What Use is Poetry? Featured Book – Tracings by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

In the Red Engine Press January 2006 newsletter, “Yardspinners and Wordweavers,” Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of Tracings, writes:”Auden thought the purpose of poetry is to disenchant. That, my reader, may be why I am not much for rhyme or pretty, though I do like food images, especially sweets. I prefer melancholy, wistful and if a song is sung, let it discord to keep the reader alert make him reconsider. Nursery rhymes are for nurseries, sunsets to be viewed firsthand from a bluff, preferably while holding hands with someone handsome. The tendons of the best poetry are politics, introspection, and the abominable snowmen among us tempered–occasionally–by a look back at where we’ve been. Oh, and irony. That’s better than tiramisu and latté for keeping people talking late into the night.”In the preface to One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929, editor Roy W. Cook talks about the great need for poetry in a modern industrial age.While the modern age, with podcasting and blogs, has made poetry more accessible, poetry is also considered frivolous–and certainly not lucrative. It’s a shame, because Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s poetry can make an air raid sound still and hushed. She can let us stand beside an uncle who smells of Barbasol and is on his way to war. The subtle message is clear: Stop. Pay attention. Listen.Most of us wrote poetry in high school that included protests against parents, petitions to teenage crushes, or the usual “my life stinks, what’s the meaning of it all” poems. As adults, we may dribble our wine-and-cappuccino-soaked angst onto the page. As private therapy, poetry often can’t be beat, and it certainly helped poet Dessa Byrd Reed heal after a car accident. But Reed turned her recovery writings into a passion for poetry that took her to China recently.Poetry is relevant in today’s text-messaging high-tech world, as evidenced by all the poetry Web sites. It speaks of love, as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets. It relates eternal epic truths, as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It captures the cry of a generation, as in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It reflects, as in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It makes a cinematic statement about freedom behind bars, as in the movie “Slam.” It speaks of the Divine, as in the poetry of Thich Nhat Hanh. I agree with Carolyn Howard-Johnson that poetry moves us–or it must, if we want to move others. Howard-Johnson’s poetry moved Compulsive Reader editor Magdalena Ball to name Tracings to The Compulsive Reader list of “Top Ten Reads of 2005.”Howard-Johnson pokes fun at portraits of poets on poetry magazines, but clearly loves poetry:”So long before you took up a pen, wrote pictures,
you imagined them in liquid blue, the stories of others,
your own.”It’s easy to get caught up in our own stories without understanding them. Howard-Johnson peppers her poetry with images of travel, not just global but time travel. She remarks in “Poetry, Quantum Mechanics and Other Trifles” that her critique group warns her she complicates her poems with too many layers:”my ingredients, they say, are concealed
behind an opaque pottery bowl;
their matrices misunderstood.
Children we are. No one tells
us the truth of such a grand
dessert.”The poet Rainer Maria Rilke pointed out the truths of existence in Sonnets to Orpheus, showing us that a young ballet dancer, dead, is not forever gone, but is not visible to us. That’s “the truth of such a grand/dessert.” That’s what poetry is about–revealing, evoking, describing, thought-provoking. Poetry connects the past with the present and future. Howard-Johnson can visit the historic, the war museum at Oslo, and reflect on war as it affected the world:”Norway’s fjords shed salty droplets
on faces like my father’s. Round faces. Eyes dilute-blue
like the pale skies above them. Men who foughtas Churchill’s voice crackled through smuggled vacuum
tubes.”Howard-Johnson considers war as it now affects her family:”Only days before
I reached this spur, I saw my grandson off to war, alone.
A sacrifice. A trade. For my father, who never marched.”We feel the sense of place in poetry, but place is fluid, as in Howard-Johnson’s work–a flight from LAX to Salt Lake City can take her through her own childhood home where her mother washed a slip every night. The unities of time and place in good drama or in a short story can be tweaked in poetry–although often the poet, like a painter, wants to concentrate attention on one time, one place, one concept. Good poetry can tell a story or capture a mood both ways.Dr. James Ragan, the director of the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program where I graduated in 1999, says in an interview quoted on the Master of Professional Writing Web site:”You want to challenge yourself. Ask yourself, is my time here going to have the meaning I need for it to have? Poetry has given me that meaning. But then I had to write on the level that allowed me to cross borders as well as time, and that’s the challenge of creation.”Ragan, like Howard-Johnson, strives for universal themes. The personal and the universal are not mutually exclusive. A poem may be peppered with personal details, but may capture a common history (World War II), the need for tolerance (a favorite theme in Howard-Johnson’s work), aging, the fear that a poet has started too late in life, which Howard-Johnson captures in “A Reel Left Running”:”Now age obscures images, pulled taffy,
whisked meringue, they melt, struggle to be named.So much there is to say, your craft left idle for years,
tools lay fallow, and now, now there is so little time.”With poetry, it’s not the output that matters–many college-age poets, and their older colleagues, produce reams upon reams of the same poem every time. William Wordsworth was never the same from poem to poem; Ginsberg went through poetic stages; Arlo Guthrie produced “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and the post-Katrina oft-played anthem “City of New Orleans.” Emily Dickinson’s poems have a common style, but are all different. While common themes and images (such as cooking and desserts, as she points out) thread themselves through Howard-Johnson’s chapbook, her poems don’t give you the sense that you’re hearing the same old same old over and over.Dessa Byrd Reed said it best during a writers’ night at Barnes and Noble in Palm Desert: “Poetry is the language of surprise.” The surprise in this modern world is that our language, with its profanities, “That’s hot” catchphrases, e-mail shorthand (not inspired by e.e.cummings) that inspired the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, makes room still for poetry and beauty.Does this mean a poem has to be deep and weighty to be meaningful or beautiful? You may have listened to pompous ponderous poems on The Meaning Of It All. Wolf Knight, a poet from Ann Arbor, Michigan, poked fun at dusty professors whose books sit unread in university libraries. While the classic poems may demand more of our time and attention, they make for easier reading than a twenty-page musing on the meaning of a fly on the wall (though a fellow poet and then-med student at the University of Michigan did produce an excellent poem about a fly.)Howard-Johnson’s poetry is meaningful and pleasurable to read…not only that, it actually makes us think, as she says, about who we’ve been and where we’re going. Poetry is enhanced by small details, but poetry itself is big.