Most Solitary Art: Guest Post by John Morgan

Is poetry un-Alaskan? Featured author John Morgan ponders the value and risks associated with this most solitary art. (Above, Jim Orvik’s painting, which will be on the cover of Morgan’s forthcoming collection, “Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika: New and Selected Poems.”

When Nancy Lord pointed out in an earlier blog that unlike almost every other state, Alaska has a state writer rather than a state poet, I confess I was miffed. I have nothing against prose. I occasionally write it myself. But still. Doesn’t this imply that our state values poetry less than the rest of the country?

After all, poetry is for sensitive people and we Alaskans are tough.
Sure there are your Robert Service-types who can blast out rhymes that make people laugh and (if they’re suitably tipsy) cry, but the thought-rich, introspective poetry of a Wallace Stevens, for instance, is definitely not for us.

Of course the devaluation of poetry isn’t just (or even mainly) an Alaskan problem. It’s ingrained in the culture. Most people only encounter poetry in school, under conditions that push its “message,” or (somewhat better) stress analysis and the defining of terms. Too little is said about how poetry, like the other arts, can reach into and stir our deeper selves.

But during my recent stay in Denali National Park, I had a couple of experiences that gave me hope. On the second day of my ten day residency, I took a bus ride over Polychrome Pass, heading out to the Eielson Visitor Center, and a guy sitting across the aisle from me struck up a conversation. He was from Fairbanks but reminded me of my East-Coast father-in-law – something about the sharp angles of his face, thinning gray hair and assertive way of talking. But when I mentioned that I’m a poet, he brightened up: “Oh, I love poetry!” And he named a poet he’s been reading lately, a Midwestern woman who writes religious verse. I was almost sorry I’d brought the subject up, but he went on to explain that what he likes about her poetry is the way she can express fresh ideas — things you’d never think of yourself — in clear and memorable language. Not a bad tribute.

Poetry is more than ideas, however. It’s the art of language. As painters use pigments or musicians tones, poets use words and the natural sounds of the language. But it’s not just language in isolation. It’s language that touches us at an emotional and spiritual level. In some sense, any language that moves us is poetry whether it’s written out in lines or not — so perhaps there is some justification for having a state writer after all.

Of course writing poetry has its risks. Maybe you begin with an idea about what you want to say—but watch out. The sounds of the words and your free floating imagination can wrench it out of your hands. And, in fact, for the poem to have real power, at some point they’ll have to take over. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” said Robert Frost. To move the reader the poet must be moved — moved and in some sense altered.

Toward the end of in my stay in the park, I gave a reading at North Face Lodge out past Wonder Lake. A fellow in the audience, who’d brought his family up from Texas to experience our larger state, told me that when he was growing up, he’d attended an East Coast prep school and one day they’d had a poet come in to meet with classes and give a reading. This Texan said he’s always regretted that at the time he’d been so scornful of poetry that he’d skipped the reading. The poet he’d bugged out on was Robert Frost. The hopeful part is that over time he’s come to value Frost’s poetry and realizes what he missed.

If poetry seems peripheral in our culture, in part it’s because we’ve been distracted by all the trivia around us. But underneath, I sense that something is going on. I feel a rumble. Maybe in the not too distant future poetry will make a comeback. Poetry is the most solitary of the arts but already—as my two park encounters suggest—it plays a part in many people’s lives, a part that isn’t fully recognized by the mass media.

And I draw further hope from the fact that the earliest published works of our current president were a couple of poems. He wrote them as an undergraduate at Occidental College and they appeared in the school’s literary magazine. They’re not bad.

5 thoughts on “Most Solitary Art: Guest Post by John Morgan”

  1. Thanks for this, John. And some of us out here in Two Rivers do indeed value Wallace Stevens and hope to bring others into the fan club!

    The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    Wallace Stevens

  2. That most solitary art has saved my life on two occassions, or perhaps I should say sanity, when, in the throes of tremendous despair I chanced upon a poem that so perfectly gave voice to my own feeling that my grief was assuaged. Once it was a poem in zyzzyva lit mag and once it was a poem in the New Yorker.

    On another note, I have noticed something in the magazine, Poets & Writers, that used to annoy me but now just makes me laugh. Each issue has a picture on the cover of a poet or writer. The cover photo is always dour and intense – the artiste shot. Then inside there is always a great picture of (the same) smiling poet who looks like somebody you might want to take a walk with.

    I think that the general public has an idea of poets that is too much like the over-the-top-serious cover photos.
    The more poets are out in the world with people the better, I think. Power to the Poets! You do good work in the world.

  3. Thanks John for the thoughtful post. Every year I teach my students how to read poetry – not to dissect it per se, but rather how to listen for the music of it, listen to what might touch them. It is not an easy task. But when I get them writing poetry, I am never sorry. Their voices are so fresh.

    Up with poetry! Up with the Alaskan muse!

  4. John: I really enjoyed your post. As an avid reader of poetry, I, too was a bit disappointed when Alaska chose to have a State Writer Laureate program. But now I think it's wonderful. How else could we appropriately honor such writers as Anne Hanley or Richard Nelson – or even our current state writer, Nancy Lord? I don't think poetry is under appreciated here. Yesterday we awarded four Boochever fellowships, and the two literary artists honored were both poets (Anne Coray and Joan Kane). I think poetry is very healthy here, and with individuals like you continuing to advocate for poetry, the genre will continue to flourish.

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