“Still, the fact remains that human life, in all its depth and variety and reality, is the province of everyone’s thought, not just that of literary specialists. And human speech and awareness, rich in their idiom and range, are the lovely stuff of poetry. [...] I have no sentimental notion that all poetry can or should be readily understood by everyone at once. Nor do I think that the stubborn mass indifference to it will change very soon. Nevertheless, it is here for anyone’s asking. [...] Poets are the verbal antennae of the people. The awareness they distill and convert into the dynamics of language is somehow present in the populace at large. We neglect it at our peril.” (xvii)
– M. L. Rosenthal, Poetry and the Common Life
I think it was Barry Wallenstein who gave me my copy of Rosenthal’s book. When he handed it to me at the City’s 2007 Annual Spring Poetry Festival at the City College of New York – a festival he founded at a college he had taught at for over forty years – I figured that it would join the stack of books about poetry that always get neglected and passed over for the books of poetry themselves. But I started reading it on the subway home, and Rosenthal’s words struck a deep and lasting chord.
Rosenthal’s premise is that the sources of poetry can be found in the daily occurrence of our lives, in common speech, and in the shared consciousness of humanity that the poet takes part in. Rosenthal argues that not only does the populace has access to poetry, but that they will recognize themselves in poetry because the stuff of poetry and the stuff of the people is the same stuff.
And I think about today in my classroom, how my students again and again say that they have trouble interpreting poems, that they don’t understand poetry because it is too hard. Because symbols can mean so many things. Because they are afraid of being wrong. Because all of a sudden they have a very rigid understanding of language. And I wish that I had this at hand to share with them:
“When people say they do not “get” poetry, it is because they think of language as a factual description and the explanation of ideas. They forget the other ways in which they themselves use it — for social cordiality, for cold rejection or irritation, for outcries of pain and excitement, for joking or “manly” obscenity or “feminine” hyperbole. Language is like color or space or pure sound. Its realm is both conscious thought and subconscious reaction to life: the touch of other personalities, for instance, and a myriad other sensations and fears and desires.” (4)
And I think about the time I met my friend Rory Golden up at the Blue Mountain Center.* I had arrived late to the residency because of medical issues, and in the ten or so days that I missed, the artists and writers there had already formed a strong community, and I felt like a bit of an interloper. I had also missed Rory’s studio tour, and in an attempt to gently squeeze myself into the community, I came by his studio one afternoon and asked for a tour. Rory showed me portrait after portrait of men of color done on tar paper. As I think back, it reminded me of the Fauvists – bold and wild and raw – but back then, I was struck mute looking at the paintings. Rory asked me a a couple of times what I thought, and I replied that I felt like I lacked the vocabulary or the knowledge or the expertise to comment. He was patient with my hemming and hawing, but after a while he said – not looking at me but looking at the paintings – that there is no right vocabulary, and there is no correct response to a painting. That each person’s response and relationship to a painting is valid, and the language they use to express that response and relationship is valid.
Which of course makes a ton of sense. He reiterated something that I knew (and know) cognitively but don’t always embrace, especially when in the company of those I think know more, are denizens of that territory, can sniff out an imposter (as if they exist!) immediately. But Rory was also saying something else as he looked at the paintings with me and quietly encouraged me to privilege my own experience. He was saying that not only was my relationship with the painting a valid one, but that it was an important one to the painting. That the painting depended on me to understand and articulate my response to it. Rory’s creation of the art was one experience. My reception of the art was another one. The art existed in a space between the two experiences, and its existence would be meager if its reception was limited to only the specialists.
And so where I began one month ago is where I end. With an assertion that poetry, like all art, depends on the commons and cannot exist without it. And those of us who spend our days and nights in the commons neglect it at our peril.
*a community that offers writer and artist residencies for individuals working with themes of social justice and ecology and that privileges the cultural commons.