2 June 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 2
The Poem: Balm for Twenty-First-Century Wounds
My subject is the poem (more fully and accurately speaking, the American, the Turtle Island, poem) and the place of poetry in it. Poetry is everywhere outside and inside the mind (Gk: metis), the world, and the mind-world, a synthesis and evocation that clears confusion, gives pleasure, and relieves pain. The outside is the inside in poetry and the poem. How can this be? How is this possible when the poem is a shape and form containing something made by words? Boundaries, the inner life come to a pattern shaped by an edge, other edges. And in the middle, poetry, the edge and the center that the maker makes (Gk: poietes). The maker makes sounds, which become words. Words include and derive from grunts, clicks, glottal stops, consonants, vowels and, in them or behind them, the howl. In and shaping the howl: animal-world need made into a sometimes terrifying pattern of sound, sometimes soothing, sometimes electrifying, but always a call to attention, to hear, to listen, to respond. So need shapes the call into its going out and never escapes that need. Desire for validation, asking for help, and seeking balm for a wound shape its edge such that the inside becomes the outside, the circumference the center, pain-trauma turned inside out and objectified where the form is what it contains even as the one who cries out and the one who listens are linked, the one the other and the other one.
In our world after so much history, so much culture, two-legged creatures look to and for a way to understand, resolve, and trans-value (though not transcendently) all they experience and know, all that is given them by their predecessors, all they inherit. Nearly drowned by what has already happened, all of history, the sea of materialism, the money-flood, human and life suffering, their unique and individual traumas, all these great cataclysms, two-leggeds have at least one recourse, to cry out and call. And when they do they learn or can learn to listen, to themselves, to space in which others are calling, animals, plants with their leaves shivering in the wind, the stillness of a subzero winter's night when lake ice cracks shore to shore, the ocean with its breakers continuous in rolling waves, can finally, after learning to listen, hear. All because they are driven to cry out, call, make the inside of their being the outside from the outside in. Everyone, millions, two-leggeds all over the globe are driven to call, to find deeper and more full sounds everywhere until sometimes they give up and let others do the calling or until they choose to make their own calling as deep and full, as true and complete, as what they have heard called by those who have learned a greater skill.
Let me offer a little story, the beginning of which I learned from the Tsawatenok of the British Columbia Kwakiutl: Four wolves survived a great flood by climbing a mountain where they shed their skins and became people. They wanted to know if any others were still alive so the oldest donned a wolf skin again and howled from the mountaintop. On a distant island the oldest wolf heard an answering howl indicating at least one other being she immediately called 'Listened To' had survived the cataclysm.
This part of my story comes from the Tsawatenok. The remainder, which deals with the Twenty-First-Century Turtle Island poem, is my own, the story about how, after the wolves heard 'Listened To,' they put on their wolf-skins and howled from the mountain top and heard answering howls from a being or beings they in turn called 'Listened To.' Then, partly to celebrate their survival, all the wolves decided to resolve their howl-notes into chords, the dissonance of the howl into consonance and word-melodies. They called and sang and called again and heard answering and similar calls from other islands floating in the great sea-flood of materialism, history, and life suffering. They looked at each other in amazement and the youngest said to the eldest that you will be called 'Maker Of Word-Melodies' and we will be called 'Maker Of Word Melodies Again, And Again, And Again' and we will be 'Listened To' because we hear. After they came down from the mountain they discovered that other wolves and pups had survived by going to other mountains and now were gathered round the fire-circle in front of the den. They had shed their skins and become people and no one could tell who was 'Maker Of Word-Melodies' and who was 'Maker Of Word-Melodies Again, And Again, And Again,' who was 'Listened To.' But everybody knew that at least four wolf people had learned to make melody-words that call.
'Maker Of Word-Melodies,' perhaps, had learned most completely and most truly how to do this. So when the wolf-people asked point-blank what it means to call, 'Maker Of Word-Melodies' (no one could tell if it was a he or she) replied that "to call is to make a word-note that asks for response. It seeks reciprocity, both of what makes it up and is beyond and outside it, what is called to. In it's primal state, it's first manifestation, the call is a greeting: hello, good-bye, yes, no. In it's purest development it's what you wolf-people know as poetry, image-vibrations of what has been seen, heard, and felt which are poetry in the poem and the poem in poetry, the inside of poem-words and the outside of speaking-poetry-music."
Then all the wolf-people told 'Maker Of Word-Melodies' that his name wasn't just that but also 'Maker Of Picture-Vibrations.' And he said, "Yes, that's my name too, my second name, two of the four we all have (my other two: 'Breather Of Wind-Feelings' and 'Fingers That Touch The Unseen') just as the call has four directions, the above, below, beside, and itself in its center. It calls to the overhead and higher, to the under and below, to the beside and next door, and to its own making, to itself.
"The call to the above cries to the stars and to the beyond-galaxies and space. Do you hear me out there beyond the sky and globe, beyond the plains, mountains, rivers, ice caps, cities and fruited earth, the animals, fish, plants, oceans, all objects, and all that grows and lives, do you hear me? Us? Because I call for all and especially those who can't call. The call to the above asks the above to be in its center."
'Maker Of Word-Melodies And Picture-Vibrations' went on to explain: "The call to the below cries to what is underneath, what we stand on, the ground beneath the ground, the depths, the going inside. The under-standing and under growth, the underlying and underpinning, under signs. The undertaking and undertaker, the undertone and the understood. The buried. What earth is built on, what sun, moon, and stars are constructed from. The inside-below where particles, light, and space orbit and whir, collide and merge and are held by the inner workings of gravity, grace, the inner. It calls to the blood, to nerve paths and neurons and all the particles that make up atoms, to integrities of ligaments, bone, and marrow that sustain all bodies, flowers, and visions. The call to the below also asks that the below be in its center.
"The call to the beside is the cry to ones fellow beings in all their various tribes, colors, ethnicities, packs across the globe, to other wolf-people, the forsaken, lost, successful and unsuccessful, wanderers, those who have been captured from their natural habitat and carted off for display or into slavery, those in pain and those facing predators and other approaches of death, those who have just arrived squalling and alive with wonder and those who are about to leave, having seen and endured all that life offers, those taken without warning in a flash, those at the height of their powers and those who have never discovered who they are, their hearts and visions. Even those who have wandered off into solitude and loneliness, a hermitage on a remote mountain or island, cut off from companionship and good cheer. Even those who don't realize that they long and need to call out, that they could survive if they asked for help because asking is the help that would aid them. The call to the beside asks that the beside be in its center.
"The call to the call is a cry for the shape and craft of one's calling. It cries into itself, into words and language because the beginning of any call calls forth what follows, one sound and word another, all the inherited sounds and words common to the wolf-people, the inner syntax and grammars that hold sounds and words together. It seeks the call in the call, in the medium it uses, in what is outside the individual voice though inside the word-image, word-detail, concrete word, outside and beyond the individual cry which allows it to be itself because it finds itself by using cries become language that are (like the inside of the individual cry) energy, the inside of words. The call to the call calls to form and reaches through language for a limit, completion, supported by the whole body, legs, stomach-diaphragm, toes, all lifting breath through chord passages and bone-caves, hind quarters, snout, teeth and tongue making the call authentic, pure, piercing. And as it calls it comes to know all over again the play that is youth, of childhood, the delight in echo, the magic of new-making-sounds, the wonder created by the safety of its sound. The call into language is that it be the shape which contains itself, the edge around its center."
Then 'Maker-Of-Word-Melodies-And-Picture-Vibrations' finished talking and lowered his head and sniffed and sniffed until she had the scents of everything in her chest and heart and then rested with the others around the fire.
Later, even during day as well as at night, in the season of growing things and the sleep of winter, because of the deluge the four wolves donned their wolf-skins and continued to turn their howls into picture-vibrating-melodies and called from the fire-circle in the village as well as the mountaintop until one of the wolf-people decided they needed a record of the calls. So that wolf-person memorized what was heard and, when the pack-tribe gathered round, someone asked that wolf-person to repeat the vocalizations. The wolf-person did so and someone took a charcoal stick and made marks on slate stone, made long lines of symbols for the sounds and words the wolf person had memorized, almost reproduced the intensities of the call and the shape of a running cry running in and on a spatial dimension. Everyone was amazed that the cry taken from the mountaintop was spelled out and then (because they were in so much fear and pain due to what the deluge had brought with it) they began to believe that what had been written down was the authentic cry, that the howl turned into word-melody picture-vibrations spelled out for retrieval later was the only real and valid call, that those marks on slate were reality. They began to forget that the four wolf-people had gone to the mountaintop or to the fire-circle and called and that every one of their cries had disappeared, disappeared into those who listened, into space, and into the response of those who heard. They forgot that the calls had vanished into two-leggeds and the world and that the call needs to be called again and again, throughout time.
To meet this need and to show their fellow wolf-people that what had been marked on slate was only an approximation, the four wolves went up to four different mountains at the four corners of their den-village and one wolf took a place in the north and (as the Zuni say) became a mountain lion, another in the west a black bear, another in the south a badger, and the one in the east stayed a wolf, the wolf who is named 'Maker Of Word-Melody-Picture-Vibrations.' Then the four animal people put on their wolf-skins and called and their companions and compatriots in their den-village heard them and understood and were relieved. They felt tremors of pleasure and were comforted and put aside their slate records so they could be used later to remind everyone of what satisfies and is real. They knew that the written-down sounds were only a guide to the authentic and to real understanding.
The calls of each of the four animal people are different and the same (even as the four directions of their cries) because their resonance is ribbed by beauty (the beautiful, Gk: to kalon), the precision, rhythm, undertones, unheard melodies evoked by the completeness and interconnected breath-values of sound. These four mountains and their animal people still remain and now offer the four gates of the call each within the other: the above, below, beside, the center, four within four coming from need (a great and acute need because of faith-loss in most everything except getting and spending and even more acute because of war-twanged-clamor), four within four which are one through all the asking-crying picture-word-vibrations over the centuries and through the repeated calls of all the wolf-people, one made of four now calling urgently as they will do throughout this century.
Hugh Ogden previously delivered this essay as a talk on October 29, 2003 in the Smith House at Trinity College.
About the author:
Hugh Ogden was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1937 and has degrees from Haverford College, NYU, and the University of Michigan (PhD). He's published five books of poetry [Looking for History (1991), Two Roads and this Spring (1993), Gift (1998), Windfalls (1996), and Natural Things (1998)], a tape recording of him reading his poetry (1992), a CD of a poetry reading (2003), and has just finished two manuscripts ("Tree Psalms" and "Bringing A Fir Straight Down"). He's won a NEA Writing Fellowship, three Connecticut Commission on the Arts grants, and, during the last ten years, residencies at MacDowell (twice), Djerassi, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and many others. Ogden teaches one course at the Academy for the Arts in Hartford, CT, and full time at Trinity College. He's taught students of all ages (including the elderly, the handicapped, and people in prisons) and lived or spent time on Reservations and Pueblos throughout the West. He can be reached online at hughogden.com or by email at Hugh.Ogden@trincoll.edu, although he advises against email attachments because he is "often on a remote island in Maine with only a cell phone to access mail."