Look outward ... we're nothing but the freckles on the ass of time.
Jon McGee, author of my favorite poem, Flight, wrote rapturous words about feeling close to god while flying an airplane; Joyce Kilmer saw Trees and reminded us we’re not God. And Alfred Lord Tennyson recounted the Charge of the Light Brigade into the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Astonishment, humility, courage⸺these are the emotions that elevate and eviscerate us, that lead us away from the profane misery of ourselves, and introduce us to the profound aspects of life.
The persistent popularity of Superheroes is instructive. There’s a part of us that needs to overcome our egos, that needs to soar, champion and strive. In other words, it’s not all about us per se. It’s about us interacting with the world, not sitting in the basement talking to an invisible psychiatrist.
For example, consider Ann Fennelly’s Tender Hooks, a collection of poems exploring the ambivalence women often feel about motherhood. It’s filled with unromantic realities about the aches and pains of pregnancy (swollen ankles and fat tummies) and childbirth that would make any young woman think hard about sterilization, including a vivid description of the first post-partum bowel movement. As women have been birthing children for a long time, I doubt this book broke new ground information-wise, unless she felt she was doing a public service announcement in favor of protected sex. But, it covers familiar territory in a new, unglossed way. In terms of realism, it’s spot on.
Now consider Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. (Alice James Books, 2005) This winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award focuses on Turner’s tour of duty in Iraq, and we’re right there with him, learning What Every Soldier Should Know. For instance, Arabic phrases such as “I will kill you, American,” and helpful advice about such things as bombs “under overpasses, in trash piles, in trucks, in cars,” and “foogas” or homemade napalm.
War is hell, and that’s where Turner takes us, pointing out what’s meaningful, and giving us personal commentary along the way. It’s a far cry from the restrictive, subjective experience of marriage misery, sexual confusion or oft-repeated outrage at male misogyny. It’s flash non-fiction of Turner’s biography intersecting with history, and we’ve traversed the unfamiliar territory of war at his side.
Both poetry collections are time-bound and timeless precisely because they are about life unfolding within the context of something greater, and uncontrollable, than they.
If writer’s block is a chronic condition with you, try looking outward for inspiration rather than inward. Instead of pulling your reader inside to see your soul, try walking with him through unfamiliar territory, or familiar territory with a new perspective. For example, do something, like taking a flying lesson, planting a tree on Arbor day, or visiting a veterans’ hospital, and tell your reader about the event and how you feel about it. That’s meso-poetry.
The next time you write, ask yourself: is this poem all about me, or is it about how I see a world differently?