Sunday, January 22, 2012

article for Poet Talk (February issue) The Kingdom of Mattering

The Kingdom of Mattering
by Kitty Jospé

"Mattering" is a current term one hears when talking about the idea of relevance/real world learning in education. Just as one might hope for the day when students do not ask "What does school have to do with anything?” as poetry appreciators, we might hope
for the day no one will see in the margin of a poem, “who cares”. Naomi Shihab Nye, judge of the 2011 splittherock poetry competition refers to a “kingdom of mattering” this way: “topics/subjects of essential collective care, poems embodying deep witness, speaking up in hard places, not shuddering or seeking popular favor -- poems of responsibility and elegantly shaped conviction.”

She has chosen as finalist, the poem by Leona Sevick, “White” about which she says, “This judge was dazzled by the subtlety and utter power of the poem. Worlds within and behind visible public worlds. Everything we don't see and hear – private, precious pulse of identities.”

 Let us look at the poem."
It starts with Instead, which drops out of nowhere, followed by the verb “spotted”, the only completed present perfect verb. The speaker of the poem, thus, sees her/his mother as if in a spotlight in the back row of an auditorium. The first line breaks on “tiny” enjambed to “chair in the back row” on the next line which emphasizes something unsettling about the distance.
If the poem had been written as a newspaper article, one would gather facts about an immigrant mother attending a school reading competition in which her son and daughter participate. There would be no synesthesia, bright rainbow of threads flying through air as loud as a train; or the mother’s English bent and twisted, filled with whiffs of garlic and fish sauce. There would be no juxtaposition of the mother/worker with the mother who cooks and chatters her children to sleep.
The poem does not mention the rehearsal this mother makes in her mind on how she would appear, does not mention sacrifice, maternal pride that her children out-read the others, and yet the reader is given the details which give this away. The mention of the children’s secret hope that their mother would be silent, in public, moves to the next phrase to home, where they are wrapped in her chatter. No mention of love or its complexities.
The question comes up about the importance of knowing about the author, the times, the cultural context. Would that change the impact of the poem? What is it that we seek as we read and write poetry? For some, each poem is a jewel to be read without any prior knowledge. For others, the framework of biography, or interview helps create an entry into the poem. Others again, like to have a combination of both. For some, it is a way to become aware of one’s own inner landscape, for others, a way to appreciate a moment away from the stresses of the day, and on and on.
Let us consider for a moment, the message of an artist, and how it is embellished by biographical knowledge of context, and the work in and of itself. How, for instance
would you see Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man?
If you didn’t have the title, you would know, yes, it is a man. It is a portrait, although whether or not it is a self-portrait is still under dispute. How do you want to see this painting? Volumes have been written about it, which, if you are an art historian, may pique your interest. However, what does a 21st century ordinary person see in this 15th century portrait? Does it change our view to know this is a revolutionary painting using one-point perspective, and a turn in the tide of portraiture as a tool for the aristocracy? Does it matter that it is part of the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art, or moving away from anonymous universal expression serving Church and State towards art as personal expression executed by a recognized individual? What if you only admire the brushwork, the meticulous detail where each brown and grey hair on the five o’clock shadow is apparent? Is there a thought of wanting such an artist to do YOUR portrait, or perhaps, to imagine yourself in a new context?

To connect poem and portrait, imagine saying in response to the painting, “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a turban like that” . Then think of title of the poem White which connects racism and the blend of all colors, and readers who say, “why should I care about these kids and their mother” or “who cares about craft”.
What completes our perception of the “worthiness” of a work?

This week, I happened to stumble on multiple interviews of poets I respect by poet Brian Brodeur. Would I pay as much attention if I did not know him, or them?
Brian Brodeur maintains a blog where he asks poets such questions as:
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? How did this poem arrive at its final form?
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem? He probes about intended audience, about how the poem fits into the corpus , about how the poem negotiates fact and fiction.

Interesting as the responses are to the questions, you also can skip his biographical introduction, and read the poem he selects before reading his interview with the poet about it. You might enjoy comparing how you respond to the poem both with the background information and without. If so, go to and pick a poet.
Kingdom of Mattering and a Just Poet Reading -- by Kitty Jospé
We are fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to gather once a month at Barnes and Nobles to hear a featured reader and share poems afterwards at the open mic. My new year’s resolution is to attend as many of these as possible, and those who have not yet attended might consider ways to come. David Michael Nixon, MC, carries the tradition of opening and closing the event with a poem written by a non-local poet. In January, the featured reader, Ann Putnam read poems which conveyed a “sense of mattering”. As fellow poet Ron Bailey says, “her mind is ever descriptive” which applies both to the introductions to the poems as to the poems themselves. She left me wanting to cheer for moons, flying dreams, tick-tocking clocks (even the one that makes the revving up sound of a Corvette on the hour!) birds, horses, and things that make us cry.
After her reading people shared work of their own, or of others. Poet Colleen Powderly shared a Carl Sandburg poem, Personality, which fits right in with the Kingdom of Mattering.
Carl Sandburg skillfully addresses the question of personal identity in five sentences, each containing the word “thumb”. 4 singular thumbs; two plural thumbs. Numbers which grow from tens to thousands to uncountable with a sense of ratio: 40 loves to 1 thumb; 100 secrets to one thumb; -- 1,000 wars to one thumb – where thumb is mentioned both going off and coming back, still making its print, without mention to
what it is attached to. The penultimate sentence millions -- no two thumbs alike.
And then, uncountable -- and up to the God of Thumbs we request to explain the “inside” story of this sketch of love, life, separation, war. We know nothing about the thumb-bearer.

Does it change anything for the reader to know that the poem was written by Carl Sandburg? Do we need to know when the poem was written? Or does the poem stand by itself? What happens when you read it in an anthology where the individual poet is not as important as the way in which the poem presents itself in the context of other poems by other people? What if he had changed the title, or omitted the “musings”?

In the kingdom of mattering, a good poem reminds us that particulars lead to universals, that our experience is not ours alone but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.

Personality—by Carl Sandburg
Musings of a Police Reporter in the Identification Bureau

YOU have loved forty women, but you have only one thumb.
You have led a hundred secret lives, but you mark only
one thumb.
You go round the world and fight in a thousand wars and
win all the world's honors, but when you come back
home the print of the one thumb your mother gave
you is the same print of thumb you had in the old
home when your mother kissed you and said good-by.
Out of the whirling womb of time come millions of men
and their feet crowd the earth and they cut one anothers'
throats for room to stand and among them all
are not two thumbs alike.
Somewhere is a Great God of Thumbs who can tell the
inside story of this.

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