Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Poetry and Transformation

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Poetry and Transformation

Article excerpt


In the park surrounding the Imperial War Museum in London, a large slab of concrete, twelve feet high by three feet wide, is slowly falling apart, exposing its skeleton of rusted steel rebar. Despite its appearance and strength, concrete is in motion. As soon as the molecules in the cement that bind it harden, they start to unfasten in a process that can take hundreds of years. Poured in 1961, this slab is not old by concrete standards and should be holding up better, but it is a segment of the Berlin Wall, which was constructed quickly and cheaply. During the wall's active duty, 136 people were killed trying to cross over from East to West Germany. Before the slab was retired to this beautiful park it was painted with graffiti. In one painting, a pair of cartoon eyes overlooks a huge Rolling Stones red tongue covered with white letters that proclaim, "Change Your Life." The artist "Indiano," who graf- fitied much of the Berlin Wall, likely chose these words from a sonnet by Rilke that ends with the admonition, "Du musst dein leben ändern," or "You must change your life" ("Archaic Torso of Apollo" 14).

Like concrete, poetry is also in transition-a poem is created over many revisions that can take, for me at least, decades before it is complete. Unlike concrete, a poem is bound by image and sound, metaphor and voice. A poem, as Archibald MacLeish famously wrote in "Ars Poética," "should not mean / But be" (23-24). My own "Ars Poética" reflects on the relationship between the other concrete-the one relating to the senses-and the abstract.

Ars Poética

The thin wires that brace the rods in place

are not that tough as I twist them

around bars of ribbed steel. And they quiver

when I slurp over them tons of redi-mix.

In Cardiff, I burned a winter chopping holes

through concrete. My jackhammer heated

then sliced the steel, knocked loose gray chunks,

snapped the slender wires like the bones of a finger.

As centuries tick, the stiff sides of buildings

conceal molecules of cement unbinding

into sand, aggregate, and water.

All the making becomes unmaking

that implodes silently, spewing light and heat

as it breaks back through the abstract.

[Many Mountains Moving 93)

While the abstract is the subject of poetry, it is also its enemy The abstract has no flesh, no blood, no thing. It is soul and spirit, incomprehensible without form. The poet's job is to give the abstract a body, which can only be done using physical language. Poems are little machines made out of words. If the words are not the right words, the machine will not work. A successful poem will offer a different experience each time an attentive reader engages with it. And without the attentive reader, a poem, no matter how well crafted, will be meaningless. As William Carlos Williams portrays in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,"

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there. (161-65)

T wo

I am standing in front of a group of teachers who want to write poetry. They have given up two weeks of their summer vacation to attend the Artist Teacher Institute at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, cosponsored by Arts Horizons and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. They will write poems while others in the institute are painting, dancing, and making books, collages, and digital photographs. These teachers are enthusiastic, earnest, smart, and exhausted. They write down everything I say. I'd rather they argue. I need to provoke them.

"Who wants to dance?" I ask.

They look confused. I point to Lisa, a special education teacher in Camden. She hesitates, terrified, then stands and comes to the front of the room. She wonders if she should have taken oil painting instead.

I arrange Lisa so that she is standing two feet in front of me. I say, "I am a writer and you are my reader. …

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