I want to write poetry about the oil spill in the gulf, and I can'êt. And, since it'ês floating around in my head, polluting me, weighing me down like it'ês weighing down the Brown Pelicans I grew up loving on my Mississippi coast, I can'êt do anything else, either. For the moment poetry has failed me.
What does a poet do when poetry fails? I don'êt know about others, but I seem to go through the same process every time something is so raw and induces such shock that I can'êt make anything coherent from it. I strain to catch hold of something, anything, that will create that spark. I make things up; nothing sounds like me. The words are cold and dead as the oil. I don'êt want to write. I want to cry. I need to work this through, to move toward, rather than away from, what hurts.
This feeling reminds me of where my truest inspiration comes from, and it'ês actually not far removed from just breaking down and crying, or from jumping up and down and shouting for joy. Sometimes it worries me that I'êm not a more intellectual poet, that I don'êt (often) do erudite variations on forms and take inspiration from the classics, but the fact is, when I do feel that deep connection to life that engenders a poem that I wind up being really proud of, it comes from the culture in which I grew up, the blues and jazz of Mississippi and Louisiana, the natural world there that is oh so beautiful and will kill you outright if you'êre not careful, the call and response of the fields and the church, whose dogma I let go of long ago but whose rhythms and belly-deep longings still shape my relationship, my communication with life itself. It'ês anything but intellectual. It'ês primal, and, like the natural world, it'ês beautiful and terrible all at once.
The saddest poem I know is a song, Hank Williams'ê "I'êm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low.
I'êm so lonesome I could cry.
And, at its end:
The silence of a falling star
lights up a purple sky,
and as I wonder where you are
I'êm so lonesome I could cry.
There'ês not a word too many in Hank'ês song, no emotional distance from the pain of not only being separate from your darlin'ê but not even knowing where that darlin'ê is, whether she'ês all right, whether she will ever be there for you again. The world, stripped down 'til its only reason for being is to reflect the misery of the one who is about to cry, is painted in the simplest words. He'ês not lonely, he'ês lonesome.
Hank'ês lovely song is written in 'êcommon meter,'ê the four line form that alternates iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter in an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. It'ês a beautiful, satisfying, declarative form, without dÃ©cor or pretense. It'ês the form of the ordinary. It'ês brilliant.
Of course, since I'êm also a psychoanalyst, my analytic mind shows up about now and points out that I am pulling the answer to my dilemma about writing out of my own unconscious. What I feel is lonesome, lonesome for everything I took in from my earliest childhood on the Gulf Coast, lonesome for the little hermit crabs that I caught at the beach and kept for pets, lonesome for the Least Terns, who lay their fingernail-sized eggs at the base of the grasses along the shoreline, lonesome for pelicans flying single file, barely above the surface of the water, and sitting like plump old men on the pilings from piers washed away long ago. I'êm lonesome for beat up old trucks whose beds are filled with ice and fresh caught shrimp, parked along the highway beside homemade signs that might be misspelled, but the catch is so fine that you imagine those shrimp must be happy to taste so good.
I miss the smell of ocean, brine and decay, heat and humidity that sweats the irritability and most of the ambition right out of you. I miss The Blessing of the Fleet, when fishermen festoon their boats like carnival floats and parade past the priest from St. Michael'ês, who prays on their behalf for a good season, then joins everybody at the fais-do-do. I miss daiquiris, slushies with liquor that I wouldn'êt touch anywhere it wasn'êt so damned hot. I miss the music, everything from New Orleans funk to rowdy country to old school Southern Rock. I miss Little Feat'ês Dixie Chicken and Jimmy Buffett'ês Margaritaville and the Doobie Brothers'ê Black Water, a name for the Mighty Mississippi that might never be used with affection again. And I don'êt miss it because I'êm far away, living in the furthest corner of the country from it. I miss it because, like Hank, I don'êt know where it is any more. I don'êt know if it will exist at all after the things it has had to endure these past few years.
I believe in the strength and goodness of water. I believe in Mother Ocean and her ability to absorb a world of hurt from her children. But I don'êt know if it'ês gone too far to be anything I will ever recognize as home again. After this, we might all be orphans, all of us who call the Gulf Coast 'êfamily.'ê
I might not do what Hank did; my poems are seldom suitable for rhyme. But with sources of inspiration like Hank and the Brown Pelican and everything I have ever loved and lost, something ought to be there for me. Maybe I can write that poem now.