On Dining, Hygiene, Miracles, and Publishing
The first of a new advice column from a professional poet.
— Molly M., Chicago, Illinois
The poet Thomas Lux eats boiled potatoes and chicken carcasses among other delicacies cataloged in “Refrigerator, 1957,” but not anything whose ingredients call for maraschino cherries, “full, fiery globes like strippers/ at a church social.” Maybe he is outraged by the cruel treatment the cherries endure in order to become maraschino, but what he actually says is this: “you do not eat/ that rips the heart with joy.” In general, I tend to listen, except when it comes to avocados.
Dinner for poets may be tasty, of course, and possibly themed, but at least for Lux and me, rarely do poets eat anything whose physical qualities and metaphorical applications are superior to their taste. So we eat kidney beans. Mmm, we love kidney beans. But then we start admiring their distinguished shade of red and their shape, naturally resulting in some kind of anthropomorphizing. How does this kidney bean feel, we ask. What would this kidney bean be doing if she/he weren’t in my burrito? Their enduring camaraderie inspires us: six weeks in a can and leaving this cruel Earth as one unit, together. The same thought processes reoccur with every shift in cuisine, and finally we may give up solid food altogether. We eat protein shakes for dinner, until one day we notice that the shake…why, the shake is just like us! Dizzy and chopped up and turned around.
A recent study showed that three quarters of Americans believe in miracles. I'm not so sure. Do poets believe in miracles? Or do they think 75 percent of Americans are idiots?
— John C., Little Rock, Arkansas
As censorship and taboo become less and less threatening in literature, we are perhaps closer than ever to a poet’s spiritual thoughts. Certainly the poets who write of miracles today are not doing so under the Church’s demand, so the next time you are in need of spiritual advice, I would simply Google “miracles and poems” and start reading. But like Emily Dickinson, poets dwell in possibility, including the possibility of miracles, and I think many poets would agree that life itself is a miracle.
James Schuyler, who suffered his adult life with bipolar disorder, writes “Hymn to Life,” in which he praises life for being just that, even with its accidents, doctor’s visits, depression, and shadows: “Life is hard. Some are strong, some are weak, most/ Untested. These useless truths blow about the yard the day after/ Rain the soft sunlight making softer shadows on the faded lawn.” Life is meaningful because it is life, even in its meaninglessness, as elsewhere in the poem he praises doing yard work and reassembling a motor. He doesn’t call those earthly details miracles per se, but he might as well: “Is it for miracles/ We live? I love it when the morning sun lights up my room/ Like a yellow jelly bean, an inner glow.”
I think the details of life are, in fact, miracles — we only call them that when they are well-timed. That’s why your statistic reflects such a large percentage, not because Americans are stupid and hence believe in miracles (which is illogical as condition B doesn’t necessarily follow condition A), but because life is a miracle and sometimes its particulars coincide nicely with the events of our lives and our private prayers, creating a pattern that is not too difficult to notice for the astute and dim alike. A young girl has a terrible car accident, and indeed it’s a miracle that she heals. A little boy falls over listless, and his mother’s prayers are answered after he is rushed to a hospital. But the accident, the sickness, nobody would dare call a miracle, when perhaps they are, being just as much a part of life’s great wonder.
Americans are a jolly breed. I think we focus on the positive, and if we stopped to count, we would recall more miracles than tragic events in our lives, accounting for about 75 percent of the people included in your statistic. As for the other 25 percent, those are the people who endure despite immeasurable hardship, whose belief in miracles, in better times, enables them to keep on living in the face of poverty, loss, disease, and a lonesome heart. I just don’t think there’s an idiot out there who can do that.
Do poets bathe frequently?
— Simon C., Boulder, Colorado
That probably depends on a particular poet’s culture and personal ideology, whether it’s summer or winter, and whether or not heat and hot water are included in the month’s rent. Some poets have difficulty adhering to daily demands, and most spend their free time in front of the computer — I too have wondered about the source of a poet’s gruff countenance. I fear I may overstep professional bounds if I comment on another poet, and I may disclose too much information if I answer using myself as an example, but you can take comfort in knowing that free restrooms are abundant in most fast food joints, so if we don’t have a shower of our own, we at least have the opportunity to wash our hands and face. Most poets have read William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and have internalized the threat of spreading germs:
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
I'm thinking about stopping home delivery of my local newspaper. I feel bad about this. I get the rest of my news from talk radio and the Web. What should I do?
— Mary L., Natick, Massachusetts
Not only will you be putting the paper deliverer’s job at risk, but you will lose your connection with your community if you discontinue your subscription. As the 18th-century Japanese poet Issa explains, “Under cherry flowers,/ None are utter strangers.” Cherry flowers keep people together for many reasons, but most obviously because they are so pleasant. Because many of us don’t have easy access to cherry flowers, we must use other resources to keep our community together: We have local papers, which dapple the day’s news with wedding announcements, the Little League MVP, and the upcoming Adopt-A-Highway commitment. Unless you think porno pop-up ads and oil change advertisements are sweet, the Internet and the radio make lousy cherry flowers. • 29 July 2008
Kristen Hoggatt lives, works and writes in Boston, where she is also pursuing her MFA at Emerson College. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.