Recovering the Lost Joy of Poetry Games
In college, my wife and I bought a rat terrier to protect us from the rats in our apartment. Yes, we had rats in our apartment. I caught eight of them in traps and killed a big one with a newspaper in the kitchen, the little monster hissing at my bare feet one morning until I beat it to death.
So we got a dog. I was prepared to enter the world of cats, even though I'm allergic to cats, but the vet said cats won't necessarily do much against larger vermin.
"Some cats are tough, but you never know," he said. "What you really need is a dog."
We named our dog Ajax after a character in a Toni Morrison novel (for my wife) and a hero from the Trojan War with a supercool figure-8 shield (for me). His warrior side definitely kept the rats away, but that's not why we learned to love our little dog.
We loved him because he never grew up. Even when Ajax was 12 years old (roughly 84 in dog years), even then he wanted to play in the backyard. He was too old to drag me down the street on my rollerblades, but he could chase a stick like nobody's business, always wagging his tail and pawing at my knees with a special playful doggy gleam in his eyes.
When he got sick for the last time, he lost that gleam. His tail wagged a bit when we petted him, but most of the play was gone. He was too tired, in too much pain. He was gone before he was gone because he didn't want to play anymore.
Poetry Can't Forget How to Play
Some parts of the poetry world seem like a dying dog to me. That's a harsh thing to say, I know, but it's true. Some poets forget how to play. They forget how to chase the ball.
I understand that poetry is serious business. Poets capture raw truth with an intensity of language and emotion that startles me slowly. Often, a good poem is deceptively simple, accessible on a basic level but full of depth that brings me back to meditate on the words again. The best poems come back to me before I return to them. An image is so strong it follows me through the day as I go about my work. A good poem punches me in the arm and leaves me feeling a bit sore. Jeanne Murray Walker's poem "Time Has a House" does this. In that poem, she writes, "I turn onto the path to the thistle forest / where trees are dark as forgetting. / You can't see death springing / to life."
And yet, even this poem about death and forgetting has a playfulness, a gleam in its eye. Walker first teases the reader with playful thoughts about blessings and curses, turning the sadness of war into a joke about the house of Time, "a bungalow Time [magazine] rented for its personnel." Her poem must show us that it knows how to play before it can earn the right to address tough topics like death.
In the same way, Diane Glancy teaches us how to play in The Reason for Crows. It is a serious book about Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk girl who loses her parents and her beauty to smallpox, but the book still offers plenty of playful moments. Consider the opening pages. Glancy begins in a dark place: "The moaning was my first memory. I think it was them—my mother and father." Somehow, though, there is still room for playfulness in Kateri's life. She jokes about her bad eyesight and her name, which means "one-who-bumps-into-things." More important, she teaches us that faith itself can be playful:
[My mother] taught me faith in Jesus. She belonged to the Maker the Jesuits called God. He sent his son, Jesus, to become a crow on the cross. He became darkness for us. I made crosses with sticks and left them in the woods—tying them at cross-arms with animal hair or sinew. I tell the rabbits and muskrats about Jesus …. The animals listen.
Jeanne Murray Walker and Diane Glancy are not shallow, but they are still playful. Rather than shy away from suffering, they enter into it with a gleam in their eyes. And their playfulness has so much more meaning because it is a deliberate choice.
Poetry Is More than Just Play
What does this mean for poets and readers of poetry? Billy Collins said it best in "Introduction to Poetry." We drop ourselves into poems like scientists drop mice into a maze. We wave at the poet's name on the shore.
But I want to take it one step further. Poetry is more than just play; it is a game. Like all games, it has four elements: goals (publication of some form so that readers can experience a poem), means (both the means of creation and the means of publication), rules (forms, structures, poetic devices), and players (the community of poets and readers).
The game of poetry is more serious than mere poetry play. My dog Ajax could pull me chariot style while I was roller-blading with him at the park. This was great fun, but it lacked the formal structure of an Urban Mushing Team or a Dog Scootering Fun Run in which people ride behind their dogs on special scooters. My dog had no training.