I’m reading an old issue of American Poet. They tend to pile up, kind of like my New Yorker issues. Things that come frequently, or have intellectual density, often get lost under doing dishes, exercise, feeding birds. The necessary acts of daily life.
But the poem I just finished — Gary Snyder’s ‘Axe Handles‘ — reminds me that William Carlos Williams was right: It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.
If I go too long without poetry, it’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with…vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is ALWAYS useful — not simply ‘pretty,’ or even ‘literary.’ But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins.
Take ‘Axe Handles.’
Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, & physical ‘muscles’ are almost rusted tight. I can’t think like I could. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit…unnerving, to say the least.
The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel…well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel.
Snyder reminds me I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being what the next axe handle comes from.
How could I forget that? I’ve been a teacher for years! And even when I was a journalist before that, what is the role of news but to inform? To make it possible for us to learn from others?
I’m just the next dot in a line of dots — my mother & father, my grandmothers, my great-aunts, my mentors & the poets I love and the artists in various media who’ve touched me & shaped my life… The teachers I had, the writers who have laid themselves down as bridges over very troubled waters. Who knows what the ultimate pattern is?
Of course I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, and his Chinese translations. Plus it’s Snyder, whom I adore & revere. Once, at a reading the poet W.S. Merwin gave, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly there I was: connected to this flawed icon, whose work is still so influential to poets, by the man in front of me. One more (very minor!) dot in the line. Pound, Merwin, then each of us in that room who came to learn about our craft.
You need to read the poem yourself (I HATE the kind of teacher who is certain that s/he has the only ‘key’ to a piece of writing). But if you, like me, are feeling blue after the holidays, and a bit superfluous to those around you? It’s just the news you need.