Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

5 Years and 7 Months Later - Book: "Poetry as Survival" by Gregory Orr and Original Poem: "No Answer"

I have just finished reading Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. I loved it; it felt like I was taking a seminar course on how poetry, specifically the personal lyric, has the power to save, heal and transform the individual suffering from trauma.

He begins with his own personal tragedy.  At twelve, he was responsible for a hunting accident which killed his younger brother.  His parents did not blame him but neither did they console or comfort him, being overwhelmed with their own grief.  Two years later, his mother died unexpectedly after a routine medical procedure. The grief and guilt was overwhelming.

Through his high school English teacher, he found poetry and like Anne Sexton, it saved him.  He wrote his first poem and did not look back.  And this book is like a treatise, an argument - laid out carefully as if by an expert lawyer - on the healing powers of the lyric, personal, "I" poem in dealing with personal chaos caused by trauma.

He argues that from the time language was invented, when confronted with destabilizing human experience and emotions, man has used the lyric poem to express the inexpressible, to say the unsayable, to give order to chaos so that the poet could not only survive but then be connected to fellow sufferers. Poetry is then a way out of the silence and alienation that come from personal crisis.
When someone, in the throes of a powerful and disturbing experience, turns instinctively to the writing or reading of a poem, it is because they sense the personal lyric can be a powerful aid in helping them survive and make sense of their experience.
Echoing Anne Sexton's thoughts that poets are artists and as such, must turn to and examine the abyss of internal pain and inner chaos in order to write authentically; for them, the confines of the poem and the tools of language provide a safe place from which to do so. For the page is a finite space to house the words that speak the unspeakable. The poet can use formal techniques such as meter and rhyme which can further exert control and structure. Even in free verse, there is structure - albeit informal.

And to describe the indescribable, poets have the tools of figurative language: symbols, imagery, similes and metaphors that can be subtle or in-your-face. The more intuitive and surprising, the better.
In the personal lyric, the self encounters its existential crises in symbolic form, and the poem that results is a model of this encounter. By making such a dramatized, expressive model of its crisis, the self is able to acknowledge the existence, nature, and power of what is destabilizing it, while at the same time asserting its ultimate mastery over the disordering by the power of its linguistic and imaginative orderings. 
I can relate. I have instinctively turned to poetry as a means to express my deepest thoughts and feelings - see posts.  While they are the work of a true novice, I re-read these poems and are taken right back to the moment, thought or feeling. They still ring true.

For example, the ONLY way I could ever write about that horrible morning was in a short, terse, sparse poem. This describes what I saw, felt and heard.

No Answer
by Sue Anderson

No answer,
   Voice silent.

No response, 
   Mind gone.

No sight, 
   Eyes unblinking.

No movement,
   Body stiff.

No breath,
   Chest still.

No beat, 
   Extremities blue.

No life,
   Hope abandoned.

Why?  I screamed,
   No answer.

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