Role of the Poet in Community, then and now, and one of my poems

11th December, 2009 - Posted by Christine Perrin - 2 Comments

This week I had a new experience.  As part of a poetry festival that was happening at Covenant Christian Academy, I was asked to recite a poem I had written to this group of people that I know well–including close friends, my children, colleagues, parents of my children’s friends, friends of my children, students of mine.  You might think that in over 20 years of writing poetry this would have happened earlier.  I have given readings of my work to audiences that included some people I knew, but never have I recited a poem I’d written to a group I knew and by whom I was known.  The experience carried a strange answerability–that is, suddenly the words I’d chosen I had to account for (simply by speaking them to this group).  Suckled by modernism with a heavy dose of New Criticism, I had been taught not to think of audience.  Here was a radically different kind of contact with my words and my people.  The experience brought me into direct touch with the ancient role of the poet in community–to speak to and for and with a specific group of people.  Poets made records of important information and events, they lamented losses, sang the praises of significant happenings and people, they were part of religious ceremony.  Richard Wilbur, in an essay called “Poetry and Happiness” laments the poet’s role in American society saying the main fact is his feeling of isolation, versus a poet like Dante “at the other extreme, (to whom) the world appeared as one vast society, or as a number of intelligibly related societies, actual and spiritual:  his Commedia was the emobiment and criticism of a comprehensive notion of things that he shared with his age.”  In other words, poets in other times and places knew that people shared experiences, books, assumptions with them and that people were listening when they (poets) spoke.  Wilbur goes on to wonder if an American poet has ever spoken so confidently from within the culture and says the poet’s gift of poems in a culture like ours is like a wrapped present that is never opened.  Wilbur wrote this essay several decades ago, and certainly things are changing.  However, at that moment standing in front of the group of beloved faces, I smelled a whiff of this fragrant (and frightening) air that the oral poet or even Dante must have felt.

Here is the poem, which speaks of an event that involved several people in the community which I was addressing.


I saw the bee selving deep into the wild yellow
jaw of the snapdragon, pollen crusted on the tall stamen
of the throat, entering and entering.

I saw the snake curled on a volunteer oak
by the creek bank—earth-golden, soft-bellied,
from a fissure in the earth wall
near the baptizer in his white shirt—nearer.

I have witnessed the purpled blood-swollen flesh
of birth, skull widening the dark tulip
of my sister’s sex—push, push, push—
until the capillaries opened like jewelweed touched.

A woman was saying, in the wet-
scented shade, I have been lonely, and I do not wish
for others to be alone
; a man saying be a wing of birds,
a deathless father, a salve for noisome wounds

They crossed their arms over their chests,
as if in death, without assurance, a man pressed them
into the cold-flowing water and pulled them up again.

Posted on: December 11, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized


Polly McCann

December 29th, 2009 at 3:15 am    

I am amazed to hear that Zoe is in college now as I was when we first met.
I enjoyed your site. I will look forward to reading your book–after I order it. This poem seems so fresh to me because it does not teach, force or hide an answer.
Thank you

Elaine Zubrod

January 26th, 2010 at 9:28 pm    

I love the way you interpret life somewhat in a way new and somewhat familiar. How refreshing and stimulating.

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