“If poetry is therapy, then it’s electroconvulsive shock therapy.”

“If poetry is therapy, then it’s electroconvulsive shock therapy.”

Click here to read “Sunday School”

“Sunday School” was a poem occasioned by the memory of a unique smell. In this case, the smell of my mother’s saliva as she spit-cleaned me in the car before church. Then I remembered the smell of the heavily varnished chairs in Sunday School (think of chewing the enamel off of tinker toys). Followed by the odor of the slick plasticized seats of her Oldsmobile. Bam, bam, bam. And from there, the poem came to life. I actually think that smell is my most developed sense. I’ve always been “olfactory”. When I think of San Francisco (where I once lived), I think of the smell of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Geneva, Switzerland comes to life whenever I smell a certain brand of soap. I still can’t smell the ionized deliciousness of new rain without remembering my childhood backyard in Houston. And don’t ask me about horseshit. Horseshit is almost orgasmic for me, primarily because of my lifelong involvement with horses and my association of horses with the first girl I ever kissed. These kinds of memories aren’t what make us; they are, in a very real sense, what unmakes us. Poetry is like that. It forces us to see life as it is, not as we are. On the other hand, the problem with “seeing life as it is” is that, well, you see life as it is. But at the same time, seeing life as it is (and not as we hope or believe it to be), is always a profoundly moral act.  

The creative process is still a great mystery to me. Where do the words come from? It’s one of those things I try not to think too hard about. I worship at the temple of the lightening bolt. Best not to ask too many questions. And Zeus gets pissed off pretty easy. Self-consciousness is the kiss of death for poets. I’d like to think I’m as startled as the reader when the words suddenly (and gratuitously) appear. Why would I take a road if I knew where it was going? Where poetry comes from is part of “not knowing”, that world (or life) which now and then breaks through for no other reason than to slap us around and cut us down to size. I don’t really believe in self-discovery. If poetry is therapy, then it’s electroconvulsive shock therapy. Having made its mark, good poetry is more like self-erasure. Just as the first cigarette of the morning isn’t the one that kills you, getting up every morning and going about your humdrum everyday life doesn’t seem to be stultifying. It’s comforting—and yet!

 

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