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Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

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THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

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All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.