I found two blog posts especially moving in the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Paris, both by the same writer. Josephine Corcoran’s ‘What the ‘Je Suis’ hashtag means to Me‘ and ‘Writing poems rather than Facebook posts’ seemed to me to come from a place of deep personal sorrow, frustration and anger whose personal vulnerability made them a privilege to read.
Josephine’s posts reminded me of two very different texts, both of which I have written about here some time ago. The first is James Tate’s hilarious poem of desolation ‘I am a Finn‘. There is nothing very complicated about this association. In its haphazard way my mind went straight to it as a playful exemplar of what can be said about the need to identify with a social or national grouping that is larger than ourselves: ‘When I stop by the Classé Café for a cheeseburger/ no one suspects that I am a Finn.’
Substitute the word Finn with ‘gunman’, or ‘cartoonist’ and you have a very different kind of poem, but not necessarily one which denies the longing to be noticed below the surface of the original: ‘Here, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,/ no one cares that I am a Finn.’ As the work of Chrissy Williams so beautifully illustrates, it is no longer enough to look at horrific events and be shocked by them. Just as important is what our looking, or commentary, looks like, and who it is seen by. Truly, there is no single narrative to ‘follow’.
Jospehine’s post questioning the effectiveness of trying to debate complex issues via social media sent me to another favourite text, Seamus Heaney’s magisterial essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’ from the book of the same name. ‘Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught,’ he writes, ‘the efficacy of a poem is nil. No lyric ever stopped a tank.’ Far from ceding to the argument that ‘poems make nothing happen’ he closes his essay with a reflection on another example of playful and public writing, that of Christ on the ground when presented with the woman caught in adultery. On one level, he says, it is as though the writing, whose content we never know, buys time between being tricked into saying something foolish and saying nothing at all. This, he says, is a mirror of the poetic enterprise. Like poems, he says, the writing
does not say ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.
Josephine’s posts gave me personal courage in a week when it was in short supply. To say ‘Yes’ and ‘I am’ to the poems, things, and most of all the people, that matter to me most. To the notion of poetry co-existing with murder. To pursuing my Facebook fast. To sitting in silence. To these bookshelves and the words lined up on them. To the notion, however foolish, of finding a quiet space, opening a notebook, and writing there.