I’m going to let the kitty out of the wrapper and admit I’ve never believed the teaching of creative writing is more than a pastime. Like baseball, academic discussions of poetry and fiction, nonfiction and playwriting tend toward exquisite minutiae and nostalgia but without regard for what’s happening outside the stadiums or sports bars. I’m employing nostalgia with irony of course—using it in the Greek sense meaning returning home in pain. Odysseus is nostalgic. In turn he’s single minded.
Odysseus is more than nostalgic. He’s religious in the worst way, Huck Finn praying for a fishing hook. Athena is his familiar and gets him “home” on rage. Most religious pastimes are about nothing more than this.
Justice is absent from Homer save for divine vengeance that good old Olympian smack down.
We better know what we mean about the effects of poetry, what we mean by justice, where the study of poetry or literature stands in relation to human rights.
At the poetry conferences save for very few, human rights are not discussed at all. It is assumed by the writing workshop crowd that just thinking about writing elevates.
I told a fine poet last evening that I’m running out of time. At 63 I need to turn my prow toward the far shore, away from time, to that place where coins are useless. That I’ve long been in the fight for disability rights (which are all human rights insofar as disability admits everyone) means I’ve had to sculpt and shape my anger into productivity. Just anger admits justice and eschews vengeance. Just anger is not nostalgic. It’s also a form of ambition. Pentti Saarikoski wrote: “I want to be the sort of poet whose words build houses for people….” Amen. Meanwhile, how to let go of anger, or just enough of it to die happy?
“Life is a hospital where all the patients want to change beds,” said Baudelaire. I want to pick up my bed and walk—not because I’m cured but because I learned (am learning) to make my burdens light and my rest easy. I want this for you and you.
So I gravitated away from the teaching of creative writing to work in the eddies of human rights. 80% of the disabled remain unemployed in the United States. Some will tell you its only 70%. Some will tell you they’re a drain on society. (Hitler: the disabled are useless eaters.)
If human rights mean anything they stand for the manifest opportunity to think, believe, examine, eat, sleep, all unencumbered. And as I think about the bow of my boat I’m remembering these lines by the Norwegian poet Olav Hauge:
“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”