A few weeks ago, I came out of a classroom building and noticed a bird perched on the hood of my car. It was a small gray bird, with obsidian eyes that contained a simultaneous depth and joie de vivre. Of course, after smiling at it, greeting it with a few words—the bird staring back at me the whole time—my first impulse was to take a picture of it with my phone. I tapped the screen, focusing on the bird, its expression still curious, wary, humored. The screen flashed, the image saved, I sat down in my vehicle.
The bird wouldn’t go away. I turned the engine on. I started the windshield wipers. I even motioned my hand toward it, hoping it would fly away. I had less than an hour to get home, grab lunch, let out my dog before my next class, so I was beginning to get nervous. I started to pull away out of the parking spot, but then seeing the bird remain there, a breeze ruffling its feathers as it stared serenely at the road, determined to cruise along clutching the hood of my car, I found it humorous enough to want to take a little video. Again, I paused, got out my phone, started filming.
As my car slowed to the first stop sign, there was a sudden gust of wind. The bird opened up its wings, fluttered upward for a second—before quickly the wings downturned and it flew straight to the asphalt below, disappearing from my sight. I stopped my car, shocked. Thinking I had just run over the poor thing, I looked out and saw the bird lying on the pavement, its wings fluttering before growing still. I convinced myself that because there was no blood, no exposed inner organs, that the bird had avoided my tires. I convinced myself that the bird was ill, was dying of some terminal bird illness, and that it was on its way out even before I got there. Surely, it wasn’t my fault, or was it?
I decided to drive away, sick of myself. Later, I tried to eat my lunch and thought about the bird. What was this odd innate desire I felt to record the bird’s presence, its flight, its descent? What does it say about me, that my first action was to take a picture—as proof to myself, to others—that there was a bird wanting a joyride that turned into a trip of death? Perhaps if I had been more interested in the bird’s safety rather than my own mediation of the experience, could I have saved the bird, figured out a way to help it take flight and find shelter in the nearby trees?
I recently attended a talk by Alan Noble, editor of Christ & Pop Culture, in which he describes this worrisome, twenty-first-century desire we have to record experiences as they are happening, to share them with the world, and to wait to see what kind of response we get. “What is lost in this whole transaction?” he asked. The experience itself, the feeling of appreciating something for what it is, rather than for what one can get out of it.
Why did my attempt at mediating, capturing and retelling my experience with the bird, end in failure? Was I really approaching things the wrong way? In my rush to record the bird, something was lost—some beauty that I had missed, so concerned about the frame of representation.
I am reminded of a memory I have from graduate school when I entered a mentor’s office, carrying a fresh poem in for feedback. The poem attempted, miserably, to observe the look on a boy’s face as he walked with his father out of a Maryland taqueria and looked up at the full moon blazing in twilight blue hour. The poem (I’ve since thrust it to some dark corner of my computer where I can’t find it) even acknowledges the speaker’s own failure to get the experience right, to reflect this memory truthfully, accurately.
My mentor, in her wise, measured way, showed me how weak the poem was, how intrusive my own voice was to the actual subject matter of the poem. I was writing a poem trying to stand in for the experience itself. I didn’t know how to write the experience any other way. I left the meeting with a poem I knew I couldn’t save, no matter how hard I tried to revise it.
I haven’t written a good poem in six months. Whatever writing a good poem means. If that means a poem you can sit back after finishing its final line, realizing that there is real “felt experience” (to use Mary Oliver) within it, then I probably haven’t written a good poem in a year. All too often, I try to encroach upon the poem, to make of it what I want—to turn it into the Poem rather than the poem (and here I nod to Ben Learner who discusses in The Hatred of Poetry our need to get away from what we think of as THE poem and become comfortable with just writing poetry in its mundaneness and its beauty). Is my trespassing into the poem a trespassing into the sacred? Or are poems the same as afternoon runs: you go on them when you can and sometimes your body hums in pleasure, othertimes the first mile is the experience of hell itself? Whatever this pursuit is, my poems keep coming out flat, drained of any real feeling.
In my writing life, I’m beginning to realize that not every experience, not every memory, not every thought can be made into a poem. And that’s okay. Mediating experience into poetry is not something that can be forced. Nor is mediation always beneficial. There are other forms—the lyric essay, the short story—that are perhaps more suited for a certain experience, a certain thought, and I find myself writing in these forms more and more. I feel guilty acknowledging poetry’s own failure to express everything, a failure that is probably rooted in my own inability. Still, perhaps it is poetry’s own failure to mediate every experience that makes it what it is. If poetry is a consecration of experience, there must be something outside of that consecration to provide contrast. Is it heresy for me to say that genres other than poetry are not as sacred, that they exist to elevate, or at the very least differentiate, poetry as such? And while poetry consecrates, surely it cannot consecrate everything. If it could, poetry wouldn’t have the same distinctive power. It wouldn’t be poetry.
After lunch that day the bird fell off my car, I could no longer live with myself without driving by the parking lot where the bird had fallen. I slowed my car so that it crept by, and I looked through the passenger window just as I passed, expecting to see the small bundle of wings. I took in my breath when I realized it wasn’t there—the bird was gone.
This time, I had no phone out to capture the experience, no desire for another kind of failure. I haven’t tried to turn it into a poem (and here again, I’m guilty of language—turn it into—implying utility, something to be benefitted from an experience). This time, I simply saw the bird’s absence, wondered to myself—hoped even—and continued on my drive.
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