good poem accomplishes this task never ceases to surprise me.
I suppose I do have an idea of the kind of poems I’d like to publish in BMR’s next issue, but I would be disappointed if everything I read resembled those kind of poems to a T. Mostly, I am interested in those poems that pay attention – to language, to detail, to the world around them. I’m eager to read all of your poems, even the secret, embarrassing ones – perhaps especially those.