I often hear the question, “why write?” Thousands of bloggers ask this question everyday. The answers are all over the map. My answer is normally, “I write because I have stories to tell.”
That make sense for a story-teller, but these days I think of myself as a poet and the answer doesn’t completely fit. Poetry isn’t always about telling a story. Some poems are stories. However, some poems are just about feelings, an image, or a question without the resolution of a story. Why tell those? Why sit at a keyboard and extract from your brain a series of lines that link to form that strange art of a poem?
It begs the question, what is art?
There are a million answers to that. This week I was reminded of James Baldwin’s answer when he said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”
I am always a bit amused when someone presents me with the “answer,” because often the answer simply leads to more questions, more answers, and more questions.
Years ago I was taking an art appreciation class where the instructors had us discuss the question, what is art? It was one of those discussions that brought up more questions than answers. Does art have to be beautiful? Does it have to be pleasing? Should music be melodious? What about art that makes you angry? What about dissonance in music – is that art? What is it about the various forms of art that attract or repel us?
In the end the class settled on this as a definition of art:
“Art is that which causes an emotional response.”
Which brings me back to what is a poem? Combining both Baldwin and my art class’s response one might say that a poem is an answer that asks a question that invokes a feeling. But that won’t be the whole story. I have found poems to be elusive, flighty, and difficult to capture in the confines of the written word. Running around my mind at any one time are a million fragments of a poetic puzzle.
There’s the image of homeless man standing on the corner.
There’s the mother crying at the grave.
There’s the cloud floating overhead.
There’s the smell of urine on the sidewalk.
There’s the smoke from the distant fire.
There’s the sadness of the broken wine bottle.
There’s the happiness of the balloon tied to the toddler’s wrist.
These feelings, smells, images, colors, and sounds swim, float, appear, and disappear in my consciousness. Sometimes they collide into an explosion of words that become a poem. Sometimes I reach into the swirling cloud and try to pull out a poem. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I am beginning to learn that it isn’t always the poet’s choice.
The current example in my writing is my lectionary project where I am trying to write a poem for 49 different sections of the book of Matthew. In the three months I’ve been working on this, I’ve completed just five poems. Into my mind I’ve poured the Bible passage, commentaries, a bit of prayer, and meditation and then I reach in and try to pull out an emotional reaction to the words.
Often I miss the mark and end up just retelling the story or paraphrasing the words. Only five times have I been able to do what I wanted to do with the words of the scripture. My poetry is a slow process. The blending takes time for the flavors to defuse throughout the whole process.
Which brings us back to the beginning and the question why do I write poetry? I write it because I am a poet.
I am a poet because poems are seeking to question the answers we know.