What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.
— From Tony Hoagland’s poem, “A Color of the Sky”
About four months ago, I spent the better part of a day responding to my Twitter notifications. I don’t usually recommend this kind of frenetic internet give-and-take, but my intention that day was sincere: I wanted to pass those hours spreading poetry as a sort of sacrificial offering to the ether. I’d posted a call on my feed to anyone who felt like responding: give me a description of exactly the emotion they wanted to feel, so that I could prescribe a poem that I believed would transport them into that feeling.
It was fun to engage in the exercise of catching hold of and throwing back emotions in their wide array of intensity and perception. Responding to a collective crying out for poetry with specific poems also brought me back to thoughts of why I love poetry so much to begin with. The language of poetry taps into the subjective stuff of life, and it stirs up something closer to speech before Babel; a kind of shorthand for what we long for, what we celebrate, and what we grieve.
The nature of creating a poem: the choosing of language, then the erasure, the boiling down—it leaves us only with the essence of what the speaker wished to convey; the most basic flavour combination meant to trigger a meaning. Though the words will taste different to each person who approaches for a portion, the combination of familiar words with the echo of erasure; the limits of what can be said coat the inner gears of our minds as we process a poem. There is the imprint of another person’s lived experience—a tracing-paper echo of someone else’s limitations of what they can communicate. Even in poetry that’s poorly executed, or that doesn’t appeal to us particularly, we get something like the rough approximation of what the verses aim to say.
I’m red-faced as I recall the painstaking process of trying to revive a relationship I deeply cared about by prescribing myself a hefty dose of poetry. Using my university’s library printer, I printed off dozens and dozens of poems, mostly by contemporary Midwestern male poets (my favorite kind, which is… weird), and pasted them to cardstock before glueing the pages into a book. I could not be dissuaded on the absolute importance of this project. If I could only combine the proper elements, hit upon the ideal recipe of words, I could certainly turn the boat of this relationship around. Poetry could shatter, or it could save. I had yet to encounter a time when it had done neither.
But my project had little effect (for the benefit, I would argue, of all involved) — its recipient had little interest in what I was trying to communicate. My feelings were left in those pages, untranslated. As a student of poetry, this should have been less surprising to me. Poetry is, in its own way, collaborative. The words must reach an interested ear.
George Orwell writes about this in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”: “Above all, good verse, unlike good prose, is not necessarily an individual product. Certain types of poems, such as ballads, or, on the other hand, very artificial verse forms, can be composed cooperatively by groups of people. Whether the ancient English or Scottish ballads were originally produced by individuals, or by people at large, is disputed, but at any rate they are non-individual in the sense that they constantly change in passing from mouth to mouth.”
It is the tension between exactitude and abruptness that, when mastered, fills a poem with a timeless and confessional quality. And in quite the lovely fashion of other kinds of art, what makes the poem so specific to its author; the voice, the imagery, the cadence; is what marks the hearer, who then marks it with their own translation. The speaker and the listener both experience the poem, though their experiences may vibrate together for a moment, they are like echoing calls from different mountaintops.
When I got the news of the poet Tony Hoagland’s passing this week, I felt as though I’d lost an old friend; a person who had witnessed me in the Mariana Trench of my life. He had offered me then what no one else could: permission to feel how I felt, to languish in it, and to acknowledge my feelings as both the fullest part of my life and the most fleeting.
I stumbled into the emotional life of an adult, tripping on the landmines of feelings I could not describe, mixed emotions that would sink and rise and sink and rise without ever quite settling in me. In Hoagland’s poetry I found an anthem, a song of myself that I could share without any singing. Frank O’Hara, a Harvard-trained musician, wrote often about how the sheer will of a poem is best expressed in the form of a simple letter, the words between two people. He writes in his poem, “In Memory of My Feelings,”
my quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly,/ like a gondola, through the streets./ He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.
The interior self is invisible, but also, tangible; evolving, but through a revision, through a paring-down process that invites being created anew. With every likeness we assume, inhabit, and shed, we mimic the action of reading a poem. We participate in our own creation, while we see life through a body that was the creation of Someone Else.
To share a poem with a person is to invite them to see their self in it; to experience a moment of joint reflection before walking away. During my undergrad, I would submit bad drafts of image-laden sonnets, soggy with nature metaphors; the product of a malnourished ego who could not decide what to leave out of a poem. My professor was a retired ballerina from California who floated through my words without a wince, littering the margins with the names of the poets I needed to read to find my tone. She’d take a shard of a sentence as evidence I should be mainlining Matthea Harvey or Dorothea Lasky or Cate Marvin or Mary Jo Bang.
I worshipped her instruction. It meant that I’d been heard.
Together, we were pulling out the sounds of my native tongue, holding them up against the lush and sonorous voices that swirled like whispering ghosts in the creative air around us. I learned that poetry was letting a breath out into the world, and breathing in a breath the world gave back to me. Sometimes that’s all a poem needs to be.
I never got to meet Tony Hoagland on this earth. Once, and this is a true story, I hung around after his friend Dean Young’s reading in Chicago, eating a pizza out of a box that I found on the ground, hoping any living surrealist poet person would recognize me as someone Worthy and Essential, and transform me from what I was — hopeless and blithe. Like so many creative women before me, I had gotten burnt out on being other people’s muse, but also pretty hopped up on myself and my own potential, and I felt more like a vehicle than a driver. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do. That transparent self wasn’t just transparent, she was empty, because she didn’t understand that poetry is the most egalitarian of all the writing arts, and I was already who I needed to be, even though I wasn’t humble enough to know it.
Poetry is something we all make together. The poem is the vehicle, but the poet is also the vehicle. The two are as intertwined as shared language; the history of words that are held in common by different languages, their meanings diverging farther apart each time they are spoken, but the roots of their sound eternally, essentially the same — all of what we say to one another boiling down to the same question, asked over and over, Do you understand what I am? Identity is what we hear from the whispers that come back.
We see ourselves through different dimensions, moving through space, but also have no idea how we appear. The poem offers us a static optic. Even the Psalms shift and re-shape themselves according to our station as they find us in our moments of need. We become shame, we become victor, we become hunted, we become praise. When we read them out, we utter what is holy and take back the breath that rises all around, the mists of heaven, the ethereal that is, our transparent selves, what Tony Hoagland might have called “a color of the sky.”
Photograph by Tom Codd