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in defense of poetry, with apologies to Percy Shelley

I spent about six weeks this semester teaching and talking about poetry with my students.  Almost to a person, they started the term with “eh…I don’t much like poetry,” and “I don’t get poetry,” and “what the hell is poetry even about, anyway?”

All reasonable questions, I guess, for students who have grown up in a world where they almost never encounter poetry, other than in song lyrics or spoken-word events.  Poetry, they tell me, is intimidating; it doesn’t make sense; it’s too complicated; it’s weird.

Full disclosure: I spent most of high school and all of college writing poetry. Whenever I’d get too philosophical during those late-conversations about Life that seem only to happen between the ages of 18-22 and only between the hours of 12-4AM, my friends would say “oh go write a poem,” as a way to get me to be quiet.

I kept writing poetry even after college—-poetry workshops, sending things off to magazines, the whole deal—-and stopped only when I got to graduate school, which pretty much thrashed every creative bone out of my body. Took me decades to get the graduate school’s pinched-face editor in my head to stop saying things like “maudlin!” “derivative!” and “you call that writing?”

All of which is to say is that although I knew my students wouldn’t be excited about spending all this time reading poetry, I was looking forward to spending time with words, nothing but words.  Someone said once that poetry is language calling attention to itself, and while I think poetry can be much more than that, that idea isn’t a bad place to start.  Poetry gives us a chance to think about how words feel in our mouths and sound out loud; poetry’s language works by compressing, distilling, wringing an experience or idea to a kind of essence that works on us in ways that we might not ever really understand.

We roamed through Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” in which a gun transforms to a spade transforms to a pen in the hand of the poet; we looked at John Donne’s “Batter my heart three person’d god,” in which faith becomes a kind of ravishment, a physical experience; we talked about the bleak beauty in some of Anna Akhmatova’s lines; and marveled at the incandescent anger of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”  The students put aside “it’s weird,” or perhaps, actually, they began to embrace the weird; they let themselves roam around inside the poems and not insist on absolute meanings.  And I got, perhaps, a little carried away by the whole thing and put a sign on my office door that said “Today’s Poem,” and then every day, I would post a new poem — a famous poem, an obscure poem, prose poem, haiku, nabati lyric — all kinds of poems.

One of the poems I put on my door is Ezra Pound’s imagist poem about being in the French Metro, called, fittingly, “In a station of the metro.”  It reads like this:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black    bough.

And yes, that’s what it looks like on the page, and yes, that’s the entire poem.  And yes, it’s a little weird.

But you know? Think about being in a crowded subway station, on a rainy day. Think about the blur of faces. Now think about the blur of wet, say, cherry blossoms on a dark branch.

See?

In his essay “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley (every time I say his name in class someone giggles, and I totally get it), said “Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”

I guess the student who scrawled this comment at the bottom of the Pound poem wanted to live in a world governed entirely by reason. That strikes me as incredibly limited, and not a little bit sad.

IMG_7485Doesn’t make sense. Quit wasting paper.

Continue Reading · on November 13, 2013 in Books, Education, language, NaBloPoMo, reading, teaching, writing

water, water, everywhere…

Abu Dhabi, the city, is a bit like Manhattan, in that technically it’s an island, but it’s easy to forget that fact when you’re wandering in the maze of skyscrapers and multi-lane roads. Where Manhattan has New York Harbor, Abu Dhabi has the Arabian Gulf along one edge, and then a series of creeks and canals that separate the city from the mainland.

And then, of course, once you wander away from the Gulf and over the creeks, it’s just desert. Sand blurring out to the horizon, a view that’s vaguely oceanic in size and scope except that it’s, you know, dry.  In fact, in photos of old Abu Dhabi (and keep in mind that “old” here means 1956, 1963, 1971) the desert reaches right up to the ocean’s edge, with roads cut through the sand.

image source

When you’re in the city now, it’s easy to forget, at least briefly, that you’re in the middle of the desert – at least until you realize that the slightest breeze blows fine sandy grit onto every surface.

In attempts to create the illusion of an oasis, the city has built grassy parks with shady walks; there are palm trees and flowerbeds around most of the public buildings; and everywhere there are fountains.

Big public “art” fountains:

And little fountains that spurt out of the bike path with no warning:

And fountains half-hidden from public view:

 

None of the water (that I tasted, anyway) seemed like salt water. I don’t know if the fountains run with the same desalinated water that comes through the pipes and that is in the process of wrecking my hair (see here for why, but suffice it to say that if we stay here for a long time, I’ll be wearing full hijab because I’ll be bald).

The fountains are beautiful, and they, along with all the green plantings do create the illusion that I’m living in an oasis city, not a desert outpost.

But all the irrigating, the endless miles of hoses and water-lines that criss-cross the city to feed the fountains and gardens…It comes at a price: desalinating is hideously expensive and ultimately damaging to the environment, not only because of the drain on the original water source but also because of what’s done with the chemicals used to treat the water and render it drinkable.  The UAE leads the world in water consumption, despite having so little of it.

The water everywhere makes me wonder if what’s really on display is wealth: you can’t really beautify public space with a crude-oil fountain but the oil pays, in a sense, for all these displays of water-fed beauty.

If the water dries up (or the oil), the sand comes back; it will cover the fountains and the flowerbeds. It’s like the ending of “Ozymandias,” Shelley’s warning about imperial over-reaching and the dangers of believing too deeply in the permanence of your own creations: Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

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Continue Reading · on November 27, 2012 in environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, Politics, UAE, Uncategorized, urban nature

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