The Trouble A Poet Is

The American poet, Gregory Orr, shot and killed his brother when he was twelve. It was an accident. In his book called Poetry as Survival he says: “Unbearable word, this ‘accident.’ Unbearable world.”

When Orr was eighteen he wrote a poem. “It changed my life,” he says.” I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was ‘magical,’ unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it.”

Orr goes further: “Everything I’ve learned… reinforces my own experience that the personal lyric [poem] helps individual selves, both writers and readers, survive the vicissitudes of experience and the complexities and anguish of subjectivity and trauma.”

Simply put, reading and writing poems can help make bearable an Unbearable world. A poem can bring to the surface images and memories that like some sub-surface event can shatter our lives as long as they stay buried but become far less dangerous when brought back into consciousness.

Orr say: “The contents of our minds are like an iceberg that is 90 percent below the waterline of silence – even we don’t know and can’t keep track of what is going on inside us.”

Now here’s the thing and in spite of seeing it happen to myself and hundreds of others I cannot easily explain it: our own words can access that hidden 90 percent and reveal us to our self. The act of writing can unlock a back door and our own buried secrets and treasure can come busting out.

Perhaps not surprisingly it was a recovering addict in one of my poetry workshops that gave me an even better metaphor to describe how poems break into and out of our hidden places. Triggered by his metaphor I wrote this poem:

The Trouble A Poet Is.

At a centre for recovering addicts,
a hollowed out place with echoes inside,
I come prepared with some twenty-sixers,
empty ones I want them to fill back up
with words; but with this proscription:
no mention of bottle or booze
of any description – Old Crow, Jim Beam,
Johnny Walker Red, or Maker’s 46.
At first, blind stares: the look of fish
too long in the net or, up from the depths,
spelunkers too long in a crawlway.
Then some words: my wife; a prison.
And this: A wrecking ball made of glass,
from the boy/man with his big-sass smile
and his tattooed swagger before he wrote.
I expected trouble but not this trouble:
the trouble a poet is. Their lies, the way
they upset the ordinary, the everyday;
describe a world farther away and nearer
than the one we think we know. Rilke
called poets Bees of the invisible. I am
thief and liar too, and call poets, their poems,
wrecking balls made of words. I drink
from these bottles all day, all night, long.

Through the writing of this poem, the poem gave me the answer I didn’t know I was looking for. An answer to what a poem is. For this poem, at least, it is a wrecking ball made of words. It busts down our facades and accepted notions of who we are and what the world is. Orr’s Unbearable world. Or this mysteriously constructive wrecking ball can smash apart the wreckage of a life and can clear a space to rebuild the story of a life from scratch.

I have watched as countless addicts recover a deeper sense of who they are by telling themselves back to themselves through a poem. And so often I notice the look of puzzled bewilderment as they recite their own words as if they are someone else’s.

Gregory Orr earned wisdom about poetry’s healing power is a powerful addition to a list of poets who see this efficacious by product of the “poem”. In the Summer 2010 issue of Image Orr says this: “The making of poems is the making of meanings. To write a lyric poem is to take the confusion and chaos inside you and translate it into words. Those words get organized onto a page; and if they’re being organized into a poem as opposed to a novel, they’re being highly organized into an intense pattern, a concentrated coherence. When you suffer trauma, you mostly do that passively, as a victim. But when you translate that experience into words and shape it, you become active. You are no longer a passive endurer of experience, but an active shaper of it. You’ve redeemed something from that chaos. Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone.”

Orr’s last sentence is worth repeating: “Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone.” This one sentence sums up for me, at least, why poetry is so effective with recovering addicts.

Orr is not only a wonderful apologist for poetry as healer but he is an inspirational poet as well. His last book of poems – How Beautiful The Beloved – is a glorious creation. The small mouthful-sized lyric wonders on each page display a poet with astounding spiritual and emotional depth.

To Be Alive

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…

If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

This is a good example of Orr’s recent poems which, as he says in Image, speak “clearly and directly – which isn’t something I used to aspire to when I wrote with more reliance on metaphors and images.

Here is another poem from Image:

Doesn’t the world demand
we dance?
Doesn’t it insist on it?
And why not?
At the leaves,
Look at the least blade
Of grass in the breeze.

None of them begs off
Or offers excuses.

None of them refuses.

Orr keeps reminding us that in spite of everything we must dance; we must sing; we must write poems! Here’s a last tasty morsel from Orr.

Poem that opened you –
The opposite of a wound

Didn’t the world
Come pouring through