Wednesday, July 14, 2021

verse vs. prose: elegies and farewells

 When my mother died , I was immediately given a task.  In those first frozen shocked days  after her passing (after all  a surprise and totally not at all a surprise and something I'd been steeling myself for over a couple of days after months of blind hope.) My first task was to write something for the funeral. It felt like too much, in those moments, in the days between Monday afternoon and Friday, days in which I was back and forth to Rockford. Days in which I showed up at work one evening and tried to distract myself with hosting a collage workshop that I had to abandon midway. Too much to expect me to be able to breathe let alone write. And yet, on Thursday. I sat down in the studio and wrote a single page of prose, which I then read during the memorial service dutifully (after downing several airplane size bottles of booze I'd tucked in my purse).  I folded the piece of paper it was on, in the aftermath, until it was a ragged little cube and threw it away once I was back safely in my apartment. Every once in a while, I'll be looking for something on my studio laptop, a big clunky machine that is super slow, and I'll stumble across the file name "mom.doc".  I treat it gently, like a bomb, and never open it. 

Maybe I'll never be able to read it again.  But I felt I released something when I wrote it, and cried real good for the first time that week. Cried hard and long--maybe like I would never stop. What was surprising perhaps was that poetry, with all it's art and artifice failed me.  In that moment, the most real, genuine thing I could write was prose. Though true, sometimes even my prose is poetic--attenuated to rhythm and sound and flow.  But poetry is so much assemblage and effect.  So much craft, and I felt this needed to be more genuine--less literary.  That previous summer, a cousin (not a poet) had read a poem at my aunt's funeral and, because I'm apparently a terrible person, I noted the end rhyme and the forced meter--the platitudes and cliches one would of course fall into for a funeral poem--one that apparently my aunt--in her typical go-getter fashion, had approved in the weeks before her death. . Basically what a non-poet would think poetry looks and sounds like.  Years before, my mother's best friend had lost her mother and asked to have the minister read something from the fever almanac.  I offered a couple suggestions, but none of the poems therein seemed at all right as a memorial.  I don't remember which they chose. There's a certain kind of poetry--think Mary Oliver--that lends itself to memorials--I am not that poet.

Still, what is the use of poetry? I would be no better at writing verse for a wedding or any other occasion. No good writing anything inspirational--especially since most of my writing is either lyric or narrative and kind of dark in general. I have my humor moments, but sometimes it hits and sometimes it fails. When my poem "house of strays" was included in the American Academy of Poets Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems For Every Occasion, I'd joked about exactly which occasion that poem encompassed. I decided it was the perfect poem for ending a shitty relationship after staying in it way past it's expiration date (which was, after all, the impulse behind writing it.) I have in my head to write a book of humorous occasion poems for not at all important may yet happen.)

There was nothing at all artful in my mother's elegy. It was maybe at most, well-written and  honest (with at least a couple attempts at humor, because, good god, we needed it. Also my mother would have approved wholeheartedly.) Formally, elegies, in a stricter sense, have rules about content and form. It may just be that poetry is always so fucking self-conscious of itself as verse, in it's tricks and deceptions. Everything I've ever written that was the most honest I could be--the James Franco poems, the love poem series later on. The most emotionally true things I've written have always been prose. 

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