Verse and Matter

In 2022, one goal I set was to read more poetry.

After November 2021, while processing many challenging emotions, I found some amazing poems that put things into perspective and that made me feel connected to humanity in a way that was difficult given the stress I was under and how difficult I found it to do basic things like eat. As a result of this encounter, I impulse-purchased poetry books because I wanted to cocoon myself in poetry.

That moment of weakness is memorialized with these verses dated December 4:

And in my loneliness,
I decided —
let my friends be poems.
I desired to cocoon myself in them,
sharp-edged words
soft as down pillows.
I explored
what it could mean
to know the intimacies,
the thoughts,
each verse carried,
to hold them
while they held me.

As a poet, I don’t read enough other poets; as a poet, I know that this breadth limit is a barrier to growing as a poet. I have had some hit-and-miss experiences because, beyond reading poems by polytheists I know (people someplace on the parasocial-to-friend scale, most often parasocials or acquaintances). Generally speaking, when I pick up a book, I am looking for non-Christian (preferably polytheistic) religious poetry, or secular poetry informed by that mindset, particularly poetry written by women. I see women writing this kind of poetry as my “immediate cohort” because that’s what Acts of Speech is (wait, is Amazon putting it on sale? they do that? why are they undercutting Bookshop?), and that’s what I’m doing in my current projects.

The poetic forms I want to explore more in composition are alliteration-based, in addition to the verse form that appears in several poems in Acts of Speech (5, 7, 5, 5 | 7, 7) , namely “To Asklepios II,” “Reflections as the World Falls Apart,” and “For Mnemosyne.” I’m also interested in how seamlessly I can do extra syllables for variety in poetic forms that are partially or wholly syllable-based, as it shows technical mastery to be able to do that well. Witnessing contemporary poets’ technical mastery, or lack thereof, is an important part of pushing my own boundaries.

Reading poetry more widely than before, I have had some hit-and-miss experiences. Anna Maria Hong’s Age of Glass was extremely technical, and it left me wondering whether I actually knew how to read poetry, if I truly understood the purpose of verse, and if I was intelligent enough to parse it. It was like watching technical challenges without having a sense of whether there was a unifying piece of music or dance choreography beneath the shows of skill. Anne Waldman’s Trickster Feminism was like watching very edgy performance art, and while I stuck through to the end for educational purposes, it was not enjoyable. Conversely, Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love employed some of the same highly edgy-artful poetic forms and devices as Trickster Feminism, but Ramayya’s execution of the technique was coherent, and I enjoyed the book. Ellen Bass’ Indigo contained beautiful poems, many of them relatable.

Some of the books I mentioned above are what I would call “cohort”-y, but many are not. While doing some initial searching a few years ago when I was first trying to broaden my reading, I was dismayed and peeved to find that most poetry books written by women have back-cover blurbs emphasizing things like practicality, motherhood, caregiving, mundane household stuff — barely a hint of transcendence — unlike poetry books written by men. How am I supposed to know who my peers are if I can’t find them from the available metadata? States of the Body Produced By Love was the only book I could find that did not fit that stereotype. I then started wondering if most other women are just not interested in transcendence or religion or if these publishing houses have a particular image in mind when they publish women poets. Are there non-Christian, transcendence-oriented books that are being mis-marketed? How many women who are doing okay in lit mags with this kind of poetry fail to get book deals because they aren’t fitting the stereotype of what the publishers want in women poets? This was startlingly similar to trying to find other female polytheists interested in theology, let alone Platonism. Or like being in high school physical science classes as the only girl, or math classes as the only girl, both of which were my experience. It’s not like we’re that much different from others in the same spaces, but we’re humans who deal with similar sets of stereotyping and cultural baggage issues to one another, and people are more resilient to stereotyping and the internal mind-f–k of stereotype threat when they’re not alone and can see positive peer examples.

Still, I often find transcendence even in poems that may not be about that. Just this week, I read two poems that triggered the part of me that now reflexively thinks about Plato whenever I’m thrown into symbolic space. “A Cloud of Drench Bearing Down,” Emily Pittinos, brought me to the Phaedrus and made me think about Gods and how we encounter them, Eros and how he connects all. “Wound is the Origin of Wonder,” Maya C. Popa, had me thinking in a general way about embodiment and our approximations of the ideal without ever really reaching it. The poem moved me enough to preorder her book of the same name. I remember being sixteen and taking a 200-level college literary criticism class, in which we read the same set of pieces for the entire semester and evaluated them according to different lit crit systems. Each of our papers had to adhere closely to the methods of a particular way of thinking. If I spoke to my sixteen-year-old self, I don’t know that she would have anticipated that I’d have fallen into the milk of a specific perspective, that Platonic lit crit would be reflexive for me. I now read poems like I read myths. Everything can be transcendent that way, in its own way. Some things can be louder about how they would be interpreted than others.

Poetry requires en-forming, drawing up and harmonizing matter at the same time one draws down and harmonizes conceptual frameworks. It is a space of unity. It is taking the integral to the curve, prioritizing the transmission of images in their entirety rather than as discrete points (hi Zeno), to be received by the beholder and adapted to the beholder’s own experience. Some of the images hit, and others can miss widely. The images poets use, and the perspective that each poet has, are just as vulnerable to inappropriate priming as any other aspect of embodied life, like the ways our societies think us to conceive of justice, truth, and so on. Proclus touches on this in his essays on the Republic when he discusses how the imperfections and wrongs in societies lead to poets using horrific things as images even when we are attempting to express something true, like attributing rape to Gods as a symbol of things that happen to souls involuntarily. People growing up in a better environment would not easily accept that symbol. Poetry is a language of embodied symbols that transcends its matter, while still being vulnerable to the level just above the material (nature, habitual virtues, and so on).

There are often poems and poetry collections that try to do so much that they become hollow, that they cannot take in the nourishing waters of the Muses, and one is left with fits and sparks of good verse among things that are soulless — technical execution that may please critics, or performance art that may be highly relevant to a very specific niche of people, but that falls flat when someone approaches the book from outside of the clique.

Reading poetry, and embracing that diversity of how we experience life and the environments we are all sown into, is a rich experience. There are moments of contact, and there are moments of alienation. There are things that hit deeply and things that miss wide. Even people who are turning towards the Gods and who make most of their poems hymns will have different ways of constructing their approaches and praising the Gods. For those of us who write contemporary poetry that leans heavily on our experience as polytheists, the saturation of our poetry with Gods and theologies alien to people who are more materialistic is a barrier, albeit not one that we should consider fixing. Poetry cannot be one-size-fits-all.

There really isn’t a way around reading, and reading widely and deeply. It’s been fun to complement reading Platonic texts with more poetry, and it’s lovely to quit things that don’t matter quite so much in favor of putting fuel back in the tank and cozying up (literally, as I usually read in bed) to sharp-edged words / soft as down pillows when I’m taking a break from Proclus or Plotinus or whichever other author I’m reading.

Right now, that’s The Woman Who Married a Bear by Tiffany Midge.

And these, to recap, are my other plans:

Poems of the Elder Edda, Terry
Being Full of Light, Insubstantial, Addison
The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within, ed. Sood and Daquin
Jade Mirror: Women Poets of China, trans. Farman
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Harjo
Duende, Smith
Sacred Verses, Ptahmassu
Singing to the Goddess, trans. McDermott
The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Wilner
Sentences and Rain, Equi
Set Me On Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling, ed. Risbridger
Bhakti Blossoms, Kanta Das
Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan, ed. Kikuchi and Crawford

📚

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