I used to think I wanted to be an astrophysicist. The stars fascinate me. I took an astronomy class in high school and the teacher rented out a large reflector telescope to the students and that was the first time I saw Jupiter’s moons, the Andromeda galaxy, Orion’s Nebula. I was struck with a sense of dreamy reality, an impossible reality. Looking at Jupiter’s moons, seeing those little sparks spinning around the giant planet – actually spinning, moving – I felt for the first time how the real world could be so unreal.
Then I took my first college chemistry course at the University of Utah. Then I took my first college calculus course. Then it was clear I would never make it as a scientist. I just didn’t get it. And the technicalities of it all, the mundane math, the experiments that required a religious kind of process, an unwavering this-must-follow-this-must-follow-that. I didn’t make it more than one year before quitting and moving to Idaho, where I discovered my love of creative writing. It was there that I discovered my love of astronomy was really a love of the impossible (or what I felt impossible) made not only possible, but observable.
I will never understand the process by which astronomers figure things out. Complex equations will always look more like abstract art than mathematical language. I think this must also be true of people who are not poets or writers who see a poem. They must think “what the hell?”
The problem I see is that people who don’t understand poetry simply move on to other things and forget about it, whereas this does not happen with science. We may not understand the scientific process, but we do recognize its importance and many of us want to understand – if not the process, then at least the results. What is a quasar? A singularity? What is electricity exactly and why does it turn the lights on and why does it make my apartment feel warm in the winter and cool in the summer? These questions have direct bearing on our daily lives and so we want to understand what’s happening.
Poetry, on the other hand, I think we still treat it like a toy, an entertainment, a kind of self-expression that, if we don’t get it, doesn’t really matter because in the end it has little to do with our daily life, our lived life. Because our lived life we think (actually I’m guessing here) is all about getting to work, having a family, eating meals, entertainment. We fall in love, we fall out of love, we go on unemployment, our parents die, we have pets, we take trips to famous or personally significant places like the Grand Canyon or uncle Greg’s bee farm. We find meaning and purpose in religion, in science, in ourselves, our family, our friends, our lovers. This is life: purpose and the means to pursue that purpose. Science is pretty universally accepted as that thing that allows us to pursue our own found purpose, and purpose is generally accepted as something very personal, often found in religion, but not necessarily.
So poetry … what the hell? Maybe the problem with poetry is we don’t have (or people aren’t aware of) the Carl Sagans of poetry, a poet who, like Sagan, can bring the subject to people who don’t understand it. A poet who can speak English. Normal English. Because let’s face it poets, we don’t speak English when we write poetry. Even when we write about poetry, we wax poetic and yet again fail to speak English. We philosophize, we make metaphors, we dance around the subject sort of pointing our fingers at it but never actually saying directly what we are saying or what we are doing.
So forgive us. Please understand, we write poetry for the world, not just our poetry friends. We want you to understand. We want you to read. It’s just that we don’t really know how to do it, or rather we can’t tell you directly what we are doing. We can’t do it. The Chinese poet Gu Cheng writes (and this is a rough translation) “Speaking is hard; speaking poetry is even harder. Because poetry tries to describe things that can’t be described.”
Such a statement will drive most people crazy. In this modern, technological, scientific century, we think everything can be described. Science describes all things physical, and religion or philosophy seems to have described all things abstract. But poetry … poetry doesn’t buy it. Poetry isn’t content with psychology’s explanation of human behavior; it isn’t content with religion’s explanation of life’s purpose or with what happens after death. And poetry is certainly not content with the astronomer’s description of the stars.
We admit, of course, that psychology, religion, philosophy, science, are all we have to describe the world we live in. Even our daily conversations that sort of wander away from all of these schools of thought; even when we are just talking to a friend or whoever; even this is not enough for the poet. It’s not enough, but it’s all we have. So we use these things in our poems. On the other hand, if you’ve ever read a contemporary poem, you’ll know that there is something else there. There must be something else, because the things that are there don’t seem to match up. You’ve got a giraffe playing baseball, fingers on fire, pancakes on the table and pigs frying the bacon. What the hell?
I suppose, in some sense, poetry is simply an invitation. The poet is not some misunderstood recluse who got beat up a lot in Junior High. The poet is not simply looking for understanding. We don’t write in order to “express” ourselves. Not always. We write for many reasons actually, but that isn’t as important to the reader as the reader’s reason for reading. You can try to read to understand the poet (good luck with that) or you can read with no real purpose in mind. You can read, and wait until you’ve read it to decide on why you read it.
Think of it this way: you wake up one morning and you’re in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. You have food and water, a cellphone to call home (it actually works out there somehow), but you have no oar or rudder or any means of turning and propelling the boat. So you call home, they track your phone and are on their way to get you. But in the meantime, you just float around, snacking on whatever the poem has to offer. No direction except the direction the waves rock you into.
I know, that’s just another poetic metaphor. Damn. Well, try it anyway. Here’s a poem: one of my most recent attempts. Wait until you have time to yourself. Pretend your sofa is a boat. Let the poem be the waves. Don’t worry, a rescue helicopter is on its way to pick you up at the end.
“Crying on Titan”
It used to be I had one hand in the clouds
one foot in the dirt and birds would strike my fingers
dash to the ground and I would cry
hawthorn hollyhock haystack
it used to be the confluence of two rivers pulled on my feet
black rocks smooth hills would come to me
like trusting mules and I would cry out their names
sandpiper Snake but now my feet
are fastened to Neptune’s adopted god my hand
raised toward the gagging gasses spirits swimming frozen ammonia
and I cry collapsed lung
I cry for the ferrous finger’s quiet rage
the body’s celestial tug and pull blue solid oceans
dizzy distances I cry for Mars violent Venus
Jupiter’s red bruise billowing burrowing bands of cloud I cry
for the girl I barely knew
her blasted remains found in the basement
blown against the bricks and billiard sticks
for my mother’s heart-line
making its final range of mountains and valleys
for the trusted mule
confluence couch grass rabbitbrush
I cry basalt I cry Idaho
Utah dessert marsh wren
resting redwings I cry
in spite of the methane that laps at my legs my bones glowing orange
the blue beast foreign ocean solid gasses tearing me apart
bone by bone
sacrum sternum scapula skull
pulled down ten-thousand breathless kilometers
to the decomposed methane diamond lives
born gone breathed born eaten touched unravelled gone I cry
from the volatile center I cry
from the layered lights I cry
I cry three-billion years into the future.