February 13, 2012

The Question: What Use Is Poetry?

"We have poetry so we do not die of history," says Meena Alexander in this poem.  She also said, "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret."

QUESTION TIME by Meena Alexander

Hand raised in a crowded room --
What use is poetry?

Above us, lights flickered,
Something wrong with the wiring.

I turned and saw the moon whirl in water
The Rockies struck with a mauve light,

Sea creatures cut into sky foliage.
In the shadow of a shrub once you and I

Brushed lips and thighs,
Dreamt of a past that frees its prisoners.

Standing apart I looked at her and said:
We have poetry

So we do not die of history.
And I had no idea what I meant.

(Published in the journal Black Renaissance/Noire, 2010)
In the following essay, Meena Alexander examines her influences. She grew up in India, was reared in Sudan, and is a scholar in English literature. She finds her home in the polyglot of her languages. 


"The first border we cross is that of the body. I put out my hands and touch the stone, the tree, the surface of the mirror and what I mark is the rim of the body, the fleeting surfaces of the world, what we might choose to call the real, irreparably marked by the notations of the body, the unique impress I take of things and the mark I make, however ephemeral in the arrangements of sense. Yet this touching and tasting that my body allows me in the world it creates so I can live, is always rendered up in a density of location, a necessary otherness. My private body, this nest of flesh and blood and bone is already marked and set in place by the temporal passages of a world I have little control over, by others who do not know me, and have never heard of me, and might wish never to do so.
"I think of Simone Weil and her notion of decreation - a stripping down of the self, an emptying out, essential to a burning interior life, no thing there, just a waiting on nothingness, a radical act of attentiveness. There is much in her notion that we can learn from as we try to conceive of the imagination, the image making power which works through a febrile openness to emptiness. It is only by stripping ourselves of what we thought we were that the panoply of circumstance the poem sets up, its minute theatre of sense can achieve itself. And only then is poetry permitted its seemingly serendipitous alignment with the haunting we call history."

Read the full essay
Meena Alexander, "The Question of Home"

For more information about Meena Alexander, visit her website http://www.meenaalexander.com/

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