Living in the World: One Word At a Time
Kelly Riggle Hower
Can poetry help build a culture of peace and non-violence in the world? The odds are good that I believe in the power of poetry. Aside from the fact that I wouldn't speak on "United Nations World Poetry Day" with a nay to this question, I would not bother to write poetry if I didn't know it to be part of the weave that makes the world whole. I write poetry because it makes me part of the world, works me in more closely to the lives happening all around me at any given moment. As I describe the smell of a culturally revered food like West African peanut soup in its smoky, hearty, pumpkin-studded richness I bring into the room a whiff of the red clay and wood fire scent of a landscape both harsh and delicate, of a village both wounded and intact. When I tell you about a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter at the little drive through espresso stand across from Ballard High School, it matters that the girl's Viking blonde shows only at the roots of her flat-black dyed hair. These are only true renderings about food and mother/ daughter fights in the general to the degree that they are rooted in the truth of their specifics. By writing about their specifics, trying to separate what is so about this village or these women from what is generally accepted, I come to know them a little.
Poets write for different reasons, but almost all of us believe we have something to say that will connect us with a reader "out there." We write in the belief that someone is reading, and that we may clarify or reveal a moment or an object. And when that happens, an individual reader is connected not only with the poet but with the real world. Even Emily Dickinson, that most private of poets, slipped her poems to a revered and trusted reader or two. We do not write in a vacuum but in a world that is changed a little by the act of our writing even the most forgettable poem, because we change ourselves through the poems we write, and become ourselves more deeply. Like Wallace Stevens' jar placed on a Tennessee hillside, our poems are containers for all that happens wild and slovenly and senseless around us. Poems are our audacious attempts to make sense of the world, and even to change it. We invite our readers to be changed along with us. Because poems share more with dreams than with essays they can sneak up on us and open us in ways that carefully constructed arguments cannot. Langston Hughes' poems sat themselves down at Whites Only lunch counters long before the 1960's. With his poem "I, Too, Sing America," Hughes delivered his readers a rock rolled up in a flag:
I, too, sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes.
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Hughes' poem changed the vision of many of its white readers because it showed them not only the beauty of their flag but of the rock he'd wrapped inside it. He invited white outsiders to be insiders in his world, taking the chance that some would see him as not only "other" but as part of the real world in which they lived.
My friend Esther Helfgott raised a question I've thought about almost continuously for the past three months. In an open forum before the December "It's About Time" reading, she asked whether any of us were finding ourselves writing differently after the September 11th plane crashes. Did we feel like insiders or outsiders in our attempts to respond to that, and in general when we sat down to write a poem? I keep wrapping my brain around that. Insider or outsider? Esther talked about her sense of herself as both an outsider and an insider. She recognizes that she is outside the economic and political "inside" track of institutional power and yet has things in her life which give her more protection that someone living on the street. From this place of being in between "inside" and "outside" she tells stories about her own life and the lives of others that most folks in this country would consider "outsiders." While looking at this view of inside and outside, I found myself questioning the very definition of those words. Another way of defining "insider" is as a term for those of us who visit or infiltrate the lives of others; and in that way Esther is most certainly an insider, as are all poets with respect for their job of writing about life in this world.
It's through poetry that I spend a moment being someone else, inside their skin and life, knowing them through all the particulars that separate us. It's through poetry that a reader knows me, knows I eat basil as a vegetable, that I hid behind trees once while following my future husband and working up my courage to say yes to his invitation to coffee. That I was a spy in the world of dogs during my daughter's toddler years. That I fear tight spaces and love Johnny Cash, and once spent time in a small closet humming a Johnny Cash song while my father helped me achieve partial cure for my claustrophobia. These are small things, mostly symbolic, and yet passkeys all the same.
Poetry is our passkey into being someone else. It is someone else's passkey into being me, if I write the poem well. And maybe through me, or you, or any poet willing to step into the fray that is the world, a reader might find that a tiny African country like Sierra Leone is not just "war-torn" and other cliches of the 6:00 news. It's a real place where people cook dinner and rock their babies, court their husbands and wives, and care for their aging parents. It is also a place where people find a way back into the village for young men who cut off their countrymen's hands. Maybe we could sit together in a place where we know our relationship to Sierra Leone on several levels, telling the stories of the diamonds we have worn on our hands from Sierra Leone via Antwerp. Stories that carry the threads linking past and present in the continuing relationship between Sierra Leone and our own lives.
For a decade the chaos in Sierra Leone has included senseless brutality that westerners often expect from a part of the world so "other" it is called "the third world." Ironically, the rebels' recent propensity for cutting off hands of people previously living quiet lives in their villages was likely learned from Belgium's King Leopold. One hundred years ago he conducted a reign of terror in the Congo and other parts of Central and West Africa in the pursuit of what he called "civilizing" these people while motivating them to extract maximum profits from their homeland for him. He captured Sierra Leoneans and other peoples from all over Africa to work on his railroad and rubber plantations in the Congo, using the severing of hands among his variety of motivational techniques. This is abstraction to you, and to me, except for the power of the two words, "Hamidu's cousin." My friend Hamidu's cousin had his hand cut off when the diamond-funded rebels came to his village. Like so many things we can't really believe on the news, we can believe the poem that tells the story not of millions but of one. Since my Peace Corps days twenty years ago, I have known that the desertification of the Sahel can never be as real as the names of my friends there. Jalloh, Kortor, Sumaila, Fatu. And when we have sat with these names and these people and these stories, we will know about the real life of someone half a world away. We will recognize that the best of "them" like the best of "us" know that we are all somehow part of "we." And we can stop asking, "Why do they hate us?" as if all Islamic people are "they," and with a false sense of innocent detachment from the actions of our leaders.
Poetry invites us to work for peace through the experience of being disquieted, through the awakening of our passions. War and violence are often presented as the outcomes of passion, but they are at least as much the outcome of apathy. We are more likely to treat with peace and reverence a world that feels like our world. And we can't feel much passionate connection with and responsibility for someone a world away with a difficult name if we can't even name our own passions. Our work everyday is to do what my father-in-law once called "earning our citizenship in the world." We do that by teaching ourselves and our children to know and respect our own sacred things. Through this they can begin to know and respect what is sacred to people in other places. "Other places" might be parenthood to those with no children, or the experience of being a man, if you are a woman, or the experience of being someone who does not take her food out of the refrigerator but cooks it on the fire twice a day. To visit these people in other places, we must take language seriously. Every word counts, and there is no language better than poetry for placing value on every word.
In my student teaching this fall I worked with a remarkable classroom teacher who knows the value of sacred words in children's lives. She uses a method to teach reading that brings children to the "Words Table" every day, where she asks them to tell her an important word they've been thinking about lately, a word that is about something they love specific to them and their life. This way of teaching reading and writing was adapted by a Seattle reading specialist and teacher Katie Johnson, based on Sylvia Ashton Warner's teaching of Maori children. Warner observed that her Maori students were bright children with lots to say who didn't find that printed books spoke to them or their lives at all, so she helped them write their own books, word by word. Maybe their word would be "mother" or "father," maybe "taro" or "fish" for something they'd learned to plant or catch the day before. The words were at the heart of their lives and who they were. As they traced the magic of the letter shapes with which their teacher represented the most important things in their lives, they began to claim writing as their own.
My experience with most western children is very much the opposite. Many of the children even in preschool know their letters and even a few words. Their struggle is often not with the world of letters and reading, but with a sense of attachment to their own personal world. When I invited children to tell the word they loved, many did not know at first what they liked, or they could not tell it to someone. They could tell the cultural words that linked them to children's marketing, words like "Pokemon" and "Beanie Babies." But it was the children most outside school learning who described their world in words like "Carpathia" (a boat sent out to rescue "Titanic" passengers) or "brother" for the little brother entering preschool for the first time that day. Eventually all the children in our class could tell their word and why "dragon," or "fish" or "love apple" was their own word, special to them. This work we did at the "Words Table" was a daily way of reflecting upon and honoring each child's personal world. They came to look at the words they shared with awe as if at the sacred -- not only their own words but at their friend's piece of well-handled paper emblazoned with the word "nematode."
We can't expect children or ourselves to live in and love the world in general, until we fully inhabit and love our specific worlds, our individual lives. It is through this placement in our own world, this making whole of our selves, that we can make the leap of faith and imagination, in poetry and life, to envision the world of another.