POETRY AND THE NEWS
by Scott Gregory
There’s a long poem by William Carlos Williams (from late in his career) called “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Toward the end of the piece, he writes: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
So, what “is found” in poems? Answering that question is a lot like saying what it is that makes poetry poetry. I could take a shot or two at doing that — as could you yourself — but where would that get us? What matters is that poems exist in the first place. And that we read them, and write them, and know them when we see them.
Do people really perish “for lack” of whatever it is that poetry has to offer? Of course they do, sometimes. Which isn’t to say that poems can save lives. But they can be life-sustaining, life-enriching, life-whatever. (“Life” being the key here.)
I lived in New York City for several years, working near Lower Manhattan. I still can recall, in the immediate, hazy wake of the 9/11 attacks, sitting at my desk at work one afternoon while listening to Billy Collins, then the U.S. Poet Laureate, read various life-affirming poems (by various authors) on the radio — this was while he was appearing on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” I think. I didn’t get much work done that day, but in another sense, you could say my soul accomplished a great deal. That is, I not only didn’t lose my grip on things — moving through days and nights, and enormous crowds, filled with fear, anger, and sadness — but I actually strengthened that grip. With the clear and present aid of poetry.
Going back to the quote from Williams, there’s also the two-part question of whether and how we can “get the news from poems.” The poet refers here to a journalistic notion, obviously: the who-what-when-where — or maybe, as we like to say today, the “content.” It’s hard to do, that “getting” of the news — you won’t often find the latest headlines or box scores in the poetry section of your bookstore, nor at your favorite poetry blog or app.
But sometimes even the news is there for the taking, especially when we allow that “news” can carry several meanings. Allen Ginsberg, who was among many other things a great admirer and proponent of the work of William Carlos Williams, titled one his books PLANET NEWS. (It’s among his best books, by the way.) In this book, Ginsberg has a poem about his friend and mentor Williams — in fact, it’s about getting the news, as it were, of his elder’s death. The poem is called “Death News” and begins like so:
Walking at night on asphalt campus
road by the German Instructor with Glasses
W. C. Williams is dead he said in accent
under the trees in Benares; I stopped and asked
Williams is Dead? Enthusiastic and wide-eyed
under the Big Dipper. Stood on the Porch
of the International House Annex bungalow
insects buzzing round the electric light
reading the Medical obituary in “Time.”
“out among the sparrows behind the shutters”
Williams is in the Big Dipper. He isn’t dead
as the many pages of words arranged thrill
with his intonations the mouths of meek kids
becoming subtle even in Bengal. Thus
there’s a life moving out of his pages. . . .
Ginsberg, as we read, is given the news of the death of Williams and then, in turn, gives us the news that Williams cannot (or will not) die. Again, poetry is at its most effective when it’s life-affirming.
Or, paring things down, poetry is life. Or, putting it another way, poetry is forever new. As Ezra Pound (another old pal to W.C. Williams) once said, somewhat famously: “Poetry is news that stays news.”
One thing about Pound, he was very big on maxims, categories, and classifications. Rules, in other words — absolutes, universals. (Some of these are well-remembered in our time; others aren’t.) In any case, when he says that “poetry is news that stays news,” he’s doing what we were a bit reluctant to do earlier — saying what it is that makes a poem a poem — and if he’s being a bit vague or open-ended, so be it.
It’s the second usage of “news” in Pound’s line that really matters here: the information that doesn’t become dated or irrelevant with the passage of time. The names of candidates and hurricanes and award-winners and axe-murderers will change with the news of the hour, in other words, but the news of Robert Frost (his rhythm and wisdom) or John Keats (his truth and beauty) won’t change.
Several days ago, I awoke very early on a still, calm, light gray March morning. I started puttering around, looking for my glasses, making coffee. It was a rare experience in that I, for a change, was the first one “up” in the house.
I sat at the kitchen table for a spell. I wasn’t thinking about poetry. I was thinking about Northeastern Japan: the earthquake, of course, and how it gave way to a tsunami, which gave way, via nuclear leakage, to radiation, which gave way to who knows what else. In other words, I was thinking about the news (i.e., death, destruction, and disease).
I say “thinking about,” but what was happening in my head was far less alert, or less awake, than that phrase suggests; it was more like staring at a cereal box, spoon and bowl and milk at hand, while gazing upon facts about essential vitamins and minerals and recommended daily allowances — but not really reading those facts. And in this case, the cereal box was a picture set firmly in my mind’s eye: a newspaper photo I’d seen recently of a small gathering of stunned, exhausted, haunted-looking Japanese citizens walking along an anonymous road. Some carried a small bag or basket of personal belongings; some wore surgical masks.
It’s very hard to process tragedy on a grand scale, as everyone knows, and tragic events of an overwhelming nature are usually, in terms of how we think of them (and how we live through them, or live with them), just that: overwhelming. And sometimes, moreover, they’re incomprehensible. It’s all just too big, as they say. Or too much.
Instead, therefore — whether we’re fully awake or (as I was that morning) just coming back up to the surface — we focus on small or localized pictures in the face of great pain, vast suffering, catastrophic loss. Especially when we’re facing the worst of the worst of what we commonly call “the news.” We recognize and retain images; we seize and cling to them.
We visualize as we particularize. The two go hand-in-hand, somehow. Our minds zero-in on hand-held baskets and surgical masks rather than national tragedies with devastating personal, physical, and psychological consequences (not to mention all the economic and environmental side-effects).
And this is where poetry can, again, show up. Be it imagery or music, words or cadence, pictures or rhythms, the manifold stuff of poems comes back to us — with all the immediacy and presence of life itself. (Again we find that “life” notion.) In these moments, which are part remembrance and part grace — partly within us and partly beyond us — poems can help us cope.
So, as I was waking up over my coffee and cereal that morning, focusing on the disaster in Japan yet still trying NOT to focus on it, I remembered a line from a wonderful poem by the late James Merrill:
Always that same old story —
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.
The poem is called “The Broken Home.” In it, Merrill reflects on the sorrow and confusion he knew as a young child when his parents got a divorce — his father was the Merrill in Merrill Lynch, incidentally — and throughout the piece the poet subverts or else reworks everyday expressions such as “time is money,” “on the rocks,” “life and limb.” It’s a poem, more to the point, that has absolutely nothing to do with earthquakes or tsunamis.
But there it was, in my mind — and there it is, still, in those three brilliant lines of Merrill’s. What is an earthquake, then, but an awful product of earth and time and their bumpy marriage? I suppose it was just a wandering side-glance on the part of my consciousness — how that trio of lines from Merrill revisited me. (I’d not read the poem since college.) Yet somehow, in thinking about Japan’s troubles, and in waking up to them, Merrill’s lines moved my thoughts from tragedy to geology, from grave danger and human suffering to plate tectonics and subsequent tidal waves. “Always that same old story,” indeed.
The loss, the pain, and the problems in Japan are, of course, all too real and present. Don’t get me wrong; I’m fully able to see that. But realizing anew, on that morning, by way of those three lines, that earthquakes are as old as our planet itself — and that they’re an inescapable part of, well, a rocky marriage — this realization helped me in some way.
It wasn’t comforting as such; it just helped me deal.
Poetry helps us confront the news. All art does this, of course, which is ultimately why we bother with it.
And while there are probably as many different kinds of poetry out there as there are readers, when it’s at its best, poetry is itself news you can use.