Rescued by the Word

The mortician author of "The Undertaking" picks five books to remind you that poetry can save your life.

By Thomas Lynch
July 21, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
main article image

I can always tell when I haven't been getting enough. My ears begin to ache with the low din of disorder and the noisome burdens of the Information Age begin to overwhelm and everything begins to sound like everything else. Every message comes flashing in neon or blurting out cautions or blinking some warning in governmentese or proclaiming in the capitalized consumer-speak of the Mall or Main Street -- the DEEP DISCOUNTS or SEMI-ANNUAL THREE DAY SALE or BARGAINS GALORE! Or proffers, in fashionable hyperbole, a Cure for What Ails or The Voice of God or a Miracle Drug or a Diet of the Stars.

And it is a sure sign, when the flat voice itemizing my voicemail options, and the one giving seat-belt buckling instructions, and the one reciting the daily specials all begin to sound like the one on the evening news and the one on the phone peddling solar heat and the one in the pulpit and behind the bar and in the next seat and there in the headlines of the daily paper and there in the primary colors on T-shirts and junk mail and bumper stickers.


When the voice of my beloved or word from my children or the letters of old friends or the essential texts of the best things I read can't be distinguished from the rest of what's out there -- from the Weather Channel or the Home Shopping Network or the IRS or PBS or OSHA or A&E or the fax machine -- the constant blather and brouhaha of this connected, telecommunicating, 24/7 news cycle televised, dot-com dementia by which fair warnings, sweet nothings, the voice of conscience and complicity all begin to blur into an indistinguishable cacophony, I know I haven't been getting enough poetry.

Without its directions I lose my way. It is the cipher and the tuning fork for the rest of the language. It makes bearable the burdens of the Information Age by giving the ear a kind of perfect pitch for what is important, what is dismissible, what should be treasured, what to ignore, what to remember, what to say, when to keep silent, what to listen for.

Of course, we live in a place and an age that does not honor its poets. We're glad enough to have them, to be sure, in the way we are pleased to have good infrastructure, good plumbing, peaceable neighbors -- nice so long as we can ignore them. We are delighted that someone is writing poems, especially if we don't have to read them. Maybe this is why everything sounds like everything else. Poetry doesn't sell well, rarely does much in the movie version, seldom generates an action figure or a sound track or other "synergies." It is more life-changing than user-friendly, more essential than salable. It cannot be programmed or mass-produced. It is, like salt and sugar at the groceries, the loss-leader among the literary arts. We publish less, buy less, read less, review less and we are all the less for the lack of it in our daily lives. And more's the pity. Surely I'm not the only one who notices.


So when I find my tuning off, my antennae for language gone astray, my ear for this life's meters out of sorts, a remedial dose of poetry is what is called for.

A daily dose would, like an apple or exercise or the habit of prayer, serve as a preventive against most vexations. You can find it on Poetry Daily or there are libraries and megastores, or shelves of slim volumes in your local booksellers. Accept no substitutes. Ask for it by name.

The first poet I met was Michael Heffernan. It was late in the '60s, and it had always seemed to me that poets were dead, or driving west in fashionably down-market vehicles, wearing trendy footwear and more hair than I was ever going to have. To meet a man with sport coats and a mortgage and a Buick and a day job teaching Melville and Thoreau to the likes of me -- to meet an ordinary man who wrote extraordinary poems -- well, it changed my life and is changing it still. Heffernan is still writing poems. Here are the names of five books of them.


The Cry of Oliver Hardy

To the Wreakers of Havoc

The Man at Home

Love's Answer
from which this perfect little diamond of a sonnet informs today:

On the Beach at Saugatuck

What Richard Nixon said at the Great Wall
bears paraphrasing here: It's a great lake.
I must have died and gone to Saugatuck.
The children dig for China. Several
of the more radiantly animal
natures recumbent everywhere I look
have given up the ghost or taken back
bodies more ancient than the wakened soul.
Instead of China, what the children find
are graves to bury one another in.
They look like ashen warriors when they rise.
I'd like to take them with me by the hand
to rinse them in these waters so they shine,
plainly proclaiming how great the light is.


Or maybe this one to make up for the one you missed yesterday, from Heffernan's latest collection, The Night Breeze Off the Ocean, which is, at the moment, like too much of this country's best poetry, still looking for a publisher:


I look for grace that opens me to grace.
When that doesn't come, I turn up the TV
and watch two people talking in Detroit.
I fall asleep and dream I am in Detroit
with Patsy Doherty in a car at night.
She is driving us up Woodward Avenue.
The upper buttons of her blouse are open.
Even though it is 1963,
she wears no bra. Her breasts are staring at
the stoplight on Chicago Boulevard.
I try to understand what they are thinking.
The nipples are soft and small, the breasts are round
and shiny as if she had rubbed oil on them.
The lights change. She drives us into the night.
I wake up thinking this was a miracle.
I had never before seen Patsy Doherty's breasts,
but now I had. The mind is its own place.


God knows it is.

Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently "Still Life in Milford," and two books of essays, "The Undertaking" and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest."

MORE FROM Thomas Lynch

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Poetry Readers And Reading