UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
Susan Glickman. Personal Statement for Sudden Miracles
My four-year-old nephew telephoned me recently to ask "Auntie Susan, why is 'shampoo' called 'shampoo' when there's no poo in it?" My appreciative laughter was almost drowned out by his exuberance at having made such a good joke — this despite the fact that he doesn't know the word "sham" and therefore didn't realize how good the joke was! Eventually I told him that in India, where the term "shampoo" comes from, it doesn't have a funny sound like it does here, and that satisfied his curiosity. But it didn't diminish our mutual pleasure in the game of language.
For me, this is where poetry begins: not necessarily with bad puns, but always with appreciation for the sounds, rhythms, and connotations of words. So when people ask me, as they often do at readings, "When did you start writing poetry?" I just reply that it's not a question of starting, it's just that poets, unlike most people, never stop.
On the other hand, the American poet James Wright said somewhere "The kind of poetry I want to write is the poetry of a grown man." Well, I'm not a man, and I'm not "grown," but these reservations aside I share his goal. Play may be the work of childhood, but a more serious commitment is required of those who choose poetry as a vocation. What makes adult poetry, I think, is a sense of the complexity of being in time (and of being a being in one's particular times). History has to come in, and politics; the dirt under people's nails, their fists, their tenderness.
For women, whose lives have too often been shrouded in silence, this project has a special urgency. To attend to women's lives as if they mattered -- as if the daily business of half the world counted for something -- is something I try to do in my own work. And to do so is necessarily to unlearn inhibitions and reject prescriptions about what constitutes "poetic" material and whose voice is empowered to speak. Every poem involves a little dance between convention and improvisation, a negotiation for integrity. Like all traditional women's occupations it's work that goes largely unacknowledged and is never done.
This is why I don't consider myself "grown," to reprise Wright. To envision oneself as, in some way, finished, to impose closure, is a failure of the imagination. Individual poems may end but poetry does not. Poetry is a form of discovery that both observes and participates in the process of becoming; if it teaches us anything it is the multivalency of our experience. A single moment of feeling/ thinking/perceiving can be almost inexhaustible, and bafflingly full of contradictions. Perhaps this is why I enjoy puns so much -- they're the verbal equivalent of how the world feels to me.
So the poetry that pleases me best, while adult in its engagement with experience, still has something of a child's delight in the enchanted weirdness of language. The medium is never purely transparent; we don't see through language to "reality" but create a fictional reality, however tenuous, by the language we use. It has texture and colour; it grunts and sighs; we build stuff with it.
Any craft is a lifelong discipline, requiring respect for one's materials and an attention amounting, sometimes, almost to trance. How slowly one learns the sinews and joints of language, articulating its body with gesture and voice and breath! But how profound the pleasure when the line sings so one's nerves vibrate in sympathy! This is why I don't buy the current version of the Eden myth made fashionable by Lacan: that the acquisition of language results in a body/mind split betraying some prelapsarian infantile union with the cosmos. Far from being externally imposed, the drive to language appears to be innate. Even when there are no signing adults around to imitate, deaf babies "babble" as enthusiastically with their hands as hearing ones do with their mouths. There's a large area of our brains devoted just to language; anatomically, we're better evolved for talking to each other than we are for walking upright.
But why poetry? Because we don't just want to walk, we want to dance! We need more than exercise, we need to express and interpret the world around us. And poetry, as I suggested before, is a form of rapt attention which, in its double focus on world and word, helps to sharpen both. Sharp things hurt more, but they also shine. And you can see yourself in them.
Susan Glickman's works copyright © to the author.