Kate Gale asks Gift of Freedom winner Diane Gilliam, “In a world where almost anyone would rather be involved in commerce or consumer culture or interaction with the screen, why poetry? It’s not as active as football, not as immediate as mall shopping, not as intrusive as Facebook. It is ancient and quiet, sitting on the side, waiting. It is contemplative and has no place in our modern culture. Or does it? What is that place? That wild daring place? A place where creative intellectual powers meet in the orchard of a quiet moment and sparks happen. I ask you Diane, why now? why poetry?”
The first words I used as a writer for what a poem does come from Ivy Rowe, the main character in Lee Smith’s novel Fair and Tender Ladies. Ivy is a girl at this point in her story, in early 20th century Virginia, and she’s writing to her sister Sylvaney. “Oh, Sylvaney,” Ivy says, “I have so much to say but I cannot tell it to a sole. For I feel that things are happening two times allways. There is the thing that is happening that you can say and see, and then there is the thing inside the thing that is happening, which is the most important thing but it is so hard to say.” A little later on I added these lines by William Stafford: “So the world happens twice– / once what we see it as; / second it legends itself / deep, the way it is.” And a couple of months ago, as I was getting ready to go on a writing retreat in a room of my own offered by a friend, another friend sent me these words from Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary: “You see, I’m thinking furiously about Reading and Writing. I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about The Hours and my discovery: how I dig beautiful caves behind my characters….”
It stopped my breath!
Everything happens two times, legends itself deep, has a beautiful cave behind it! This is so whether we are looking, whether we know it or not. It’s so easy not to know—the average pace of an ordinary day is enough send us skimming over everything. But look at how this same entry in A Writing Diary begins: “I was called, I think, to cut wood; we have to shape logs for the stove, for we sit in the lodge every night and my goodness, the wind!” Her wood-cutting is not a shallow or begrudging interaction with dailiness—she was called to do it! She sees behind it the evenings in the lodge, “the meadow trees, flinging about, and such a weight of leaves that every brandish seems the end.” We are called for poetry whether we know it or not, by reason of dual citizenship in both our inner and outer worlds, however much the outer world wants to take over. Poetry requires—maybe it even conjures–the conjunction of both worlds when we are reading or writing. It holds them together, the way Woolf’s diary gathers up in one hand the wood-cutting and The Hours. It’s all true—bills, jobs, children, all the driving around, whatever your version is of the wear and tear of every day. The other is just as true and native to us, it calls to be seen and known and poetry is one of its ways of calling—the thing inside, the deep legends, all those beautiful caves.