Busyness, careerism, capitalism, and materialism: What do they have to do with poetry? (Notes to self)
Busyness, careerism, capitalism, and materialism: What do these things have to do with poetry?
Short answer: Nothing. These things are at cross purposes with poetry.
The other true answer is that poets have to eventually deal with all of these things in the course of doing life. This is a battle most of us will wage on a daily basis (whether we are poets or not), especially when poetry is a synonym for what really matters in a life.
I’ve navigated all of these encroachments, and when I sat down to write some notes in response to this conundrum, soon realized that what I have to say won’t fit into a newsletter format. However, for now I wanted to share a few thoughts related to how we keep our imaginations intact amidst these challenges.
For one thing, as I’ve often told my students, we are not just talking about how to write poems over here. We are exploring something far more urgent and necessary which has to do with the wholeness of who we are; where we live; how this particular moment in history feels to us; and how to glean from, and interpret life and experience through our art, maybe even do something transformative in the process. Right?
(I loved teaching Morning Manifestos at the 2018 Beargrass Writers Retreat.)
In my teaching, I invite us to not forsake our wider world; slow down enough to notice whatever wants to be heard, seen, felt and voiced. Encourage us to be more attentive to our actual lives, and interpret the messages about what serves our greater purpose as poets in the world.
We read and write and observe and reflect and work with language as we become more human; train our sensitivity and tune-in to what’s really happening inside and all around us; we listen to the questions. We let them change us. We change.
We root out faulty ideas (like the myth of the solitary genious) and undermining habits (like screen addiction), as well as public masks (like a CV focused on outward accomplishments), status symbols, dishonest speech, other *things* that get in the way of who we most want to be the world. What we most want to make.
We write as a way of discovering new truths and actual facts. As a way of finding a better place to dwell. We make spaces outside of the mainstream and well away from the values that global capitalism would have us hitch our body/minds to. We trust our authority and become more free as we embody this in art and life.
For me, at least, the practice of poetry also offers an ongoing engagement with matters of ethics and morality, and what it means, in practice, to be a citizen, a person of conscience, a decent human in a time when this seems most urgent of all. Poetry is where I work out all of the things that finally matter to me, and it’s where and how I find folks to do that with. Folks like you?
Lately I’m excited about exploring what feeds the imagination—what books, practices, habits, experiences, attitudes, and so on—as well as what threatens the imagination.
Becoming too busy; concerning oneself primarily with reputation and recognition; losing track of life itself while pursuing a career; consuming out of the impulse to fulfill wants and desires that actually require a more sensitive response; and participating in our economy without having a cogent critique, all put the human imagination and its creations at risk, because each of these familiar and ubiquitous forces tend to menace that secret, inner, magical, amazing part of each of us, where imagination dwells. This fact threatens not only those who make art, and not just our literature and our culture, but it risks our future.
What do you do to resist the ways that everyday forces put you (and all of us) at risk? [You might make a list of the ways you are living your values in a daily way. When I stay in touch with the embodiment of my convictions, it seems to protect me from despair. Usually.)
This month I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Alice Oswald and Elena Ferrante, and between those three, I’ve had some really good company for some of these conversations, but as the summer wanes, I’m looking forward to teaching and talking with you again, too.
During that workshop a couple of weeks back, one of the participants asked about how to foster imagination. I had been talking about imagination as an essential and endangered birthright. How else to explain some of the challenges we face, collectively? I got to talking about what not to do if you want to take care of your imagination, which might be a subject for another time, although I’ll be picking up this theme in the upcoming session of the 21 Day Poetry Challenge. What do you not do, because you want to preserve the quality of your mind?
Jim Harrison. One of my earliest Tutelary Spirits. This poem is from ‘Dead Man’s Float’
Anyway, last year at this time I gave a talk entitled “Resisting the War Against the Imagination,” inspired by a poem by Diane di Prima called “Rant”, in which I argued that as a society and as a human culture, we are currently in a battle of imaginations:
The Benevolent Imagination v. The Malevolent Imagination.
Who will win this battle?
Will the solar arrays and healers and garlic farmers win?
Will the gun lobby and fracking and plastic bags win?
Will education win? Will consumerism win?
Will overwork and speed and distraction and swiping-left win?
What about the water, datura blossoms, potlucks and holding hands and stories about the land and how it’s all connected? What about stories and tenderness and the seasons?
Di Prima writes:
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
We need all strong, thoughtful, humane, capacious, justice-seeking, resilient and creative minds on deck if the better imaginations are going to prevail, and if the right use of imagination will succeed against the cynical, profiteering, self-serving imaginations. Our survival depends on it.
I’ve chosen the path of the teacher as my means to contribute what I can to a better possible world. I’ve chosen many things, but my teaching is the most public way I exist in the world. Within this context, I’m wondering to myself, and talking to other writers about poetry as a practice in both self and collective liberation. We can do this alone, and we do it together, and I’m creating space for both, which is a way of summoning and multiplying power at a very local scale. Does this matter? I believe it does. The poet knows that everything matters. What we consume, where we spend our time, who we associate with, and what we give our attention to.
In my workshops and online classes we make room to talk about what feeds the imagination—what books, practices, habits, experiences, attitudes, and so on—and we talk about what undermines the imagination, as well. Of course we also do the other things you might expect in a class called Poetry Immersion or 21 Day Poetry Challenge, including reading great poems, writing a lot, experimenting, and exploring our craft.
Becoming too busy; concerning oneself primarily with reputation and recognition; losing track of life itself while pursuing a career; consuming out of the impulse to fulfill wants and desires that actually need a deeper response; and participating in our economy without having a cogent critique, all put the human imagination and its creations at risk, because each of these familiar and ubiquitous forces undermine that secret, inner, magical, amazing part of us, where imagination lives, and therefore undermines the poets among us, as well as our poetry. I will even say that all of this undermines our future. I believe that too. Do you?
Let’s think about this together, and let’s do something clear and meaningful to resist the ways that everyday forces and threats put all of us at risk.
Through my work with Poetry Forge, I am making more space to pursue poetry as an art form that can also bring about profound internal change that will reverberate into the other parts of our lives, and beyond. What do you think? Do any of these thoughts connect with your present concerns or personal goals? It’s a work in progress, and always will be. I appreciate that you have stuck with me and read this far.
Thanks for being out there, wherever you are.