Archive for the 'MJ poems' Category

All Poetry Is Confessional

I have recently begun what I hope is an authentic endeavor to immerse myself in the study of poetry, with the hope that as I write, a consciousness will begin to take shape of how I am oriented and inclined in terms of tradition, intention, purpose, aesthetics, etc. The book I’m pondering over now is Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (ed. Ryan van Cleave, Longman, 2003).

One thing I’m learning is that there is an infinity of angles from which poets might view any particular thing, a universe of personal, historical, social, sensory, emotional, imaginal, and spiritual events and experiences to explore, as well as innumerable ways not only of conceiving and shaping poems, but of describing and analyzing and rehearsing what it is one is doing or trying to do. For example:

Most important to me is that the poem not be “confessional”, that the poem be fiction and relate directly to a wider audience even while containing some personal elements.

This is a quote from the poet Dick Allen. I guess it caught my attention, because for me confession with its nuances and ramifications has been about as animating and disturbing an issue in my life and my writing as any I can think of. It seems vital to discern how and why it might be working in what I write. More from Allen:

When my poems start to become self-pitying or too self-conscious, or want to turn into home movies, or are more interesting to those who know me personally than to strangers, I abandon them, for I have failed to listen to the world and to write at my best.

I think I understand what he means, and I am pretty sure I agree with him.
A sappy, whining poem–one with a big mouth and no ears– is an immediate turnoff for me.

However, the question occurred to me whether poems may not be confessional in another sense–covertly, in a way perhaps hidden even from the poet. I am going to make some assertions which, in my limited literacy, I can’t support. But I would like to try them out and perhaps discover at some point whether they might at least have a useful function in deciphering poems.

Assertion: Poets write about what turns their heads, about what leads them into temptation.

If this is the case, the poem must reveal or uncover something about why this particular thing matters or how it matters–in relationship to what. Writing, like confession–or maybe, as confession–is a way I can find my way through whatever it is, while acknowledging and intensifying (intrinsically) my implication, my participation in it, beginning with the very act of choosing it.

Assertion: All poetry is confessional.

How so, and how can this be deciphered ? Is the writer aware of it, or is he “above” the subject, standing aloof from it (the Pharisee), or is he acknowledging his participation in the human race, and his culpability, by humbly taking his position in the middle of it (the Publican)?

I want to make a decision about my intention in writing–in a road map sort of way. What are the signs, the legend I can use to help plot out the “right” or best way to get where I am going? Where am I going? I don’t want to be a critic or a mere reporter. I imagine inhabiting my poems as an sort of invisible intercessor, not pedantically or explicitly, but by standing with, laughing with, weeping with. This might be one vantage point from which I can decipher what is taking place as I write and as I read the work of other writers. How do poets, writing in a vast variety of forms and styles, reveal their attitude or stance, through their explicit or implied subject(s), in relation to their fellow human beings and the creation?

Back to the notion of confession. If I posit salvation as a highly individual affair–just between me and You, God– with my sins as my private business, and their sins as theirs and not mine, then my confession and poetry would most likely have a “them and me” undercurrent, perhaps self-justifying, self-preoccupied, maybe as the angry or self-pitying or self-vindicating victim– indignant, vitriolic, sarcastic. On the other hand, if I see my brother, sister, daughter, neighbor, spouse, adversary) as my life, then my confession will have quite a different character– not something overt, but more like a deep, quiet stream running through my poem–of recognition, even, in a sense, of celebration in the midst of the fantastic impasses and entanglements in which I live with my fellow falling and sometimes irritating or despairing brothers and sisters–or with the physical world which often, with no intention whatever, trips me up and makes me forget or deny or ignore God.

Along with this perspective on confession, I am also proceeding with the understanding that the very nature of the (Orthodox) Christian life is perpetual and unceasing turning (around) towards God, which is repentance. In that light, the question I want to explore for and through my writing life is this: How shall I go about crafting poems that best use the circumstances in which I stand, my unique personal attributes, thoughts, impressions, and understanding to accomplish this turning, this blazing the way in my heart toward God?

About the Samaritan Woman…

and her meeting with Jesus at the well, where she was drawing water.
There is a moment I would like to hold up,
A point of light that has pierced the eye of my heart.
I know that I will have to be satisfied with walking around it,
as it is not the kind of thing that can be pinned down.
Here it is:
That Jesus saw her,
and when that dawned on her,
she was never the same.
In the light of His countenance she was undone,
unwound from her syndrome, wounded with eternity.
In a moment her desire was turned inside out, transfigured.
What possessed her now could no longer be her fragmented,
meandering and wandering ways,
but His seeing of her, and beyond all that she had been,
His showing her and freely offering her
what He knew she had always desired,
beyond her own knowing.
He was not looking at her askance to cast her down.
He was not rebuking her or taunting her,
not dwelling on her miserable failures.
In His knowing, He was turning a light on in her,
springing her out of prison.
The miracle is that she saw HIM,
and so, extricated from her shame,
shot full of wonder and expectation,
she bounded with joy into the town to share this news,
that she had found a man–the seventh one–
that knew her as she had never been known.

Christ God, my Lord and Savior,
I see that you come to me as to that woman,
that you can open my eyes and my heart as you did hers.
You offer me yourself even today
in the cup of Your Life.
As I approach and partake, may the light of Your Presence
pour into the dark well of my confused passions,
a provision of the Living Water
now and unto the ages of ages. Amen

May 6, 2007, The Fifth Sunday of PASCHA, the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman


Note: According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the Samaritan woman, who is commemorated on this day, bears the name of Photini: light. She is counted as the first missionary.

On my birthday at the Leavetaking of the Feast of Theophany

Today is the turning from Theophany toward Pascha.
Though I was born on this cusp,
for the first time I see to note this as a sign,
an auspicious crossing point
of the unseen footprints in my story.
Looking either way from this signpost along my yearly way
I see the Lord busy in hell,
here crushing the heads of dragons in the waters,
there at it’s gates trampling down death by death.
So whenever I stand at this place in the road from one year to the next,
the promise–echoing the voices of prophets and kings,
of saints and monastics, and of common readers of daily prayers–
will resound in the question
“Whither shall I go from Your Spirit,
or whither shall I fllee from Your presence?…

I have been in hell this year.
The sight of it is vivid and I am trying to learn
not to avert my eyes,
or to give it a pretty face,
or to find some desperate excuse
for why I happen to be there.
This is not a cry of despair,
though at times I feel it stalking me.
You are growing in me an understanding,
incrementally, as I can bear it, of this:
“Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”
You have descended to us:
by You all is cleansed,
by You all is sanctified,
by You all is made whole–
Now, and yet not fully, but will be finally.
What I see rarely appears so–
pain and sorrow, the rapacious fecundity of blind nature,
or human wickedness hurling oblivious toward death.
But if by Your grace, and according to your strength,
I remember Jerusalem,
I can dare to seize them burning as they fly,
to carry them, trembling and weeping, a right sacrifice,
to Your altar, on behalf of all and for all.
Whatever is the appearance,
whatever the apparitions of the darkness,
from the ages to the ages, it all belongs to You,

Do I have any big plans for my birthday?
There is at least one sort of answer that is,
I admit, beyond the purport of my friend’s question,
and yet includes it and all the other issues of the day.
Here is the answer:
I will spend the day in hell.
I will spend it there with enemies and friends–
whom I sometimes have trouble distinguishing.
I will be alongside those who are suffering,
who have died and are dying–
of diseases, of dimentia,
of desparation, of loneliness,
or just in the inevitable end of life even well-lived,
with those who are persecuted and in prison,
with the angry, addicted, deluded,
or merely annoying.
I will pray for those who have fallen into
the pits they have dug for themselves
in the secular kingdom of rationality.
Facing East, I will stand with them,
even if their backs are turned.
And I will fall on my face, and weep with them
if they weep, or for them if they cannot.
They are not mine to give to You.
We are all Yours alone,
and evenYou always suffer us to choose.
But stand with them I must.
How can I get out of here alone
If they are Yours as I am Yours?
Only together are we in You,
as You are in the Father.
How could I look you in the face and say that all this suffering
has nothing to do with me?

Together we humans have made and are still choosing this hell.
So this is where you have deigned to meet us.
You hem us in on every side,
with Your truth, with Your correction,
with the chastisement of Your perfect love,
So of all that this life is or shall be I will declare
now and unto the ages of ages,
“It is You who have done it.”

Today, remembering your descent into the dark waters of death,
I turn in my heart toward your joyous Pascha.

Martha Jane McElroy
January 11, 2007, Leavetaking of the Feast of Theophany