Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles. My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode. Which simply isn’t true.
In Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world. His students balk. That’s not how they were taught to read poetry! Instead, Collins writes,
… all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Matthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets. In Zapruder’s words:
If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry. The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.
When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.
Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words. Let alone that writers might actually do it.
Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently. New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail. The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming. Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.
We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time. We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing. Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.
Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks. One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block. Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back. Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.
Some weeks class falls flat.
I don’t blame them for signing up. I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits. I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.
Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.
Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year. Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence. We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:
Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips …
This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read. It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.
The opening is perfect, though. As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way. Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …
He thought he could forget his trauma. Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.” He was wrong.
Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on. But the memories can fester. After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”
In Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him. He is asked how he coped. He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.
Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up. Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted. And behind bars. Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day. Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.
“The world needs to know,” we tell them. “Write about that.”
They balk. “I can’t write about this shit.” It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed. Our society has a tendency to blame victims. In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?”
But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse. It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else. And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about. The poem ends,
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.