Catching the light

Every few years some aspiring provocateur takes a run at poetry.

We poets, with barely our quill pens to protect us, quiver. Or not.

The latest brave university professor to take a run at us is Mark Edmundson, in a Harper’s magazine article ‘Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.’ I recently read the hard copy. Online, it’s behind a paywall but Google will find you enough pieces and responses to give you a good sense of Edmundson’s angry charge through the ranks.

Among the good professor’s complaints are that contemporary poets are not contemporary enough, that we don’t use important cultural reference points such as “the TV show, the fashions, the Internet.” He makes a shaky case that poets aren’t bold enough, don’t try to create a comprehensive vision of the world, and don’t address big political and cultural questions. We are too small, it seems.

Apparently it has not occurred to the studied professor that poets in fact may be pointing to something “bigger” when they point us to the small and the seemingly unimportant. When Mary Oliver, in her classic poem ‘Summer Day,’ invites us to look at a grasshopper – one particular grasshopper – 

“the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

– is it possible that she is in fact making a revolutionary political statement? Is she not, through her years of consistent focus on the small but complex and complicated lives in our world, telling us that we pay too much attention to TV, fashion, Internet? Taking the long view, which will seem more important 200 years from now – the grasshopper, or Kim Kardashian?

Edmundson is also an unfortunate victim of the “great writer” mythology that yearns for some singular scribe to bring the whole of it, all of life experience, together into one package, one canon. Something that can be put on the university course outline, pointed to. “Here, this is it. Read it and ye shall be wise.”

Pausing at Matheson Lake.

Pausing at Matheson Lake.

I was thinking these thoughts as I biked, yesterday, through Matheson Lake Regional Park on Vancouver Island. On a sunny September day under a dome of clear blue, the tall stands of Douglas Fir caught the light up high and broke it into streams. On the way to the ground it lit leaves of Broadleaf Maple as if they were neon powered, then tumbled further, splashing on fronds of ferns along the forest floor. Along fallen trunks ran thick weaves of moss and even the island rock sported patches of green lichen. 

 Forest light  (image: Morguefile)

Forest light
(image: Morguefile)

There are many ways of catching the light. Each plant reaches for the light in its own way.

The same might be said for poets. And some university English professors, I would suggest, need to find new ways of looking for the light that poetry sheds on our world.

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