Why I can't write a poem for Haiti

Kei Miller - 27 January 2010

I've watched the clips of the Hope for Haiti concert, and I realize that in times like these, artists give what they can give best - their art. So I've seen paintings on sale, and I've heard singles on the radio, and my own inbox is already full, requests from one organization or another asking for a story, or a poem for Haiti. Bless them. I trust they will get their poems, but not from me. I can't write an earthquake poem, just as I couldn't write a tsunami poem, or a 9-11 poem, or any poem that tries to stand side by side with a grieving world, reaching over to dab its eyes. Perhaps I think such poems are unnecessary.

I don't mean to be a curmudgeon, though it's true: five days after the earthquake and I was already tired of all the facebook status messages that simply had to mention the quake in one way or another. I became wary, as I often do, of the world having gone into its saviour mode - how we had begung begging to be congratulated and validated because, just for this moment, we had remembered our humanity. I know I shouldn't be so critical. I should just accept that this is how things are, and I should learn to stomach the excessive sanctimonies because there really is a need, and we really should give what we can. But even so, I cannot give a poem.
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Why? Because a good poem always leads us towards ourselves - and I don't mean in a narcisstic way. I think this is a good thing. And it leads us towards ourselves via a strange route. It will take us through a side-door, or a back door. Sometimes it goes through a window that had been previously locked. The good poem events a whole new language so that we can feel things we didn't know how to feel before. The good poem is emotional. It feels. But in moments like these, we are feeling so much already. The world is like a circle of exposed nerves. So I wonder, what would be the point of poems for Haiti? They would not want to lead us anywhere new. They would only want to stand with us, and they would want to feel exactly what we are feeling right now. They would want to cry our exact tears. In short, I think we would feel what we are feeling, poem or no poem.
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Poetry is about new language, but sometimes I think it is ok to say things in ways that are more familiar to us. In moments like these, we can simply say, our hearts are broken, because they are.

Comments:

Some excellent poems have been written about natural disasters - Thomas Hardy's 'Meeting of the Twain', Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Wreck of the Deutschland' and Hart Crane's 'Eternity' are three examples. But I don't think you need to be apologetic about not feeling moved to write about the Haiti earthquake - the survivors need food, medical attention and support more than they need poetry at the moment. I'm glad you've had the guts to be honest - a refreshing contrast to the rubbish in today's 'Times' (27/01/10) around what is a mediocre 'sonnet' by Simon Armitage written for the 1000th day since the disappearance of Madelaine McCann.

i'm a poet myself. i'm not famous but just a 16yr old boy abl to write. myadvice to youis to read over your opening paragraph of hom impossible it is to write a poem on haiti.reading it, i myself have been inspired to try to create one of my own, i do hope that you willbe able to find that spark inside to help you write. the world shook beaneath the raptures, souls to heaven live a hppy ever after

"...five days after the earthquake and I was already tired of all the facebook status messages that simply had to mention the quake in one way or another. I became wary, as I often do, of the world having gone into its saviour mode - how we had begung begging to be congratulated and validated because, just for this moment, we had remembered our humanity."

You should write a poem that expresses everything you have written here. It might not be what they are expecting but then they asked.

Dave, thanks for coming to this. The poems you mention aren't ones I've read yet, though I'll now correct that immediately. Perhaps we can add to that list Dickinson's 'I have never seen volcanoes', and from my own side of the world Olive Senior once wrote a really beautiful sequence called Hurricane Stories, but she did it with much distance after the events, and it wasn't at all an earnest lamentation but a story of how the world was during particular hurricanes.

anonymous, I'm so pleased that you have come to this, and you are writing poems at 16. By all means write your poem. Sometimes the poems that are the most fun to write are the ones other people tell us we can't write. Just remember, try to find a language for that poem, and once you've found it, respect it, and be careful with it - write it slowly, more slowly than you feel it. And then, the all important thing, spell-check it :). People may one day respect you as a poet if you show them that you respect the craft. Best of luck.

Lucian, ha! In Jamaica we would call you a 'boost-up artist' - that person on the side who instigates people into doing what they maybe had a half a mind to do anyway. But I think I must be wise and decline. :)

Very wise. ;)

W.H. AUDEN
“Musee des Beaux Arts”

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