By Will Falk
National Poetry Month happens to mark the year anniversary since I set out on the road to dedicate my life to the struggle against this dominant culture hell-bent on destroying the world.
Questions arise on this road, questions that I must answer if I am going to continue on this way.
One of the questions I seek answers for involves poetry. I love poetry. I love reading poetry, I love listening to poetry, and I love writing poetry. But, the hour is extremely late, and poetry means nothing if it is not used as a weapon in defense of the real world.
I find myself stuck again facing the same old guilt that’s haunted me since I started writing poetry seriously two years ago. Someone – either an angel or a demon – perches on the edge of my desk and asks me, “While the world burns, why are you sitting here with pen and notebook trying to write poetry?”
Lately the guilt has been winning. My muse is strangled. The lines forming on my pages stutter and hesitate until I am overwhelmed with my own inability to write anything coherent. I’m willing to admit that part of this confusion could be the result of discontinuing my anti-depressant prescription. A general anxiety that I have not felt in a few years has re-emerged. I feel like I am doing nothing tangible to slow the destruction of the world. I am frantically searching for ways to organize my life to make myself most effective. In order to alleviate these symptoms, I need to know whether poetry is worthwhile.
My friend, the brilliant author Derrick Jensen, often responds to the question about the seriousness of environmental destruction “What do you want me to do?” with, “Ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe.”
It is difficult for me to identify exactly what my gifts are. I studied English in college. I was a good student, but not brilliant. I got good grades because I sincerely enjoyed my classes. I went to law school, studied just enough to pass, and was hired as a public defender. I was passionate about my work as a public defender, but I could not find a way to cope with the constant pressure I felt. Not long after my 26th birthday I tried to kill myself and walked away from work as an attorney.
Maybe this difficulty to identify my gifts stems from the feelings of worthlessness that accompany my version of depression. In my worst moments, I see very little that is good in myself. One of the reasons I tried to kill myself twice was my inability to see that I could make a positive contribution to the world. The more mistakes I made in the public defender’s office the more I felt like my clients would be better off if I was not there. The more anxiety I caused my family as I complained about my life bleeding negativity like an open wound into all my relations, the more I felt like everyone would be better off without me. The more stories that piled up in my news feed telling of another species extinct, another river too poisoned to support life, another incremental elevation in global temperatures, the more I realized the lives I personally was consuming.
And then I realized I would consume nothing if I was dead.
I started writing poetry seriously after my first suicide attempt and I almost just wrote the phrase, “Poetry has played a large role in my recovery.” That word ‘recovery’ is a lie, though. The truth is I have not recovered and I’m not sure I ever will. I still walk that knife’s edge next to total despair.
I always know where there’s a bottle of pills that would do the job. In the back pocket of my intellect, I have a copy of my personal argument for suicide.
I’ve been sitting with my realization that I have not recovered from suicidal despair for a few weeks now. I usually work on my poems every day, but after that realization I was unable to write anything. For a week straight, I sat outside on the back porch of my parents’ house in San Ramon, CA posing my problems to the moon. My notebook sat on my lap and I gripped my pen, but nothing of substance would come. Finally, on the last night, as I nodded off in a pool of starlight, I was called back from half-dreams by the laughter of coyotes over the ridge north of the house. Their laughter was maniacal but not humorless. It was both a comfort and a pain.
After that, I wrote this:
Poems come when they will. Ideas for essays wake me up at 3 AM. I’m self-conscious that many of the best wrote this way. I am not particularly good, I just know that something beyond me happens.
Sometimes, writing comes to me as an illness. I feel it approaching from a long way off. My dreams become more vivid until waking reality is nightmarish. Sleep worsens until it stops. My muscles begin to tighten, twitch, and then cramp. I grow restless. I wander in space – down hallways, up staircases, and in circles in backyards. At first, I try to ignore it. I tell myself it will go away. Drink some water. Eat something. Sit down. But, the denial makes it worse. My stomach begins to cramp. Water gathers in my mouth. My cheeks grow cold. And, then there’s no denying it.
I fall to my knees, grab my pen and notebook, and vomit darkness onto the page. When it’s finished, relief washes over my body in waves. Sickness gone always feels good. I usually fall asleep when its over.
Where does this writing come from? I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that when the darkness settles on the page, leaving something looking like a poem, the writing reflects the life teeming in the world around me. Fish tell me stories all the time. Rivers show me the way to live.
I watch trees watching me and wonder how to speak their language. I’ve written that my poems aren’t really poems at all, but more like prayers. I still think that’s true. I know the world is filled with living beings thinking, speaking, and praying in their own way. I do not know their language, but I try to take notes on what I think they’re saying.
I wrote earlier that I carry my personal argument for suicide in the back pocket of my intellect. I wrote that I would not consume anymore lives if I was dead. But, you know what else is in that back pocket? Pages and pages of half-finished and unwritten poetry. And you know what else a dead man cannot do? Write poetry.
I want to write those half-finished poems I find in my back pocket before I go. I want people to know how many stories are swirling around us all the time. I want those stories to be so good that people will fall in love with the story-givers. And once people fall in love with those stories, I want people to act with everything they’ve got to stop the destruction of those stories.
Is poetry worthwhile? If it can make you fall in love with the world, it certainly is.