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I often feel that my day to day experiences border between the routine and the ordinary. I’ve come to think of my attention to these rhythms as my training as a poet. By looking closely at daily passages I have learned something, I believe, about alertness and, I hope, about empathy and compassion and the metaphors the heart fashions from life.
For example, a couple of weeks back Wendy and I drove across the Willamette River here in Portland to take in the opera’s opening performance of Carmen. In addition to the flaming pink stockings sported by the bullfighter Escamillo in the closing act and the stunning sincerity of soprano Jennifer Forni’s Micaela’s Act III aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” the biggest pleasure for me came from Sandra Piques Eddy’s saucy “Habanera” done with a mezzo meets Pretty Woman sexiness:
What I take from the cheerful, lean fire in Sandra Piques Eddy’s signing is that she wants her Carmen to perform life, to exist without being overwhelmed by sadness, to maintain her empowerment if not her peace of mind, and to relate to the thrills of human nature, especially desire. Those traits—performance, empowerment, and thrill as factors of a good heart—are also, to my mind, signal aspects of the poet’s voice.
I’d already been thinking this way since last month when Wendy and I, while traveling to New York, saw La Traviata at the Met. There we lucked into the cataclysmically breathtaking triumph of Sonya Yoncheva’s Violetta. Coming out of the hall into the city that night we just couldn’t stop praising her shining voice, especially in the closing aria of Act II, “Amami Alfredo,” when Violetta abandons her lover Alfredo with her fatal, sacrificial act of love. Well I’ve been humming the aria ever since and, meanwhile, too, I read that James Jorden of the Observer calls Sonya Yoncheva’s Violetta “nothing short of magnificent” and Zachary Woolfe of the Times croons her arias were a “creation full of searching details.” More on all this in a moment.
Some of my friends have told that me that while poetry is good and all, it is not really very relevant. They say it doesn’t have much in the way of power or influence in the world. They claim that anger, greed, hatred, war, and all that and worse are too much a part of human nature, and that poetry barely comes out from under the domination of those other things.
I disagree. We human beings have existed with poetry for over a hundred thousand years. Despite all the wars, we find that human beings define themselves not by their aggressions and hatreds, though of course some do, but by their compassion and love. Violence so dominates the nightly news because it’s an aberration of the norm. We do not expect our police to kill suspects in custody, our soldiers to torture captured combatants, terrorists to bomb crowded cafes, adults to sexually abuse children, and so we are honestly shocked, and that becomes our village’s news. Acts of compassion intent on freeing others from suffering, including the communion promised in the gift of an individual poem presented to an individual reader, are taken for granted and basically ignored.
But poetry reminds us that human nature prefers the utterance of a single voice when it reveals our individual condition and our social bonds, and also when it expresses the general idea that human loneliness is not bearable. A poet’s scream of consciousness cries out for a human ear to listen closely—screams, cries out, and also whispers, protests and also interrogates, rebuts, apologizes, exclaims, proclaims, or vows, and more. What I mean is, a poet depends on others.
This shared alertness between poet and listener becomes evident if we consider our own existences. I mean, we are dependent on others for companionship, friendship, love, food and shelter. If I were to depart from the course of my daily living and remove myself to some remote existence, say, in the forest, no matter how capable I was, no matter how well I might survive for a time, I would still long for human connection. I might connect with the birds, the animals, the plants, the trees, and ferns, and sky, but this would not be the same as another human being and the sharing of our human stories with our voices, including our literary voices.
Poetry is an art spoken, as if sung, in relation to other human beings.
Which brings me back to Violetta. At the end of Act II she gets caught in the illusion that she can be separate from her lover Alfredo and still exist in love even though she seems to know in her heart, all the while, that her sacrifice will kill her. Her broken cry “Amami Alfredo” is sung after Alfredo has found her writing a letter of farewell to him. I know she’s writing a letter. But I sometimes like to think of her letter as a kind of poem, just in the form of a letter, and the aria that follows as the essence of that poem. Anyway she’s writing to Alfredo to say she is leaving him after Alfredo’s father implores her to do so. In “Amami Alfredo” Violetta tries to release her psyche of the love she cherishes and tries also to abandon the fulfillment of her aspirations. “Amami Alfredo” defines her and Alfredo and the world in that moment just as the utterance of a poem defines poet, speaker, and listener inside the passages of existence. The aria contains her being, and, like a poem, it unfurls the voice of her consciousness:
Di lagrime aveva d’uopo –
or son tranquilla –
lo vedi? Ti sorrido – lo vedi?
Sarò là tra quei fior presso a te sempre.
Amami, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo.
I needed tears –
now I feel better –
See? I am smiling at you – see?
I shall always be here, near you, among the flowers.
Love me, Alfredo, love me as much as I love you.
In these lines I see Violetta’s capacity to release her psyche—just as a poet does through a poem. And her utterance is dependent upon Alfredo’s presence.
Of course the lyrics from a libretto are a wee bit nude without hearing them sung with the orchestration of the music, and I know an aria and a poem are different and meant to be so. Yoncheva’s scream of consciousness is…well, her voice soars on the first note with overflowing tenderness and then cascades into a feral imperative—“Amami” / “Love me”—and then she cradles and clings to his name—“Alfredo…” Then Violetta’s voice takes flight a second time, now as a lament for her sacrifice for love and also as an alarm to lovers everywhere—“Amami, quant’io t’amo” / “love me as much as I love you.” This is followed by a hard intake of breath like a gasp, and finally she repeats it all over again in one extended ululation as a fierce, empowered, heartsore twenty-second-long sob. Listen—
This all-consuming utterance of Violetta’s is the sort of, if you will, poem I am most attracted to, where you can sense that all events in life are interconnected, when the intertwined fate of others is acknowledged so that an individual person on her own can’t conceive of herself or be conceived of separate from the existence of other human beings. If there were no one to relate your experiences to, you’d simply be echoing your own mind.
I see this connection and communion of consciousness as fundamental to poetry. When Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks to his feelings of utter self and utter awareness of self, he asserts a yearning for connection:
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
When Marina Tsvetaeva addresses the night, she does so as a member of a tribe and a nation:
In the dark
midnight, under the ancient trees’ shroud
We gave you sons as perfect as night, sons
As poor as the night
And the nightingale chirred
We never stopped you, companions for marvelous hours
Poverty’s passions, the impoverished meals we shared
The fierce bonfire’s glow
And there, on the carpet below,
When Tomas Tranströmer considers his individuality, he understands his passages of daily life lead him to the existence of others:
We walk in the sun in hundreds.
Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.
The endless ground under us.
The water is shining among the trees.
The lake is a window into the earth.
When C.D. Wright considers the mysteries of time, she accepts the human connections that exist here and the capaciousness of our shared, everyday emotions:
Mystery, mystery and a curse.
The watery grave. Take the boneman’s hand.
Is that your can slashing through the grass.
Deepstep come shining.
If I shell those beans for you, will you cook a mess for me.
There goes Hannah behind that cloudlet.
They hung in there when I was broke and sorry.
They hung in there when I was mean and nasty.
They hung in there when I was drunk and strung out.
They hung on in.
When Lucille Clifton imagines the beginning of names, she includes the future:
of the things
bloom in my mouth
my body opens
When Yves Bonnefoy considers the natural world, he sees it as a correspondence with the lives that are missing but always present to him:
A letter that we find and unfold
And the ink on it has faded and in the marks
The clumsiness of the wit is visible
Which can only muddle up its sharp shadows.
And we try to read, we don’t understand
Who is interested in us in memory,
Except that it’s summer again; and we see
Under the flakes the leaves, and the heat
Rise from the missing sun like a mist.
When Vénus Khoury-Ghata wonders what words are, she knows the meanings of words come from their usages:
they grip each other with a cry
expand into lamentations
become mist on the windows of dead houses
crystallize into chips of grief on dead lips
attach themselves to a fallen star
dig their hole in nothingness
breathe out strayed souls
Words are rocky tears
the keys to the first doors
they grumble in caverns
lend their ruckus to storms
their silence to bread that’s ovened alive
I could go on. Here are examples of clear, enriching poetry as consciousnesses in extremis, utterances to the world in full ecstasy of the imprint of their minds to be heard by someone predisposed to listen and intent on sharing the rhythms of existence. Without this fostering of interdependence, a poet’s voice risks its own dissolution. But it’s through the compassionate scream of consciousness—”Amami Alfredo”—that poems unite us.