By James DenBoer
A friend of mine is outraged. So outraged, she's told me this same story more than once, and told it publicly at readings of her poems.
A professor at a University of California campus told her that all poems have to do with the Resurrection of Christ. I can see why she's outraged, even years later. (And so much for the myth of UC professors being atheistic communist terrorists.)
But I think I can understand why someone would say such a thing, and not only because it's exactly the approach to poetry I was taught at my own Calvinist college.
To give the professor the benefit of the doubt, I think he meant to say that all poems are about transcendence of some sort; that the Resurrection was a metaphor for that larger meaning. I'd still argue with his "all poems," but even then half-heartedly.
Many poems are about new life, rebirth, arising from the death of love or battened sensibilities or choked opportunities, breaking into something new and rewarding, meaningful, valuable, liberating. And many standard metaphors clinch that meaning: flowers blossoming, rivers crashing into the sea, the joys of sex, the changing seasons; the list is long, and often used as well in religious discourse.
But not all poems are about new life. Many are about day-by-day life, whether it's looking at the birches in your backyard or noticing the bearshit on the trail. Some are about wounds, crimes, injustice, racism, poverty, war and bad love. Or about back-breaking or mind-breaking labor, welding Hummer frames or making a line of a poem sing. About all the misfortunes and indignities and hurt we suffer. But somehow, stupid humans, we all hope it will be a little easier, and believe it will, someday. As if we might be "resurrected."
I think the professor meant to offer this kind of interpretation, too: whatever a poem is about, the satisfying beauty of nature or the despairing ugliness of much of life, the poem itself is an artifact that celebrates and ameliorates; that the poem as poem is an exemplar of rebirth. I don't so much mean that the poem says this: but that the poem dares to speak, it opens with any word at all and ends with any word at all, and the getting from that first word to the last is a story about and a story of the poem's own progress toward birth; that it moves from blank-page death to formed life, by its own nature. The poem is a living example of resurrection, perhaps, as it, word by brickish word, finds some way to make itself live.
But that can be too easily feigned; I'm also of the opinion that poems ought not to end there, telling you they are alive and you ought to be too. I'd like to write poems that don't end at all: too many poems have punch-lines, as if they were jokes, shaggy-dog stories. Why are good lines often held until last; why do poems "wrap up"? I'm fighting and so far failing to write many (or any) poems that don't "end," that stay open, that leave the reader hanging, that don't essay answers but more questions, that remain mysterious. But that's just me, and also the many poets who feel the same way, all of us struggling to keep poems from closure.
And transcendentalisticism is of course not closure; it is not a metaphysical or logical system that cranks out an answer; it is more of an opening, an opening of the eye, the circle that Emerson celebrated. And that long word isn't even a word, just my own neologism for professorial stuffiness. "Falling" is a word I like instead, much simpler, and the thought that falling is in fact rising.
But the glib shut-the-door statement of my friend's professor, even to grant him a metaphor to mean something larger, is disheartening, because constrictive, banal, too stuffed with a Big Answer, which is the death of poetry. That's what made her so mad all these years; a stupid professor, not a stupid idea.
James DenBoer's newest book is Stonework: Selected Poems, from Sandra McPherson's Swan Scythe Press. He has had grants and awards from the International Poetry Forum, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council on the Arts, the Authors' League and other institutions. DenBoer lives in Sacramento, California.