My friend Jim Haba, a fine poet in his own right, has done more than anyone I know to democratize the popularity of poetry in our time.
As founding director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and its driving force from 1986 through 2008, he created a venue where poets and poetry lovers, from all over the country, came together in the historic village of Waterloo, NJ, to celebrate, in a festive atmosphere, the verdant and vibrant language of life.
Jim grieved that poetry had been banished to the margins – “inside the schools, inside the universities,” as Adrienne Rich once put it. He wanted it back in the town square and that’s where he worked to bring it.
I collaborated closely with him in filming several of these gatherings for PBS, and all these years later I still remember the exhilarating moments when the play of language dazzled the ear as fireworks delight the eye on the Fourth of July. Jim finally retired, I moved on, and The Dodge Poetry Festival now thrives – praise be! — in the urban precincts of Newark just as lustily as it did in the tranquil groves of rural Waterloo.
Jim, who like Robert Frost considers poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion,” still writes poems that connect to the navel of human experience and every Christmas season I eagerly await his latest revelation. This year it arrived in a poem he calls “Starting With Black.”
When I read it, I realized that as he so often does, Jim is addressing the urgent political and moral crisis of the moment. I asked him if this were so — was my intuition correct? — and he answered: “The profound and expansive confusion that consumes us today requires much more than a momentary stay (even though any respite can help) and I cannot overestimate the danger of immediately grasping for the solace of normalization or simple denial. When the gravity of our current confusion somehow reminded me of Matisse’s remark that ‘black is also a color’ I began to see the necessity of squarely facing the darkness of our predicament. It seemed that only when we stop and give ourselves over to fully taking in this darkness can we begin to gauge its scope and scale. And then, paradoxically, we may discover within that very blackness the energy that will sustain our resistance, our struggle for clarity. Deeply inhabiting a work of art (letting ‘music/guide our every impulse’) strikes me as an important way to tune ourselves and to provide a life-preserving rhythm for the long struggle that lies ahead.”
With that, here is Jim’s poem for closing out 2016.
“Starting With Black”
In a dark place
In a dark time
Start with black.
Stop. Soak up its energy.
Remember the circle
However bent and broken.
Prize balance. Seek pleasure.
Allow surprise. Let music
Guide your every impulse.
Support those who falter.
Steer by our fixed star:
No Justice, No Peace.
— Jim Haba, 2016