Friday, April 19, 2013
Time to Write a Poem
I remember talking once with a high-ranking person from one of our area’s universities. Her training was in psychology, the field devoted to understanding the human mind. Somehow the topic swung round to poetry, and she said, “I don’t know why the university should be spending money offering courses in creative writing.” Along those same lines, you may have heard news stories from state houses across the land, where various leaders assert that public money should be used only for programs with directly measurable benefits. You don’t get the impression that poetry impresses those folks either. They must be thinking: you can’t pay the rent buying and selling poetry. In certain households, national poetry month must be seen either as a mystery or a joke. There may be radio listeners who love their NPR station but can’t be bothered with Garrison Keillor’s daily poetry episode. If we only knew the world through our bank statement, our company ledger book, or the front page of our local paper, they’d be right. In those venues poetry doesn’t matter much and American poets aren’t pulling their weight.
But poetry is among the oldest human arts; it is found in every society. Little children love the wacky jingle-jangle of poetry; in concentration camps, when brutal guards aren’t watching, gaunt survivors eke out lines of poetry; new lovers can barely keep themselves from writing poems, maybe for the first time in their lives; when someone dies, a mourner may be tempted to write a poem celebrating the beloved’s life. All these poetry fans must not have gotten the memo from the spreadsheet crew about the fatal limitations of the arts. Under florescent lights in air-conditioned offices, their spreadsheets turn gray and brittle, and dust gathers on their binders, while outside, poetry spits on the asphalt, turns up its collar and walks into the wind, chanting the names of the living and the lost. Given a chance, most people vote at one time or another in their lives for poetry.
And not because of the checkbook or the ledger or the breaking news, for those are not the only stories we want to hear about our lives. In a love poem he wrote late in life, William Carlos Williams addressed his wife directly with these words: “We have stood from year to year before the spectacle of our lives with joined hands. The storm unfolds. Lightning plays about the edges of the clouds.” Williams was correct: one thing we need to better know is the storm and spectacle of our lives. Because we live in the solitude of our own hearts, we need the spiritual nourishment of poetry. In that same poem, Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
For in poetry we nudge ourselves awake. A couple of weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night. There were voices outside. I pushed up one slat of the window blind and looked out. Several cars were parked around the neighbor’s house. I put on my robe and walked through the dark rooms of the house toward a south window. The last snow of the season was falling past the porch light in the shape of soap flakes; it seemed as though the smallest of diamonds had been seeded haphazardly across the blanket of new snow.
The adult children of our neighbor were saying goodnight, slowly, taking their time deep in the night, then starting cars one by one and heading off. For weeks they had been coming one or two at a time to the house, morning or afternoon or evening, sitting in hospice with their beautiful, strong mother as she endured the last stages of cancer. But this time they had all come at once and all stayed long into the night. Then they were gone, and one by one the windows of the house went dark. Outside, bare trees held up fresh snow in all their branches.
It was time, I knew, to write a card to the family; time to say a prayer; to think of friends; to listen with gratitude to the peaceful breathing of my wife there in the bed. It was time to try to sleep, or as good as any of these, it was time to write a poem.
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Friday, April 12, 2013
Who’s a Man?
The month of April on a college campus, where I teach, is always a crazy jumble of optimism and serious reality checks. The weather tips from frigid to fabulously flowery, but then here comes finals week, rushing up to bash in our brains.
And because I teach in a women’s and gender studies program, there’s still more whiplash as we move from the celebratory tone of March as Women’s History Month into April, Sexual Assault Awareness month. Ugh. There’s so much bad news. A recent documentary, “Shadows of Innocence,” which you can watch online, shows Indiana ranking a shameful second in the nation in sexual assaults against teenage girls. Surveys show 35% of college age men claim they would commit rape if they thought they could get away with it. So, we stage Take Back the Night rallies and try inspire people to learn and question and imagine healthier behaviors. While we have realized that it will take a world-wide movement to change entrenched attitudes about women – yup, I’m talking about feminism—we haven’t quite rallied to help reinvent our attitudes about and expectations of men.
So, I’ll start a list of perceptions of masculinity from one Midwestern viewpoint … it’s another jumble of optimism and reality checks. I hope you’ll add to it. First, a good story: A friend in Indianapolis reported riding the elevator with a couple of young guys who work at a hip, techy start-up in her building. She caught them in mid-conversation, and one said, in the manner of psyching himself up, “I’m gonna tell the boss today that I am not gonna travel so much. I have a baby!” The other guy nodded, sagely, “Yeah, dude, you got a baby!” Now, that is progress – not, “My spouse had a baby,” but “I have one, and I will help change workplaces for families.”
Next, a not-so-good story, coming straight from our local baseball stadium, the Cove, where I love to eat popcorn and people-watch, and where this year’s pricey renovation includes the following special decoration of the visiting team’s clubhouse space, as reported in the local paper: pink sinks and toilets, “bunches of pink carnations, and pictures of Disney princesses.” Now, what’s up with that? You can talk to me all day long about the calming effects of the color “drunk-tank pink” (I listen to “Science Friday”, after all), but it’s hard to imagine that the Disney Princess theme on top of all that frou-frou pink is meant as anything but a psych-out with a sexist punch. The logic is: what could ruin a guy’s game more than being treated like a girl?
Back to better news: Indiana’s own Senator Joe Donnelly finally came around to supporting marriage equality, an evolution that means seeing a broader range of sexualities as worthy of civic support. And … to bad news: The current gun control debate rages around but does not address the fact that males, often only boys, are almost entirely responsible for mass-shootings. Talk to your friends about why you think this is.
Now, Mad Men may be back on TV by popular demand, but it’s easy to see that the patriarchy doesn’t serve even the alpha-male Don Drapers of the world well when it comes to leading a meaningful life. This was true in the Sixties, and it’s true now, as men pay for their socialization into normative masculinity with their emotional, psychological, and physical health. And that’s bad news.
Still, I remain an optimist because I see alternatives to these toxic images and expectations everywhere, if I pull my eyes away from the media and focus on the real, imaginative, smart and inventive people in my own community. I see queer folks, transmen and women, and creative, energized people of all kinds who are dressing and acting and loving and parenting beyond the binary categories of “masculinity” and “femininity” that have limited all of us for so long. Imagine what it would be like to blur those boundaries – just … to be human. For all of us to bloom, fully, as humans. Now that would be more than good news. It would be, like spring, the start of something beautiful.
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