Sunday, October 28, 2001

Poetry and Patience

On Wednesday I went to see a reading and conversation between Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. It was wonderful to see them and hear their words. One of the things I love about some poets, the best poets, is that they have a patience with language and with themselves that most people speaking publicly don't have. This is something I have long admired about Lucille Clifton, but I thought it was just a Clifton trademark. (And it is, but you know . . . there's a context.)

After talking to Toi Derricotte this summer about her work, I wrote some new stuff and shared it with her. I was focusing on one of the things I liked about her work and Lucille Clifton's work--this patience. I need a new word, a better word to describe what I mean by patience. On the one hand, I mean forgiveness. These two can write things about their own lives that many people can't stand to write because they have the patience to reckon with their own humanity. But I also mean that their choice of the right words seems to have something to do with an ability to sit down with an idea, not get distracted or rushed.

After I shared this work with Derricotte, she hipped me to Ranier Maria Rilke's work. I am in love with poems like his "Parting" and "Love Song" because of this not-rushed-language. You have to think of the poet sitting (when you even think of the poet). But I don't mean to go off on a Rilke love-fest. I was writing this because upon finding "Love Song" I began to think differently of another poem I love, Miguel Algarin's "Salvation/Quarantine". I have never seen it in print, but it can be heard on the United States of Poetry cd (and should be, soon and frequently).

I hadn't been thinking of Algarin's work as patient in that same way, but it is. There is an urgency in his voice sometimes, in audio and print, but his word choice does suggest a patience, with language, even with life. Rilke's "Love Song" asks:

"How can I keep my soul in me, so that it doesn't touch your soul? "

and Algarin's "Salvation/Quarantine" seems to answer:

" . . . I would not kiss you, I would not mix the fluids in my body with you, for your salvation cannot bear the live weight of your sharing liquids with me . . ."

Both of these poems make me want to sit back and breathe and think. What is the soul? What is salvation? What does one person's soul or one person's salvation mean in the context of another person? It does take patience to begin to answer these things, doesn't it?

I have said all this to think about the reading I went to this week. I could say so much about it, but I am left thinking about this poem, one of the many Lucille Clifton read that she had written since September 11th. It began with a line that went something like this: "Some of us have always been afraid." Maybe it went just like that. I didn't write it down, because it struck me and I had to focus and listen. She went delicately, patiently, through the kinds of fears some of us have been feeling, the terrors we confront within national borders. But she didn't stop there, she went on to think about the fears we might face in talking about these things now. The line I wrote down, the one I want to share with you is this:

"Is it treason to remember?"

Take care,

Mendi Lewis Obadike

old comments:

mmm. what a beginning, what an ending.

you know, patience is a good word... i can seldom sit and read a whole lot of poetry. perhaps i lack the patience to meet the poet at that place, so specific and intense a moment; something about it makes me uncomfortable? makes me feel like something is left out? makes me fidgety, like i have to get up and stretch? i have no idea.

well, and i have a strangely antagonistic/allergic relationship with poetry as spoken/performed, too, which is another story altogether, but might be related to this impatience i feel when reading poems.

perhaps it's because i'm such a sloppy writer; so voracious a reader. a poem is like a delicately crafted hors dourve (which i can't spell and i know it) and i am wanting a whole plate full of salad and cornbread and salmon croquets and greens with ginger. perhaps i can't stand such a sharp entrance, want to do some of the work myself.

i can appreciate poetic language, but am more comfortable reading it within prose. cushioned. i spent sunday reading toi derricotte's 'the black diaries' and wow. and if those thoughts were poems... i don't think i'd have been able to enter them in the same way. could they have even been poems? what's toi's reason for writing it as prose rather than poetry? did she need the cushioning too? well, it was twenty years work just to get it out, perhaps so. hmm. do you know, mendi? i do wonder.

anyway. those lines are amazing. thanks for sharing.

Posted 11/6/2001 at 9:20 AM by honeychild

I don' t know really. (Glad you liked those lines.) But no, I don't know why she chose to do a book of prose here as opposed to a book of poetry. I could come up with some reasons, perhaps. I think it might have to do with coming from a different place. What I mean is that when I'm writing prose I feel like I'm doing a whole different thing from poetry. How I write poetry and prose is related in terms of word choice and sometimes even structure (I like framing devices, for example.)

But what I feel when I'm writing a poem is nothing like what I feel when I'm writing prose. When I'm writing poetry I'm, on the one hand, trying more consciously to deal with sensation and texture and the sounds of words and the feel of them in the mouth than I am when writing prose. This has something to do with emotion. But on the other hand, I'm less comfortable with emotion for the sake of emotion when it comes to writing poetry. In prose, I don't mind getting at emotion just because I feel like it. In poetry, I want an invocation of the emotions to do something specific. Maybe TD has some reasoning like this?

If you get a chance, pick up her Tender. It may be the poetry equivalent to The Black Notebooks.

Posted 11/8/2001 at 5:00 PM by mendi


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