Monday, January 28, 2008

Living and Writing

Arna Bontemps, great friend of Langston Hughes, novelist (he wrote Black Thunder, a fine historical novel), and poet, edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1963, and it became a highly regarded, oft-issued anthology, which he revised in 1973. It's still in print, in paperback, from Hill and Wang, and it contains many treasures, including this poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson:

The Poet Speaks

How much living have you done?
From it the patterns that you weave
Are imaged:
Your own life is your totem pole,
Your yard of cloth,
Your living.

How much loving have you done?
How full and free your giving?
For living is but loving
And loving only giving.

Beginning as it does with that question, we might think the poem will advance a customary view --namely, that in order to be a writer, you have to live first, and by "to live" is usually meant adventure, hard times, knocking about--perhaps heavy drinking, boxing, and watching bull-fights, a la Hemingway.

Instead the poem takes a different path and seems to suggest that what kind of living you do is entirely up to you, but that your life will be the material out of which your figurative weaving will be made. Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, expresses a similar view, cautioning writers not to take too seriously the alleged line between "the real world" and college. Hugo can speak with authority because he served in World War II, in a Flying Fortress Crew, and he worked for many years in "the real world" of the Boeing plant near Seattle. He urged writers to write not so much about their lives as from their lives, whatever and wherever those lives might be. He happened to find small obscure towns in the American west an important part of his life--towns that triggered his imagination.

The second stanza of Johnson's poem offers another great surprise; she shift to the topic of loving, which seems to be even more important than life. In other words, she asks, "How generous have you been?'' You don't see people linking generosity and art that often. More often, you see them making excuses for artists. If they're rotten people, it's okay, as long as the art is good.

Then Johnson demystifies loving. It's "only giving," she tells us. Wonderful. Yes, we can all imagine other attributes we might ascribe to loving, but it's hard to quibble with her fundamental definition. Put another way, if you take "giving" from "loving," does "loving" still exist? Does it hold on to its integrity?

We often look to anthologies as books that collect the famous poems and hit the high spots, but they may be more valuable for the not-so-famous poems they include, the overlooked gems, the surprises.
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