Merriam Webster defines poetry as ‘the productions of a poet’. And as a ‘writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.’ But in your own words, how would you define poetry?
The Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo describes poetry as “the revelation of a feeling the poet believes to be interior and personal and the reader recognizes as his own.” I think this transformation, something that begins with the poet capturing that spark and putting a close facsimile (because we never completely capture that internal image) of it on paper, and seeing it transformed as the reader interprets the poem in the context of where he or she is in their life. We don’t set out to write universal truths (or if we do we set ourselves up for failure); we attempt to be as true as possible to that internal feeling and if we succeed, another person reads those words and says “Yes!”
Poetry has enormous power to educate and transform lives. I’ve seen it in the teenager who feels isolated and in the veteran who feels that neither the family, nor the therapist can really grasp what they’re going through. On a lighter note, the couple who want to express their feelings in a way that isn’t just cliché, or the hiker who is overwhelmed by something in nature.
In addition to studying literature I like to read history. I’ve found that so much history we know is a regurgitation of statistics and dates and that the quote, “history is written by the victors” is still true in the public eye. Poetry that arises out of history teaches by focusing on the individual experience, often the forgotten person. I learned more of World War I from Wilfred Owen, more of the Armenian Genocide from Peter Balakian. And in the racially charged times, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen offers distilled truth from inside the mind of the individual who encounters prejudice that teaches something the news media seems to be incapable of.
Who is your favorite poet and why?
Hard question. There are at least 100 favorites. I grew up close to the area where Robert Penn Warren was born and for a long time resisted his influence. His early writings seemed to be drenched in the southern aristocracy (or the southern desire for aristocracy and order). But as I read more of his work and saw his move away from the Agrarians, I saw someone whose work paralleled the country’s evolution. Warren evolved from a more formal verse to a long narrative style that tackled the country’s history, people like Jefferson, John Brown, Chief Joseph and Audubon. He began to open his eyes around the Civil Rights Movement and wrote a landmark essay “Divided South Searches Its Soul.” So, there’s the combination of haunting images and the idea that a person can evolve that comes through in his poetry.
Name one poet you wished more people knew about and why.
I have two that I try to share with everyone when the subject comes up. Traci Brimhall writes some amazing lines that have a combination of mythology, human rights, and even the erotic thrown in. ( http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/our-bodies-break-light ) Her work is the example of images that are so captivating, even when the meaning escapes you, they make you want to come back for another reading. A reason for teaching students that a good idea isn’t enough, language, rhythm, sounds must all be attended to, in order to make the reader want to know the meaning.
Joe Bolton died after his first book. He came from the same area as Warren and wrote some astounding verse. (http://katebenedict.com/lectio/bolton.html ). His lines combine the beautiful and the tragic. This captures loneliness better than any collection I’ve read, but at times in a way that is cathartic.
Explain your poetry writing process.
It’s more of a habit I’m still trying to develop than a process. The most important part for me is to have my notebook available at all times. An image, a phrase or an idea often presents itself when I’m away from the house and I know my chances of remembering it hours later are slim. My notebooks have many randomly jotted notes in them that are often the basis for later poems. My other thing is to practice. Often I’ll attempt to write blank verse lines early in the morning, without worrying about whether the lines make sense or not. Rhythm is something that comes out more the more you use it. Wallace Stevens used to walk to work every morning in Connecticut and he would sound out his lines to match the rhythm of his steps. I think there’s something to that, even if the first attempts are some really bad verse, the rhythm lingers.
Bonus D.A. Grays shares with us today a poem he wrote:
With an empty page a boy begins to build,
thumb and forefinger swing the nib like shovel and pik,
and in the wake a sea of black forms the world.
Lines waver, asymmetric, into battered shores –
soon the line turns, turns again and closes upon itself,
beginning meets end, earth rises. the ink dark sea falls.
Random towns appear, and hills marked by contour lines;
blue river runs through center, then fans into a delta.
An occasional boat leaves no trace, nor the fanged sea
serpent the boy has drawn to mark the paper’s edge.
Soon, color arrives, these right-angled roads form silver
boundaries, apply order to unruly trees, the green anarchy
of grass. Finally the small hand sprinkles the world
rectangle buildings and stick men, stand in parallel, stick arms open,
and when he sees that it is good, he carries his world
to the kitchen table, where the adults have kept busy
speaking of news while slicing storing summer’s last harvest
of wild tomatoes into Mason jars. Before anyone can stop
its fall, the world on paper sinks on the wooden surface
only to have the red of fresh cut fruit, rise through its center.
© 2014, D.A. Gray
appeared 26 May 2014 in The Good Men Proeject
Gray has published one book of poetry, Overwatch, Grey Sparrow Press, November 2011. His work can also be found in Grey Sparrow Journal, Bellow, Poetry Salzburg, The Good Men Project, O’Dark Thirty, 94 Creations and Spark: A Creative Anthology.