You have to manage love through sound. It has to be something that comes into your consciousness without consciousness. It’s the only recourse, the only action, the only thing that matters. When you are cooking the eggs, watering the gardenias, tending to the sheep. I don’t care. It’s how the moaning happens. The thing before the singing. The thing before the talking, crying, wailing. The moaning. It’s the love-sound that has no words. When we were pre-verbal it was easy. Then, we got verbal. Being verbal is a pain in the ass. But, we have no choice unless we decide to live with the spider monkeys and the fish. We talk. Talk is dumb but lovely and song. In my 46 years of yapping, I believe, I have never spoken love so much as I have spoken it through my poetry.
When I was 15 years old I realized language in the form of conversation was not going to do it for me. I couldn’t write music, paint a portrait, throw a pot. I was drawn to poetry before I even knew what poetry was, what a poet was. I had never read any poetry but I started writing. It became my moaning. It became my way of figuring out how to love—myself, Jeanie Gray, the trees, my best friend Mark Bloom, my teachers, the kid in history class who hated me, Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, the wind, my first joint, Paul Rozenfeld, The Grateful Dead, and Jon Rubin. The whole shebang. I couldn’t go into my day moaning—because I knew language, for the most part, was inadequate, and it would be silly and freakish to try and communicate with people through the grunt. So I did the other thing. I wrote poems. Love was inside my skin coming out of my pen in weird scribblings and imaginative do-dads. When I was 15 I started to moan.
Here’s the rub. To moan in poetry is, honestly, self-indulgent. I figured this out in my late 20s. Self-indulgence is wicked fun but after awhile it gets a bit dull. It began to make me feel like a dog chasing its own tail because the tail smelled like cognac. Except, after awhile, my tail began to smell like rotten rosemary. Sometime during that period of my life, one of my high school students asked me if poetry could change the world. Fuck, Louis, I have no idea. I started thinking about Akhmatova’s work, Hikmet, Stern, Ginsberg, Plath, Szymborska. These were my political poets, my social change poets. I dug into their verse, but I couldn’t find it, the answer, and thought, after awhile that I might never. I decided though, because I liked the question, that I would aim for changing the world through my work (how presumptuous)—not changing the world like Gandhi or a bougainvillea, or your science teacher in 9th grade who gave you the knowledge of photosynthesis—but something more local, a growing broccoli for the neighbors kind of changing the world.
For some time, I believe–20 years to be exact–I thought I was onto something, fulfilling my purpose on the poetic planet and hoping it would leak into the regular planet of all humankind. I had no idea, though.
On April 15, 2013 two young men set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and a lot of people got hurt in so many ways it made me think, hell yes, we’re going to hellyes in a hand basket.
My whole entire professional life has been set up in this way: every morning I get up, go to school and present myself to a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds as an English Teacher. I teach high school students–show them–how to have fun,creatively and critically, with language. I have taught in three high schools over a 20-year period. During the course of my tenure in the classroom Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, The Batman Movie Shooting Spree, and, now, very close to home, The Boston Marathon Bombing have occurred. A lot my students were downtown at the finish when the bombs blew up, and had to hear, see, smell that entire situation. A different kind of moaning.
On the day after the bombings, the day after Patriot’s Day, I walked into my classroom and tried to figure out the impossible: what to teach, explain, do—just do—with my students. I did what I knew in my heart: I gave my students room to moan it, whatever that it was. First, I was self indulgent and read them a poem I had composed in response to the previous day’s disaster, a small piece called “In The Land Of Things Come Undone.” Then, I asked the kids to go out into the hall, down to the foyer, wherever was most comfortable, and write. What happened next was an unimaginable beauty that continues to blow me out of my canoe and into the deep water rapids of that every moving wide river.
The students wrote. They wrote and wrote and wrote. Then, they came back to class and they read. They read and they read and they read. They moaned. They blew each other’s mind in moaning. 19 poems about where they were, how they felt, what they were eating, doing, seeing, when the bombs were detonated. One after the next. Nothing else. 19 moans. Maurice, Jherson, Sophie, Emma, Evan, Tyler, Taylor, Sophia, Lilly, Alex, Matheus, Zoe, Natiah, Nolan, Rachel, Mia, Harry, Adi, and Abe. A communal moan in response to the moaning on Boylston Street, which resulted in a coming together of broken hearts so strong–a poetry love-in of sorts–that, for so many reasons, answered the question I had been asked twenty years prior by a little poet man named Louis. My students had created and solidified amongst themselves, community. A place, a little place, that felt, for a while, like home. Yes. Yes. Yes, I thought, poetry can change the world by simply bringing people together and going a little way in some kind of healing, some kind of love. That unconditional, unspoken / spoken utterance, which has the potential, if the heart is wide open enough, to make a difference to not only the person sitting next to you but also, and more, or equally as poignant, to the community in which you consider yourself a citizen of, and, with.
This is why I write.
MATTHEW LIPPMAN is the author of three poetry collections, American Chew, which won the Burnside Review Book Prize; Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing); and The New Year of Yellow, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize. His poetry can also be found in our Spring 2013 issue.