Tell me what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life
It’s weird to think about the things that have stuck with me over the years from my liberal arts education. They come back to me at odd times, like when I’m cooking dinner or walking the dog. When I was an undergraduate, for example, I watched the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. The film, made in 1982, depicts the Earth’s incremental transformation from the ancient balance of the natural world to the relentless imbalance and distortion of our contemporary, technologically-driven lives. Set against a hauntingly beautiful Phillip Glass score, images change from natural ones—mist rising from mountains, clouds rolling across endless clouds, dark shadows crossing desert rocks—to speedy, time-lapsed images of cars moving along highways like blood pulsing through asphalt veins. All of this cinema is set to the word koyaanisqatsi, which is repeated as an endlessly hauntingly “sound poem” that embeds itself in the mind so deeply that it’s impossible for me to read the word without hearing the film’s baritone refrain.
The word koyaanisqatsi derives from the Hopi language and means “life out of balance,” although I tend to use it (improperly) as an adjective these days. Sometimes it all feels so “koyaanisqatsi,” I’ll say, usually when I’m standing by the stove cooking dinner and answering emails as my text messages ding and my Facebook notifications buzz and the dog begins to bark. It’s all too much—and I think to myself that this feeling I get must have been that same feeling that drove Thoreau to the woods, or Whitman to the open road, or made the poet James Wright stop his car and jump the fence to pet those ponies (“. . . if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”). It’s the overwhelming need to shut the world off and slow it down, to turn off what Junot Diaz calls the “mechanized pace” of the world to go looking for something like art or a poem, anything that might make the world a quieter place, anything to restore my own sense of balance.
This is why I love Friday afternoons. Every week in the spring semester from 12:30pm until 3:05pm, I turn off my phone and shut out the world and go on a series of journeys (some real, some metaphorical) with the nine students in our Experiential Poetry class. For those few hours a week, I think of nothing but finding balance, human balance. We read the Sufi poet masters. We watch the whirling dervishes spin and stretch their arms in search of the Divine. We try guided meditation. We call forth the extraordinary poems that wait for us in portraits at the Brandywine River Museum, hidden in the creases of those painted faces, and when that fails we search for images in the riverbank below. We write slam poetry, pound our fists on podiums, and remember what it feels like to be righteous and beautiful and to love ourselves for all the things we were meant to be and all the things we are. We wander spring gardens and seize the day and feel the first bloom of the wet spring air on our faces. We visit the Wharton Esherick Museum and learn how living itself can be a handmade art form with kindly edges. We dream of hot morning coffee at the long, smooth tables there. We wander Manhattan and visit the places Bob Dylan lived and we breathe in the smell of the classics at the famous Strand Bookstore, stand in awe before the Chelsea Hotel, look into David Bowie’s apartment lobby window. We read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and gossip about Edna St. Vincent Millay. We walk through Alphabet City where the streets are named for poets, because poetry matters. And through it all we write: not because it makes us a living, but because it makes us alive. Writing restores balance. It returns us to our humanity and the goodness that comes from living a contemplated life.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is responsible. Is there room in the modern world for Experiential Poetry, whatever that means? In the era of five-figure student debt, taking the time to reflect on the things that make life interesting can seem frivolous, at best. Shouldn’t I be intent on preparing my students to make a living? Shouldn’t every class be connected to a skill that can be measured and weighed, valued and graded? Shouldn’t these students be given skills sets for employment? How many poets can you name who can survive on poetry alone? These are very real questions to ask, particularly given the promises of higher education. But the question of balance persists. There’s something that will stay with students long after their liberal education is complete, and it is the knowledge that while some courses go toward making a living, others go more powerfully toward making a life.
It is my greatest hope that one day each of my students will be gainfully employed. Perhaps they will have their own families, and if they’re lucky a faithful dog to bark while they cook dinner. They may even sigh as they brown the ground beef and say that it’s all getting a little koyaanisqatsi. And that’s when I hope they remember what they learned in Experiential Poetry: how to bring life back into its natural balance. I hope they recall that every blossom is an invitation to remember Houseman and our mortality, that heartache can be mended with the words of Neruda (“The moon lives in the lining of your skin”), and that as Mary Oliver says, “You do not have to be good,” a phrase that brings me particular comfort. I hope my students will not be, as Gwendolyn Brooks writes, “things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,” but that they will remember, instead, what Carl Sandburg calls the “deeper rituals of the bones” when the world is too much.
The world will be too much. The bills will come every month. The baby will get sick. The dryer will break at inopportune times. The cell phones will ring and the sitter will cancel and that damned dog will keep on barking. There will be little time for poetry. However, it is my dearest wish that at least once in their lifetimes, students who have had Experiential Poetry as a part of their liberal arts education will find themselves putting out the trash on a Tuesday night, only to discover that they are instead standing in their driveway remembering Whitman in the “mystical moist night air,” balanced momentarily among the order of things and looking up “in perfect silence at the stars.”
If you're interested, here are the pieces of work and poems I referenced:
- Thoreau to the woods
- (“. . . if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”)
- Sufi poet masters
- “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
- Housman and our mortality
- “The moon lives in the lining of your skin”
- “You do not have to be good”
- “things of dry hours and the involuntary plan”
- “deeper rituals of the bones”
- “mystical moist night air,…”in perfect silence at the stars”