Poetry in an Old Key

During April, Poetry Month, each week this blog will offer one of my poems about poetry and art.

“I believe that in this physical, space-time world of our
experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical
scheme of expression. But they are not necessarily blind,
inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters
which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema
other than discursive language.” —Susanne K. Langer

Why, caring as I do for trees,
am I condemned to poetry? why compelled
to serve a life sentence stuttering this
syntax of desire, each poem straining
to manifest the inexpressible on paper,
a ritual offering, a superstition, a power,
prayer, seduction, clue, risk, awe, act,
as if my life depended on it?

The Aztecs knew paper as a sacred substance;
conquered towns sent millions of rolls each year
as tribute to the capital. It was not wasted
on words. Shamans painted images and soaked
the sheets with blood, provoking their divinities
to action. Under the Conquistadores, papermaking
was illegal: possession of paper was sufficient grounds
for the charge of idolatry, a sentence to be burned.

An artist (the philosopher reasons)
seeks not arouse or convey feeling
but to portray what she knows about the nature
of feeling; once in possession of rich
symbolism, that knowledge may exceed her
whole experience. Genius (the artist shrugs
in answer) manifests itself
through attention to detail.

Today, sorcerers among the Nahua and Otomis
still paint paper spirits, cut paper god-dolls,
fold paper to trap ghosts, string paper infants
on the clothesline to ease childbirth, plant paper
to help crops grow, burn paper to dispel the winds
of evil, decorate paper with the drippings
of live sacrifice—the collective soul that reinvents
the universe through individual acts of superstition.

It would be best to recognize oneself as they do:
an idolator hunched spelling over blood-soaked paper,
a shaman working toward health or madness,
a vehicle for words recycled on recycled pages,
a knowledge beyond its own experience,
a symbol of itself, an image of a poet
forming in the reader’s mind, a Scheherazade, telling
story after story, just to stay alive.

Collected in
Upstairs in the Garden: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1988 Robin Morgan
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