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Poetry as a Survival Technique

Thomas Fitzsimmons

What's going on? How shall I respond?
     — These are the basic survival questions. Unless the answers come from our most evolved self they are likely to be inadequate. And we may perish. Singly, and as a species.
     We do not deal directly with reality. We deal with a model of reality that we keep inside our heads. Each culture provides a different one. Whatever the model, it is constantly being challenged and constantly needs to be changed. It is useful to consider our experience of the real as a fluid intermixture of the strange and the familiar. And to become as easy with surprise as we are with recognition.
     Responding to this mixed reality, our minds have two ways of working with symbols. One is analysis, the other is imagination. Each is powerful, each limited. Usually one is dominant; but a mix of both is essential to creating any useful representation of what's going on and finding an adequate response. Analysis dominant leads to science and technology, imagination dominant leads to the arts.
     We live in a time and a culture that has benefitted largely, and suffered largely, from an estimation of analysis as far more valuable than imagination. Poetry contains analysis, and is not dominated by it, just as science requires imagination but is not dominated by it. The mix is always there. We have two hands; no matter how specialized we may become with one, both are crucial to fully achieving our potential.
     We all know how science and technology, when they do not kill or cripple us, contribute to our survival. But poetry? What is the role of poetry?—A source of quick gratification? Of nutshell philosophies? Moral teachings? Bumper stickers? The question can be approached from two viewpoints: the reader's, and the poet's—or, in current terminology, the consumer and the maker. What, in short, is in it for you? For me?
     To put it simply, poetry is a strategy for revealing the strange in the familiar, the familiar in the strange, the surprises that hide in what seems ordinary, the riddles that surround any accepted definition of the real. Poetry is a practice that allows us to keep in touch with what actually is going on as opposed to being locked into abstract and rigid models of reality. It balances the explanations of analysis with the evocative power of imagination.

          In summary:

— All our experience intermixes the familiar and the strange.
— Our responsive capacity intermixes analysis and imagination.
— Poetry is an imaginative strategy for dynamically juxtaposing and contemplating an endlessly varied mix of recognition and surprise.
— We generally are at ease with, even to the point of boredom, the familiar (the experience of recognition); we are alarmed, often frightened, by the strange (surprise).
— Our experiences flow endlessly from recognition to surprise and back again.
— Poetry allows us to symbolically revisit what surprises us so that we may contemplate it in relative safety and gradually fit it into our model of the real. Go out to the edge of definition and get back sane.

—By permitting an ongoing contemplation of the mysteries that surround received explanations and solutions, poetry offers a way to evolve and practice more graceful, useful, responses to surprise.
— Poetry's power to evoke and assert the reality of beauty, grace, mystery, and particularity is a necessary balance to the overriding focus of analysis on measurement, predictability, solutions, manipulation, and abstract generalities. It reminds us that life is not a problem to be solved; it is an adventure to be lived.

That's what's in it for the reader. What's in it for the poet? Well, poets read poetry and benefit as readers. More, writing poetry provides a way to transform experience, however ghastly some of the surprises may be, into significant language shapes that have grace and can bestow meaning on even the most chaotic experiences.
      I have a new book of poems, Iron Harp, that is a distilled memoire. A life in 60 pages. Only possible in poetry. I'll sign this book at the reception next door. There will also be there copies of the outline of this talk. Now I'm going to read from the book and tie it into what I've been saying. We'll end with a question period.
     The title of the book is. Iron Harp: Birth of the One-Eyed Boy.
     The paradox in the title reflects the challenge of transforming base material into song.
     Much in the book is strange, either in content or form, sometimes both. To help the reader deal with that the book begins and ends with a prologue and an epilogue, both very straightforward, accessible poems, one from an early time, one from late age.
     And the underlying strange particulars of my particular life there is a familiar myth-shape and -movement: the descent into hell, and a re-emergence made possible by love. Dante....
     The core of the book is in three parts, named for the (familiar) elements. Earth focuses on family and early years, roots. The second, Fire and Water focuses on WWII. My war was on water and involved a lot of fire, ships sinking, massive explosions.... The Third part is Air, the element in which we can rise, become winged, airy, make song, play them, even on an Iron Harp.

Copyright © 2000 Thomas Fitzsimmons

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