I’m Nathalie Anderson; I’m a Professor in the Department of English Literature, where I direct the Program in Creative Writing, and as you’ve just heard, I’m retiring this year after 39 years at the college. Nevertheless, chances are good that you and I have never met.
There could be lots of reasons for that omission: we’ve just spent the past year and a half locked in our own rooms, after all. But when I think of those of you I haven’t yet encountered, I blame poetry.
Of course, if we do know each other, that’s probably because of poetry as well – but it’s still a fact that poetry makes a lot of people uneasy. A lot of people think it must be like bad Valentine’s Day cards, sappy, saccharine, cutesy, jingly. A lot of people think it must be like emo music, whiny, self-absorbed. A lot of people think it must be needlessly convoluted or purposefully obscure, like an impossible test set by a mean-spirited teacher.
It’s a surprise to me that people still think these things in a year when man-of-the-people Joseph Biden reliably quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney on the campaign trail, or when former Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman blew our socks off at the Presidential Inauguration with her compelling words, yet I know it’s true. In every class I’ve taught for 39 years, students have told me they’ve never read a poem, or haven’t read one since high school, or would like me to recommend a book that would tell them how to read. And these are students who have chosen a class in poetry, chosen to explore it.
If you’re not already a reader or writer, I realize it’s unlikely that I’ll change your mind about poetry in the next few minutes. Nevertheless, I want to spend that time encouraging you to think about the WORD.
Let’s consider first how economical poetry is. We have a Maker’s Space at Swarthmore where we can learn how to use a sewing machine, how to use a chain-saw, but to use words, and use them effectively, we don’t need that space: all we need is our mouth and our mind. We actually already have the skills we need: we know how to inquire; we know how to substantiate; we know how to persuade. And poetry is economical in another sense as well. When Carolyn Forché begins her poem “The Colonel” with these words –- “What you have heard is true” – we know to pay attention. When Sonia Sanchez offers us this haiku:
my body is scarred
by your dry December tongue
i am word bitten
we don’t need anything more to understand that relationship.
Plato barred poets from his Republic for moral reasons, and we’re aware that language allows us to misrepresent, to lie. We’re aware that we can turn any eloquent and heartfelt articulation towards the cynical and sardonic merely by adding the word “NOT.” Language is slippery. TS Eliot complains that
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
... something I’m guessing we’ve all felt, completing an assignment. When M. NourbeSe Philip tells us, “I deeply distrust this tool I work with – language,” we understand more: we recall the history of colonialism, the history of enslavement. Here, she’s talking through her process in writing about the Africans thrown to their deaths from the slave ship Zong, taking as her material the formal language of the British court case that indicts the perpetrators not for homicide but for insurance fraud. And what does she do with that language?:
I murder the text, [she says], literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjunctions overboard, jettisoning adverbs: I separate subject from verb, verb from object – create semantic mayhem
... in order, she says, to reveal “the untold story that tells itself by not telling.”
Or here’s Chen Chen:
What does it mean, to sing in the language of those
who have killed your mother,
would kill her again?
This English, I bear it, a master’s
axe, yet so is every tongue – red with singing & killing.
Even when the circumstances are not so dire, the ambiguity of poetry can be an advantage, allowing us to see two things at once. So Franny Choi, in her poem “Introduction to Quantum Theory,” tells us, “There is a universe in which no one is lying,” and then continues, “in which no one is lying / emptied in the street...” When Solmaz Sharif repurposes definitions from a dictionary of military terms to represent her life as an Iranian American –
PINPOINT TARGET one lit desk lamp
and a nightgown walking past the window
or when Layli Long Soldier deploys the structure of the 2010 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans to call into question its “apology” –
Whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, salt-shakers, plates, cloth. Without the slightest conjunctions to connect me. Without an exchange of questions, without the courtesy of answers.
Or when Irish rap artist Denise Chaila zings her listeners:
It’s not Chilay
It’s not Chilala –
Say my name.
Or when Terrance Hayes titles every one of the 70 poems in his most recent book “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” revealing his precarity as an African American man, we understand more of what Emily Dickinson intended when she wrote “tell all the truth but tell it slant – .”
But poetry does more than bear witness: it also inspirits. Consider these words from Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival”:
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
Or consider this excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s “Dedications,” where she imagines various possible readers:
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
Or this passage, where Eavan Boland realizes how thoroughly the past is lost and unavailable to us:
And no way to know what happened then —
none at all — unless, of course, you improvise:
Or Mary Jean Chan, negotiating the difficult terrain between honoring conservative Chinese family values and honoring one’s own sexual identity:
My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze.
Tonight, I forget that I am
bilingual. I lose my voice in your mouth...
These surely are places where something beyond us, something brought into being by the words, can, as Seamus Heaney puts it, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
I’ll end with a phrase from my own poetry – not that I think it’s elevated in this way, but because it seems appropriate to our situation, yours and mine:
Doors opening on opening doors.
Friends, we’re standing in a portal, and the one thing I can promise you is that there are going to be more of them. The ancient Egyptians, we’ve learned just this year, sometimes placed in the mouth of a mummy a golden tongue for speaking eloquently in the afterlife. We all already have that tongue. I look forward to hearing how you use it.