The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. — Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Back in May my thesis advisor devised a brilliant plan to get me to present at the Kevadkool convention he was hosting at his summer home. He said, “If you do this, you don’t have to take my exam.” (I was taking his course on poetics for fun.) And I said, “Done.” Bring on the public speaking embarrassment!
So there I was, the only American in the bunch and one of three non-Estonians, giving a presentation on an Estonian poet, using a ton of linguistic terminology that those literary people probably didn’t care about, trying to remember to circle things on the paper behind me. But as I continued, I felt more at home. Poetry was my game, I knew. Poetry is what I love. Poetry, whether I write it well or not, is the force behind my stay in Estonia. No complaints here.
I survived. I got an A. I even made a friend. All benefits.
However, in addition to giving my presentation, I met two visiting-from-America poets: John and Joan Digby. Mr. Digby (who is not originally American, by the way), upon meeting me and learning that I write poetry as well, said immediately (with the honesty so common in the old), “Poetry! Everyone writes poetry, but no one reads it!”
True that, I thought. But isn’t that why poetry sometimes feels like it’s the truest thing in the world? However I like to play devil’s advocate, so I said instead, “I read it.”
And indeed, after Mr. and Mrs. Digby read some of their poems, talked about their writing life, gave us free copies of some of their poems, and then signed them, I promptly began to read his work. Because I was curious, because I love poetry — but mostly because I wanted to know what kind of poetry a man writes when he’s sure that no one reads it. (His work is truly imaginary and thought-inducing, by the way.)
We’re all poets of a sort, we wordsmiths. We lie about a lot of things when we create our stories, but writing often forces us to be honest with ourselves. That’s more difficult sometimes. And so perhaps it’s the thought that no one will read my poetry that enables me to write my thoughts so freely, the feelings I wouldn’t expose anywhere else. Perhaps, it’s as Margaret Atwood says: To write the truth, assume it will never be read.
But, on the flip side, how many people actually read poetry? Of all the thousands of amateur poets, how many actually buy it, take it home, read it? Are we wordsmiths really just writing out into a silent literary wasteland? Do people fear reading the truth so much that they buy into the commercial mountain range instead? Do we crave lies so we can disregard the truth entirely?
I’d like to think that’s not true: that there will always be the handful willing to face the truth, to write the truth, to ask the complex questions. I’d like to think that there are more than just a handful of people who still read poetry. Alas, those are my controversial questions of the week for you guys. Let me know:
What’s the truth of poetry for you?
Most evenings I climb my torso
In search of myself always slipping
Down into avenues of sunlight
— John Digby from “Out of My Head Stalks” from Sailing Away from Night