Friday, August 22, 2014

At the Heart of Poetry

As a college student just beginning to write poems, I heard Nina Cassian, a Romanian poet granted political asylum in the US, state her belief that poets should write the world's history books. Her statement shocked me. I was uncertain what she meant then, but as I've thought about it over the years, read and written more poetry, I've come to understand. 

Poems don't necessarily record the precise details of a person, event or place. Instead, they isolate a moment and shine a flashlight into its heart. In this way, poetry exposes emotion before it reaches the intellect, and moves the reader to discover the experience in new, perhaps more poignant ways.

For me, the process begins with the need to give voice to something internal, something I feel, but can't fully recover. Poems grow out of that moment of feeling and capture an energy that must transform itself into words. As the triggering moment transpires, I often know that I will write a poem about it. Sometimes the poem comes immediately. Other times it takes months or even years to find me. But in those moments of discovery, when I learn things I didn't know I knew, poetry is magic.

I suspect most poems are triggered by the poet's personal history and beliefs. And while they are filled with inventions of the imagination, poems tell a truth the family albums and history books often omit.  Poetry resonates. In its afterglow, the reader is forced to refocus and clarify her feelings.

As part of our rituals of birth, death, memory and healing, poetry is the language of hope. At times I read poetry with the hope it will inspire me to write better metaphors in my fiction. But there are other times when I come to poetry on my knees, hopeless, when I can find no other source of solace. 

A few years back, both my oldest and youngest brothers died within three months of each other. One was fifty-four, the other thirty-eight. When nothing comforted me, I read poetry. I read until I found what I needed in Mary Oliver's poem, Wild Geese. Her images gave me a fresh vision and conveyed hope far more profoundly than any statement of sympathy or encouragement had. Listen to her read it and you'll see what I mean.

We all have times of despair. But the world goes on. Our personal and community histories are written. And if we are still alive, like the wild geese, we have a voice in them.

Nina Cassian wasn't suggesting the facts of history be omitted. Only that we find a way to enter them on a deeper emotional level. We all know the gruesome fact that six million people were killed in the Holocaust. But only Speilberg's poetic impulses could shine a flashlight into the heart of that terrible time, illuminating one little girl in a bright, red coat.
And that, is why I love and write poetry. 

Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest where she received a thousand dollar prize. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Susan's novels are currently represented by Elizabeth Kracht of the Kimberly Cameron Agency. 

Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. Prior to moving to Oregon and writing full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. 

Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more books than one person could count. 


Sue Coletta said...

I never thought of poetry like that before. Thank you for opening my eyes.

Eliza Cross said...

"Poetry is the language of hope" - beautiful. Thank you for so transparently sharing your thoughts about why you write, Susan.

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Susan, I loved these lines: 'Nina Cassian wasn't suggesting the facts of history be omitted. Only that we find a way to enter them on a deeper emotional level.' My guess is that if poets did write history books we would see a fairer and more accurate accounting of the events. Every time you write a post I feel like I know who you are--that's good writing. Thanks.

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

My pleasure, Sue. I'd tI think we writers are all a little schizophrenic. One of the many things I like about blogging with the prose cons is the way we are opening up to each other on so many different levels. My life feels richer because you are all it now. Thanks