Symbol song

We should sing ourselves awake. While I don’t think poetry is exactly the opposite of a lullaby, I think it can rouse and invigorate us. Poetry is both a way of admitting that we often sleepwalk through life and a way to call upon a certain, deeper self to advise.

Since this is about ourselves first, and not some hypothetical audience, we can, hopefully, relax into a place that is less self-conscious than our daily lives while writing poetry. All kinds of lyric poetry call upon the self to rise to the occasion of the composition. Whether it is ghazal, sonnet, sapphic, or anything else that voices the inner longings of the individual poet, it is a singing self, a shadow dance, an elliptical eloquence that carries us forward to the source of awakenedness.

The value of the lyric poem has been argued ad infinitum, but considering that historically it precedes written prose in every language, and that it persists in myriad forms in all languages, is the best evidence of its value to humanity. Poet William Meredith has this to say about lyric: 

While the poem by the poet as solitary will sometimes take the stance of talking to itself, more often it speaks from the poet as individual, to the reader as another individual, and intends to establish a limited, intense agreement of feeling. There is no implicit agreement about social needs or predicaments. Such solitary experiences, and they make up most of lyric poetry, carry on their backs the world they are concerned with, like itinerant puppet-shows. They create a momentary event where the poet and the reader dwell together in some mutual astonishment of words.

Maybe I disagree with Meredith about the “implicit agreement about social needs or predicaments” because of course we choose to read the poets we tend to agree with. And, from the poet’s point-of-view, I do think that the lyric poem often attempts to bring about implicit agreement about these things. I do think that is part of the poet’s occupation: the creation of cultural structures of connection amidst socio-political problems.

Autumn Wind Ravaging Thatch House Song
by Tu Fu, translated by David Hinton

It's the eighth moon, high autumn, and suddenly a raging wind
breaks loose, howling, whirling three layers of rooftop thatch
away: thatch soaring across the river, scattering into fieldlands,

some bundles buffeted so high they litter lofty forest treetops
and some whirled so low they sink sodden into pond bottoms.

Then a band of kids shows up from the south village,
and seeing how old and feeble I am,
they know they can face me as robbers and thieves in the open,
so they gather up our thatch and soon vanish into the bamboo.

I yell until lips and throat feel parched as fire--but it's no good,
so I come back home, propped on a cane and sighing to myself,

then the wind goes suddenly still, and clouds swell dark as ink,
autumn skies vast and silent deepening to black, as dusk arrives.

We've used our quilts so many years. They're cold as iron now,
and our sweet kids tear them open, sleeping fitfully and kicking,

kicking, leaks dribbling everywhere, all the beds, nowhere dry,
rain sheeting down like flax: sheeting down, and no end in sight.

I've lived years of loss and ruin, and rarely slept well, but what
would make sense of this unending rain-drenched night? How

could there ever be a vast palace, a thousand-ten-thousand-room
grand shelter for cold people everywhere throughout
all beneath heaven, joyful faces smiling,
shelter unyielding through wind and rain, steady as a mountain?

O when
will I see that palace home regal and majestic right here
before my very eyes? Then, yes
then I'd be content freezing to death in this ravaged
thatch hut, alone and more than content.

All this, singing to us from long-ago and faraway 8th-century China. The astonishment of Tu Fu’s vision of clouds like ink, of autumn rain sheeting like flax, of a palace home with a thousand-ten-thousand rooms sings us frozen and sings us thawed again into “O when.”

The best teacher I ever had told us a lyric poem can only say one of three things. It can say, “Oh, the beauty of it” or “Oh, the pity of it,” or it can say, “Oh.”

William Meredith

I think sometimes the poet doesn’t really set out to say those things, but instead sets out asking a question of their experience. This questioning brings forth the voice and a presence from within that tumbles into the irrational sense of singing, rather than the rationality of an answer. More likely the question gets deeper, or the poem offers the only kind of solace it can: the assurance that you’ll feel better after a good cry.

Sometimes the lyric tumbles into wildness, sometimes into prayer, and sometimes it cuddles close to music and dance.

I’ll leave you to it. Lyric is a solitary voice, and it does take some solitude to awaken like this. Here’s some advice from another brilliant lyric poet, and then go, write something—

Enjoy struggling. There’s a purity to writing (to anything) when it’s done for its own sake. When no other eyes fall upon your shadow. I wish poets could hang on to that longer. We want so much to come from our writing (really, I think, a lot of us want to be famous, which is a categorical mistake), but for the public things to happen, the private moments need to remain genuine, pure. The ones who succeed write the way they want to, not as they think they should. Which means there’s a lot of to hell with you to doing this. The more you have an eye on the world and who’s knocking on your door, the harder it is to be your own person. So hole up. Cultivate the chip on your shoulder. Let it grow into a tree. 

Bob Hicok
Memorable lines from the Rockland Poets’ poetry slam, October 2, 2022

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