Side Effects: A Notebook

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The business of poetry is remarkably good at devaluing the art of poetry. As soon as the annual days-long Association of Writing Programs Conference is complete, we're plunged headfirst into National Poetry Month. And the ever-present, ever-growing multiplicity of MFA programs, social media, book contests, promotional book reviews—all have a way of cheapening (rather than deepening) our experience with poems. By endlessly insisting poetry is exceptional, these various outlets and practices, grounded in a consumerist orientation expressed through relentless cheerleading and audience-building, make us wonder if the opposite is true: that poetry isn’t exceptional or special at all; that it’s just there to prop up and justify a niche profession.  

The Poetry Rx column at Paris Review is among the most overt instances of this: it takes the shell of a well-established (and kitschy) American form—the advice column—and has its resident poets recommend poems to distraught letter writers who aren’t seeking advice exactly, but poems to assuage their psychological distress.

There's no doubt that Paris Review editor Emily Nemens has noble intentions. As she told Vanity Fair last year:

“[B}eing mindful of the Internet, embracing it, and thinking about how our work online can reinforce the work in the magazine ... [I'm] thinking about us almost as a boutique media company. We’re not just this print magazine, we’re a Web site, we’re an audiosphere, we’re producing books, and I think each one of those will engage different readers and hopefully bring them back to the fundamental thing, which is the literature.”

But Nemens clearly has little understanding of how such vast commodification threatens to devalue the very thing she seeks to promote.

The premise of Poetry Rx is a rather dubious one. Are we to believe a Paris Review reader is incapable of discovering a poem on their own? Are they so chronically bored or hungering for public confession that they’d rather write a request-email (and wait for god-knows-how-long for a reply) than do a simple internet search or visit a library? Regardless, how can the resident poets possibly know which poems to recommend since the letter writers never disclose their aesthetic taste (if they have any at all, which one wonders)? Is the assumption then that any poem will do for these suffering souls?

It seems to me the letter writers find a peculiar satisfaction in self-disclosing (pre-social media, it was plausible to code an anonymously written letter sent to an advice column as brave and courageous, but I personally find such an interpretation in 2019, well, a dead end), while the resident poets use the letters as writing prompts to not only perform their emotional intelligence—each is fluent in the trite jargon of the self-care industrial complex—but to also show us their talents as close readers (and they are talented, no doubt) and what dedicated ambassadors for the caring class they are.  

Poetry Rx is essentially governed by a circle-jerk logic, where the art of poetry gets exploited by the saccharine machinery of marketing in order to serve no one but the resident poets, Paris Review, and the letter writers who, after they glance at (and toss aside) the poem they were given, at least get to say they’ve appeared in what was once considered America’s premiere literary magazine. 

Adorno (1970):

“[A]bsolute freedom in art ... comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole. In it the place of art became uncertain. The autonomy it achieved, after having freed itself from cultic function and its images, was nourished by the idea of humanity. As society became ever less a human one, this autonomy was shattered. Drawn from the ideal of humanity, art’s constituent elements withered by art’s own law of movement. Yet art’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function—of which art is itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty—are doomed.”

Dear Poets,

My neighbor, whom my family and I are close with, was recently given only a few months to live due to an unusually aggressive cancer. My sister is painting a portrait of his cat to give to him and I don’t have any artistic talent. I have a deep love of poetry and literature and feel like I could give him some poetry to read in his last days. He is taking it very well and seems to have accepted it and is at peace with it. Do you have any recommendations for poems to give to dying friends?

Sincerely,

Compassionate Neighbor

The writer of this letter claims to have a “deep love of poetry and literature” and yet apparently doesn’t know of a single poem to give to their dying neighbor? Regardless, the poor neighbor would certainly benefit more from being given a notebook to write in (or a voice recorder to speak into), rather than a poem to read, but this isn’t about the dying neighbor anyway, so who cares? Here’s the baffling reply Poetry Rx offered:

Dear Compassionate Neighbor,

You may have heard that last week we lost a poetry titan, Mary Oliver. The poetry community has mourned her by sharing her poems on social media, and by writing her tributes. It has been a reassuring reminder that even when a person leaves us, so much of who they are and what they mean to us remains. Mary Oliver wrote beautifully about death, and at first I considered recommending her poem, “When Death Comes,” which contains the lines: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” as well as the famous line, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” But this poem strikes me as being more relevant to a person who still has a lot of time left on this earth. For someone whose death is much nearer, I want to share a poem with you that is not necessarily about dying. It is a short poem called “Praying” which goes:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

I love this poem so much, because it works perfectly as a description of praying, but is also excellent advice on how to write a poem. “Just pay attention, then patch a few words together,” feels so honest to my poetic practice. For your neighbor, as he looks back on his life of blue irises or vacant lots or small stones, I hope the end of this poem will resonate with him: this life is not a contest, but a doorway into thanks. If what comes next is silence, then in it, another voice may speak. 

From Paris Review:

A quick note on Poetry Rx:

This is not meant to be an advice column in the traditional sense, in that we are wholly unqualified to offer you any solutions for the dilemmas in your life. Something Sarah [Sarah Kay, one of the three poets who reply to letters sent to Poetry RX] says a lot is, “No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet … ” The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.

“Is there a poem for me?”

“Do you have a poem about how America-centric this world is when you’re a non-American who’s bitter about it?”

“I know this is a big ask, but is there a poem that can help me build a home?”

“I have received my first publisher rejection and am feeling appropriately mournful and dramatic. Is there a poem for this?”

“Do you have a poem to help me?”

“Is there a poem that will teach me how to accept that he had a previous love and life before we shared ours?”

“I am looking forward to healing, but right now, it is hard. Is there a poem for this?”

“Like I’m utterly, helplessly alone. Is there a poem for me?”

“Do you have a poem for this?”

“Do you have a poem that contains (or seeks to liberate) that particular perspective?”

“I don’t know how to feel at all, and so I was hoping one of you might have a poem to guide me through it a little.”

“What poem might help me to feel better?”

“I feel like my own body conspires against me. Any poetry that could help?”

“I am struggling to find myself again. Do you have a poem for me?”

“What I could really use is a hopeful poem, something about connection or honesty in an era where our phones make us think of others as disposable.”

“I was wondering: Do you have a poem that might speak to these small gestures of love, either from the perspective of what it’s like to give them or to receive them?”

“Is there a poem for the grief of these stories that will never materialize?”

“Do you have a poem for the exhilarating, terrifying experience of exploring new parts of yourself?”

“Is there a poem for that?”

“Do you have any poem at all, really, for another poet in love?”

“I need a poem that speaks to crossing a big threshold, and the inevitability of unreadiness for being a mom.”

“I would love a poem to remind me that I am a better person now and a better mother.”

“I was going to ask if you had any poems for hatred, but perhaps my real need is for a poem for unearned forgiveness.”

“I need a poem to navigate this feeling of being the bad guy.”

“And I don’t want to keep on hurting myself for being a poet who doesn’t write anymore. Do you think you can point to a poem for this feeling?”

“I would love a poem that I can carry with me, each and every day, a mantra, to give me strength, to come back to, to call home.”

“Is there a poem for this feeling, like the road ahead is paved in gold?”

“I was wondering if you could prescribe me the perfect rain poem, if such a thing even exists. But if not that, or perhaps in addition to it (I don’t want to be greedy with the poems here but sometimes people go to the doctor thinking they have one thing when they really have two), a poem that hugs you. Do you know what I mean? Like a poem that feels like a hug when you read it.”

“Do you have a poem for that fusion of emotions—rage, guilt, blurry compassion—that you feel after you’ve outgrown someone or something that used to mean a lot to you?”

“My partner finally moving to the city where I live, a trip to Europe, a new job—is there a poem that holds all the hope I hold for the future?”

“Do you have any poems for this feeling, or poems that point to a solution?”

“Do you have a poem that speaks to overcoming your deepest fears and being brave enough to bare your vulnerable side to the world?”

“Can you point me to a faith-defining poem?”

“I’m afraid to tell anyone about this because of what they’ll think of me. I’m afraid of myself. Please, is there a poem to help me through this?”

“Is there a poem to keep me going until my next trip?”

“Do you have a poem for this thorny feeling? Call it love or filial obligation or resentment or pity for my poor, flawed, all-too-human parents.”

“I’m happy to be in love and to be loved by him, but I also have this looming fear of getting hurt. Is there a poem out there for this feeling?”

“I feel so small, so ugly and so unwanted I cannot explain. Any poetry that would help?”

“That is the feeling for which I need a poem. The feeling when you know that he’s going to leave, and you’re remembering how hard it was to lose him the first time, and this time you’re in deeper, and you know you should cut it off now to reduce the heartache a little, but you foolishly continue to hope.”

“I have a parent who has a degenerative disease and will be getting sicker and sicker over the next years; ultimately, it will be fatal. Not a super sunny situation, but I’d love a poem for it.”

“Any poems that can inspire me to jump into the void of possibilities?”

“Is there a poem that might help me make more sense of an overwhelming amount of conflicting emotions?”

“Do you have a poem for someone who loves peace and quiet and yet is their own biggest obstacle in achieving it?”

“And I could use some encouragement, a vote of confidence, to know that this is possible. Is there a poem that could help?”

“Poetry has been an immense comfort and I would love your professional recommendation.”

“Do you have a poem for this? For this feeling of being like a lost spaceship, floating with no promise of a return?”

“Do you have any poems that speak to the power of words? Or even just uncertain love in general?”

“Is there a poem for not recognizing myself? For acknowledging that I have come up lacking, and for wanting to change?”

“Now, my biggest fear is that I will get too accustomed to tragedy, to suicides, to death. I am scared of getting used to losing. I am scared of losing all this pain. I don’t ever want to stop feeling. I don’t ever want to get used to it. Is there a poem for it, any words that will stop this from happening?”

“Do you have a poem for this feeling of not recognizing (or even liking) yourself?”

“Experiencing these things and feeling these feelings is all a privilege, but regardless, I could use a poem.”

“Please give me a poem to bring me back to my motivation and sense of self.”

“Do you have a poem for the feeling when you’re waiting for your train to come, but you know it’s still a long way off?”

“Do you have any hopeful poems about the beginnings of things, or what makes a person and how to find it out?”

“I’d love a prescription for poetry about or involving video games!”

“Do you have a poem for this type of finality: when you at last see the truth of a situation, swallow it uncomfortably, and move on at last?”

“Can you please recommend a poem for a tired soul?”

“I am seeking a poem to help me in grappling with the question of how to live in this beautiful and terrible world.”

“I’d love to have a poem that perhaps speaks to grieving a relationship that was doomed to be ephemeral from the start?”

“Is there a poem that expresses this craving without viewing romantic love as a life-altering, world-saving thing?”

“I’m feeling very swallowed up in my loneliness and I need a nice poetry life preserver!”

“Is there a poem for getting over the fear that my poetry won’t be good enough?”

“Sometimes I feel this pain is self-inflicted. Do you have a poem that could be my companion in this distress?”

“I don’t fully belong here and I feel like I no longer belong there, either. I’m having a hard time explaining this to anyone. Is there a poem that could help me cope with this feeling?”

“Is there a poem that will help me enjoy his company without having to requite his love and also allow me to not feel guilty?”

“Is there a poem for facing this all of this unknown?”

“Is there a poem for the taste of ash in my mouth right now?”

“Do you have a poem that can help jolt me out of my malaise?”

“Do you have a poem that describes this desire to connect to someone who doesn’t want to connect with you, and the feeling that you might be unworthy of a deeply intimate connection?”

“I’m looking for a poem that will wrap me in its arms.”

“I need a poem that will remind me to keep my head up and maybe clear some of the clouds from my brain.”

“I am searching for a poem that will encourage me toward sobriety and/or capture this dual nature within myself.”

“Poets, please guide me to some words that can fuel me with bravery as I learn to accept romance and all of its wonderful gifts.”

“Do you have any recommendations for poems to give to dying friends?”

“Do you have a poem to help me surrender my rage?”

“Do you have a poem for this kind of grief?”

“Is there a poem that talks about looking down a long road where you will have to balance what sometimes feels like a double life, which few others can understand?”

“Do you have a poem for this feeling of love that dwarfs you?”

“Can you share any poems that address losing someone you love because of hoarding?”

“Do you have a poem that may be able to soothe either of these frustrations? I am beside myself.”

“Is there a poem to help with the frustration and guilt of moving through a world that affords me more safety and privilege simply because I was born with lighter skin than my dad and the other people whom I love dearly?”

“During times when words feel empty, what I really want to do is provide my presence and a hug. I need a poem for these times when words won’t do.”

“Searching for a poem that offers insight into proving (or disproving) the old chestnut ‘when you know you know.’”

“I would love a poem that addressed the journey that can lead to companionship and the love that can come when lives have been lived and time seems to be palpably limited.”

“I’m hoping there is a poem that might speak to this feeling of loss and joy and grief and gratitude.”

“I need words to help me restore peace in my heart and to help me get on with life while honoring her memory.”

“I would love to read a poem that provides some comfort or affirmation as everything familiar falls apart.”

“I’d love a poem…”

“Do you have a good poem to show that art can come from happy places?”

One wonders how long Poetry Rx will continue. I suspect when Paris Review decides the column has manufactured enough content, they’ll publish The Poetry Rx Anthology, maybe even create a spin-off podcast, and dump the column.

I sent a draft of this little piece to my wife today for feedback while she was at work and her response was swift and filled with phrases that generally went like this: you are mean, you’re a jerk, you make assumptions, you’re rhetoric resembles the toxic rhetoric trafficked by Trump supporters, who are you, what is your goal with this piece, this feels personal, you sound angry and bitter, I’m not sure why you waste time on things you don’t value, I love you, sorry if this isn’t what you wanted to hear.

I started thinking about Poetry Rx in more depth when I saw Barbara well-up while reading a poem. (I was also thinking about Poetry Rx because I noticed the folks at Poetry Daily often promote it.) Anyway, Barbara loves discovering poems that move her because, as is true for me, the experience is so rare. Last week, however, she randomly pulled a book from the shelf, Peter Gizzi’s In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011, and opened it and as she settled into a poem picked for no other reason than that’s where her finger landed, she suddenly stopped reading mid-poem, looked up at me, and I saw that her perfect green eyes were filled with tears. I was immediately excited. She tried to continue reading the poem where she left off, but aloud this time so I could hear, yet by then she was already too choked-up, and we both laughed at her failure to get the rest of the poem out. It was a charming and lovely moment, the kind I won’t forget anytime soon, and I confess to privately wondering at the time: could I ever write a poem like that? (Probably not.)

Later, I thought about how uncommon it is to find a poem that can viscerally access the hidden structures of what makes us human; to find a poem that can suspend, however briefly, that elusive force that exists just beyond the reach of words and yet are somehow illuminated by them; that inexpressible feeling we’ve all had (but that’s unlocked differently for each of us) born out of the experience of reading a poem that shows us a new way to confront and accept the fact that we are driven to love and made to die. Out of the thousands of poems I’ve read, there’s only a handful I faithfully return to in order to access that uncanny feeling. All the others I either quarrel with or mildly appreciate, but almost always forget.

When I think about the poetry culture right now, how wed it is to online marketing and careerism (what Brandon Kreitler calls “competitive personhood”) and how aggressively it leverages the attention economy and engages in cross-platform nepotism without batting an eye, a deep melancholy seizes every inch of me and that melancholy sometimes frays into anger and unfortunately I write too often out of that anger instead of the melancholy. I regret this and recognize that I can be lacerating and indulgent and I don’t get a particular thrill out of putting divisive energy into the community. I am a person who’s been malfunctioning off and on (to varying degrees) my entire life and my love for this world and my love for the digital stranger is often disordered; my morals can seem as flawed as much as the morals of others seem cutting edge. But I labor to be better and like most people seek redemption within the privacy solitude affords.

Is Poetry Rx mostly harmless and written by people of charity and good faith? I’m not sure, I hope so, I think so. And yet for me Poetry Rx (and a lot of other platforms that fervently stage poetry) represent something I deeply reject: that the best way to encounter a poem is by asking for one in an email sent to advice@parisreview.org or at a daily poem website or through a tweet, Instagram pic or Facebook post. If we never saw a poem shared on social media again, I’m not only sure we’d be ok and poetry would be ok, but we might appreciate poems differently; we might be more inclined to pull a strange book from a shelf rather than casting lines into the infinite scroll or taking a pic of a book next to a comforting beverage, signaling to our followers to like what we like or to like the presentation of what we like. Every time I see a poem shared online, for whatever purpose, it offends that part of me that believes poems are too powerful to be handled this casually (and at the scale we see today). Just as much as I recognize being an asshole all the time is problematic, I also don’t think it’s good for our experience of poetry to be framed in such a way that we consume it like we do a Netflix show or YouTube video or meme or whatever. The poem is not an ordinary event—it sticks scandalously out of Nature like few things do—but more and more our poets, of all people, treat it like any other dumb object in the world, speaking publicly about it (almost always in outlandishly positive terms) with the same rhetoric we expect to find in five-star product reviews. The mediums through which we circulate poetry are not only designed to encourage quick public digestion of poems, but meant to seduce us into slick displays of excessive love (the kind Augustine and Dante warned us about) that distort—rather than nurture—the contemplative (and radical) life a poem attempts to cultivate.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828):

A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .

 

 

Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Experience In Groups (Wave Books, 2018)