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From the Poet's Notebook

New writing by Howard Nelson

Envy of Carpenters
Talk at the Southern Cayuga Wider Parish Pot-Luck Supper, February 25, 2018.

Note: The Wider Parish includes several area churches. Each year during Lent the group sponsors a series of talks on a selected theme. The theme this year was "nurturing the spiritual life." The committee was broad-minded enough to include poetry as the focus of one of the sessions. They asked Charlie Weld and me, both of us members of Poplar Ridge Friends Meeting, to be the presenters. We took turns reading some reflections we'd set down, along with poems of our own and by Frost and Whitman. Q&A followed—which turned into one of the liveliest discussions of poetry I can remember being part of. It was a great thing—very grass—roots, honest, spontaneous, &, you could say, spiritual.

One difficulty with poetry is that it is hard to know the practical value of it. I am a little envious of carpenters, with their ability to build a solid set of stairs to get you up to the next floor—you know for sure when you have gotten to the next floor. Or to frame a house, for people to live in. Or to make a beautiful cabinet, to put things in, with perhaps some nice finishing details. It will stand in someone's house in its solid usefulness and fine craftsmanship for years, long after the carpenter is gone. The carpenter's time will have been well spent.

Some poets are also carpenters, but not me. I like to think I'm not clueless, but I am skill-less, pretty much, with just a sliver of intelligence out of the possible human well-rounded potential. The only thing I can make is poems (and sometimes essays)— other than macaroni and cheese — though I have also taken up baking pies in recent years. But to the company of poets who can also do carpentry (and carpenters who can do poetry), I do not belong, and I feel a little bad about that, but it leaves me qualified to speak about what it is like to be thrown back on poetry alone, the only tool in my toolbox, the only skill in my skill set.

And in my case, there is the added problem that often people do not even recognize that what I've written is poetry. Sometimes, after I've given a reading, someone will say to me, "Gee, that didn't even seem like poems. It sounded like you were just talking." They usually don't intend to be hostile, they're just reporting on their reaction— they might have even liked their non-poetic experience. I smile and say, "That's OK—they are sort of like talking"— meanwhile thinking to myself about where all the effort I've put into trying to write in an unaffected, plain-spoken style has gotten me!

So, is it spiritual? It involves a lot of solitude. Only a poet would say, "The cure for loneliness is solitude," as Marianne Moore did. It involves a lot of talking to oneself. It can be hard labor. As the poet Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit and stare at a blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead." Well, it can be like that, but actually I think that's a bit melodramatic. Sometimes writing poetry can be very enjoyable, and a high. It's an exercise is self-discovery, for better or worse. It's about expression of emotion, a decent sense of irony, articulating a mystery. It is certainly about praise of the creation—which might even include some complaint and lament. It's an exercise in caring for and about language, like a worker bee caring about flowers, or working on a single cell in a single hive in the wide world of nature. That my writing is in some way comparable to the work of the bee is a leap of faith I take.

To me, the bottom line for spirituality is helping someone, either in a concrete way or a simple act of kindness. So that leaves poetry as a problematical proposition, as uncertain in its effectiveness as prayer, to which some poets have compared it. Of course, there's also the danger of self-absorbed, pretentious, I-am-a-poet thinking, which is pretty much antithetical to what we mean when we use the word "spiritual."

What I've said so far is mostly from the perspective of writing poetry. When we switch to being on the receiving end, that's a different story. I know many people don't particularly like poetry—don't read it voluntarily. That's OK. The older I get, the more the saying "Different strokes for different folks" sounds like truth and wisdom. But still, when you find a poem that you connect with, that's a good thing, a good feeling. I know some people who practice the discipline of memorizing poems, and find it very satisfying, and indeed spiritual. When you find a poet who can deliver such moments repeatedly, you've got something wonderful, a spiritual resource. And as someone who has spent a lifetime attending to poetry, I have at least a couple dozen poets like that. Lucky me. The usefulness of Walt Whitman might be questioned, as it was when he was alive, even by some in his own family, and still is by some, but for me—you might as well question the usefulness of my hands or heart. I guess he's number one in my book, but there are others who are permanently present in my soul. Crusty, lyrical, dramatic Robert Frost is in there, and his poem "Birches" is one that I have tried to live by. It's about joy of getting high and the ability to land on your feet. "Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better," he says. And William Blake—I often meet him in the aisles of Wegman's, through his phrase "marks of weakness, marks of woe," or have eggs and home fries with him at Hunter's Diner, cantilevered out over the river, held up by girders with angels perched on them like crows.

If you want to put it in religious terms, poetry is a way of saying "Praise the Lord," or "O my God," or "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures"—which of course is a line from a great poem. Imagine if we didn't have that one. On the receiving side, and also on the writing side, poetry can make things clearer and more mysterious. Clearer and more mysterious is a very good thing. Because of poetry, your pilgrimage on earth might be less lonely, and more lively; more starry and elastic (to steal a phrase from a poet); more tasty and shining (to make one up myself). Or so it seems to me.