AT a party recently, a group was discussing the funding crisis in the arts, and one practical-minded businessman complained: "But tell the truth: What good is poetry? What does it really do for people?" I wanted to say: "It marks off occasions of beauty in the midst of our daily struggles"- though I realized this argument would make little impression on "the bottom line."
But if one would like to seriously examine "what good" poems bring about in our lives, a fitting place to begin might be with the writing of Marge Piercy. Through 12 collections of poetry (not to mention 11 novels), her passionate voice has been embraced by diverse groups of readers for its political fire, feminist determination, spiritual questioning, and, not in the least, for the sheer pleasure of its music.
As you read through "Circles on the Water," her selected poems, or the new collection, "Mars and Her Children," the various threads of her work are braided together to form one expansive journey.
More than feminist polemic, her poems contain visions of a woman's struggle to take responsibility for her own life and set out the fierce honesty necessary in a loving relationship. Her political poems make human faces and recognizable neighborhoods of what would otherwise be merely abstract ideas and cold statistics. At readings, rallies, study groups, and celebrations, her poems are used like hammer and nails - basic tools for building new lives.
In the last several years, many of her poems have become part of the liturgy of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, in which she and her husband (the novelist Ira Wood) are active. Her "poems of praise" are pure lyrical affirmations of the simple experiences we tend to gloss over amid the "important" business of our days: the first spring greens of the garden, the heron glimpsed in the marshland, the lighting of the Sabbath candles.
Secluded in her Cape Cod home, surrounded by the incredibly lush gardens she has terraced into the hillside, Ms. Piercy's labor makes wild words grow as abundantly as the mounds of zucchini and the tide of orange poppies. Through fair weather and violent storm, her growing season persists. Savoring the poems, we too feel the regeneration that is at the center of our lives - and that, in all truth, is good enough for me.
Steven Ratiner: A good deal of your poetry is built upon a communal voice. Reaching beyond the purely subjective, you seem to be speaking both to and for your audience. There are even a few of the poems in the new collection that start out with "I" but wind up speaking "we."
Marge Piercy: One of the functions of poetry has always been to articulate for people, to give dignity to people's experiences, their sufferings, their pleasures, the dramas of their lives. Utterance gives us both a sense of "oh yes, it was that way for me, too." And that sense makes people feel less crazy, less alienated, less weird. There are some poems which are very strongly communal poems where what I am doing is saying in a poem what a lot of people have thought and think and giving expression to i t. And those poems tend to get used a great deal [such as] a number of the poems from "My Mother's Body" about my mother's death.
I love the idea of poetry being "used," like a tool or a marker. Is this because certain groups feel your voice represents their perspective?
Used by groups, by individuals. There are also the poems people use as liturgy. A lot of my poetry is used by Jewish Reconstructionist and Reform groups. I have a strong sense of "we," and there are those poems that very obviously are communal poems.... There are others where the writing of the poem is a journey, and you have no idea if it's public, private, where you are going or what you are doing with it. You know the poem is important, but the poem itself is a journey that has a very uncertain outcom e until the poem is really finished.
A lot of contemporary poets maintain a certain distance from their readers, but your role seems to intentionally bridge the gap.
I think that my readings are often at their best in strengthening an emotional public experience. I know that people laugh or cry ... and that seems perfectly appropriate. I want people to go with the poems and experience them almost bodily.... I think that if a poem is emotionally coherent [it] can carry quite a freight of complicated thought and imagery and structure.
I think that physicality is one of the real strengths in your writing. Do you trust the senses more than the intellect to bring you information about the world?
I don't live in the university like most poets do. I live in a place where I am very rooted into the land. In some ways I am a peasant. I am very aligned to the seasons and the weather and my body. I am not a poet who ever pretended not to be female.
A line that struck me in one poem spoke of the way we shield ourselves from feeling: "the pain of others is the noise of traffic passing." That seems to be a contemporary survival mechanism - the more horror we see, the more we attempt to overlook the lives of others around us.
Example: In Boston there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for the poor Russian sailors [during the Tall Ships celebration] who did not have enough to eat. Now these are people who pass hundreds of homeless people every day in the streets of Boston and their response to [them] is "get them out of the way. Clean them up, clear them out." It is simply that somehow sailors on a Russian ship who need food are much easier to sympathize with than people sleeping on grates. ... They are always around in t he cities now. You go down 5th Avenue in the morning in New York and every doorway has a homeless person in it.... But poems are not political platforms. You don't at the end of them say, "give your excess clothes to Rosie's Place" [a woman's shelter in Boston]. That isn't what poems do. I guess I share that 18th-century belief that feeling for something is one of the enablers of acting more ethically. If you believe that other people are human also, you will not sweep them off the streets.
Is the writing of the poems part of a mental discipline, so you don't slip into that oblivious state of mind?
One of the things you learn as a poet is to pay attention. It's the quality of attention you pay.... Attention is love. That's a concept that interests me a lot: that blessing things is a way of paying attention to them. It is a way of forcing yourself to experience freshly.
In the new collection, you have several poems that depict the terrible feeling of dislocation so many of us feel from our surroundings.
There is a poem called "Up and out" that is about our loss of a sense of rootedness, our inability to love where we come from. That so many of the places we create in our country are really quite ugly or bland: That somehow they don't hold us; they don't feed us; we don't love them; we want to leave them.
Success means moving up and out. Success means leaving behind your roots, it means getting rid of the people you knew.... The whole poem is about the cost of that dispatching of one's own past.
If we have no home in the world, it's difficult to feel at home inside ourselves.
I am also talking about the kind of assimilation which America has demanded of people and the loss that occurs when you forget where [your family] came from.... who they were, how you came to be here.... The whole idea of retiring to a place. I saw that with my parents. There is nobody who knows who you are ... there is nobody who remembers your family history or the work you did or what you were in the community.... Both my parents were very rooted in their working-class communities in different ways, a nd when they went to Florida they were nothing. They were nobody. There is a tremendous loss of context.
Though this idea is present in earlier books as well, "Mars and Her Children" seems to devote a lot of energy toward reclaiming your own Jewish identity and history.
I have been involved in Jewish renewal since my mother's death. I said kaddish for her for a year, and saying so I was going "blah blah blah" - since in my family, only my brother had Hebrew instruction. I wasn't bat-mitzvahed until I was 50. I have been learning Hebrew in the middle of my life. I was recognizing that I had a need to say rituals that were meaningful ... to find the sense of my own continuity with my mother and my grandmother.
I have a very strong sense of a very rich tradition. When I am lighting the candles, I am doing something people have done for thousands of years, and there is a whole line of women behind me that are briefly alive as you do that. I have a very strong sense ... that we embody the past in us as we contain the future that we are creating.
The poem "Amidah" creates that experience very powerfully. "We reach back through two hundred arches of hips/ long dust, carrying their memories inside us/ to live again in our life." It's as if you are speaking through a larger self, one that takes in many times and experiences.
I believe the self is largely an artificial construct.... We are trained to think of individuals as very discrete, and as if you know exactly what you are. But we are very fluid beings. Our consciousness touches each other. We are influenced by the place, the place enters us, the era shapes us, what we think we are....
You touch on that idea in the poem "Thinking of Homer," and provide a curious definition of the poet's task: "Conventionalized dense squiggles/ are how I translate the world, how I/ transform energy into matter into energy."
The energy goes into the matter. This is matter, print on the page, books. And then it goes back into energy again when you read them or speak them. Poems are little machines for recreating energy.
It's clear how much you've rooted yourself in your Cape Cod home. Is this place now a necessary element in your life and your work?
What do you mean by necessary? We had a hurricane here this year. I lost a friend. We were without water or power for six days. There were people whose homes were totally destroyed.
I live in the fallout zone from [Pilgrim nuclear power plant] which is not a real comfortable place to live. What do you mean necessary?
You never know what you are going to have to do without. You can't ever make statements like that because you have to have a sense of the things that happen to people and the things that happen in this society. You can't define yourself so rigidly. You can say: This is what I want, this is what I like to have, this makes a good life - but you don't always know you are going to have a good life.
Which is the part you cannot do without, that is essential if you are to feel "at home" in your life?
Writing is what I have to do, that is what I am required to do. [Laughing] If I don't do that then I really feel guilty.... That is the most basic connection that I have to the world. I am this thing that turns energy into matter that is turned back into energy.
And then sing it loud enough so that we can hear it, too?
Well, that is where the energy comes in; the energy is created in you.