Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



June 2010

"I believe that is the purpose of a poem---to give shape, in a concise and memorable way, to what our lives feel like. In this way, poems help us to notice the world more and better, and they enable us to share with others, who may still be looking for the right words, the words we have found, through art, to express many of the deepest and subtlest aspects of our experience."


Jonathan Holden, Poetspeak in their work, about their work: A selection by Paul B. Janeczko. Bradbury Press, New York.

Communication = Zero

Dear Reader,

I stood in front of the painting by Norman Lewis, entranced with the dancing greens, blues, reds and whites. Its colors and shapes implied "landscape," in the way abstract paintings can. If a time of day could be detected, it could have been night. Its title, "Evening Rendezvous," was not enlightening, but I admired the piece and moved on.

I purchased the exhibition catalog, "Modernism and Abstraction: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" and learned a very important lesson. Pages 52 and 53 showed "Evening Rendezvous" and jolted me with its story.

Norman Lewis was an American Civil Rights activist who made the painting in 1962. The catalog stated that the work was "almost impressionistic in its stippled blocks of color and diffusion of form. Looking closer, we see this is not a pastoral landscape. It's a bird's eye view of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. The dominant colors are red, white and blue. Does the red area signify burning campfires or symbolize flowing of blood?"


The experience made me think about how artwork (painting or poem) presents itself silently, without context. The first moment the viewer/reader is left to decipher the work without added information. Left to our own devices, we construct meanings based on our knowledge or simply enjoy color and movement, as I did looking at "Evening Rendezvous." If there is enough of an aesthetic pull (a.k.a. excitement, engagement), we linger in front of the artwork or reread the poem.

I learned the lesson again recently when I brought an early draft of a poem to my monthly poetry response group. There are five of us and each gets twenty minutes for our poem. The format we use is: the poet reads it once, then distributes copies, one of us reads it, then we spend time in silence, jotting notes. Verbal response begins with each of us telling something we noticed, and occasionally identifying its "center of gravity." Peter Elbow's classic Writing Without Teachers provided the roots for our response format. At that point, we open up to expand on our first impressions of the poem and offer suggestions.

When my turn came, I began by reading my poem. Twenty minutes later, a brief summary of the response is reflected in the title of this month's journal: Communication = Zero. Nobody "got it." What in the world was I trying to say? Here's the poem, with a few minor changes since that evening:

I look good in

my sleeveless black linen sheath
blue scarf looped around my neck
earrings fresh from the museum shop

proceeding through my personal lift-off
ignoring the need for a rocket
or some cocoon for my body

careening upward, away from earth,
I feel the loop loosening on my scarf
I must look like a cipher in the sapphire sky

a speck in search of a cloud
the air getting thin, the temperature dropping
it will be over soon

After response time, everyone passed my poem back to me. The next morning, I read the notes they had made. All except one had in some way "gotten it." The word "death" appeared here and there, but no one had really pursued the idea in the discussion. I felt more satisfied. Perhaps too generously, I revised my rating of the poem's communication = zero to a 2.

Here is the story of the poem:

John and I were driving home from visiting a friend who was on her deathbed. I noticed that Mars and Venus were outdoing each other in brightness. In fact, I thought Mars was Venus when I first looked. Then I saw Venus! It was a light show that I remembered when we got in the door and listened to the message that our friend had just died.

That night, I couldn't sleep. Those of you who have spent hours in bed, unable to sleep, understand how your brain drifts around, catching on the concerns of the day. I thought about my friend and what it could feel like to die. Poets and very depressed people tend to think about these things regularly.

I thought about the news that day: one of the final space shuttles was launched. It happened with a roar and an ascending column of light.

Then I found myself trying to come up with an outfit to wear to an event this June. I settled on the dress (black linen), shoes (black, if I cannot find gray), jewelry (fabric earrings purchased from the shop at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City).

I realized that I could be laid out in this outfit and knew that a poem had arrived. My duty was to invite it in and find out more.

When it came time to write this month's journal, I found Jonathan Holden's comment on the purpose of a poem. I used it as my opening quotation, because it presented a standard for which I could begin to measure my failure.