Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Can Poetry Change Lives?

Yes, of course poetry changes lives - or maybe puts into words the changes that we are experiencing.  Or both.  Here's a poem I first read as I was turning 20 in 1972.  It's worth revisiting at any age:

Revolutionary Letter #1
                                               by Diane di Prima

I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over
the roulette table, I recoup what I can
nothing else to shove under the nose of the maître de jeu
nothing to thrust out the window, no white flag
this flesh all I have to offer, to make the play with
this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move
as we slither over this go board, stepping always
(we hope) between the lines

This is the first poem in the book, Revolutionary Letters, by Diane di Prima, published in the Pocket Poets series by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books.

Di Prima’s letters deal with what to do if attacked by teargas and how to dress for a demonstration. Letter #9, for example, begins, "advocating/the overthrow of government is a crime/overthrowing it is something else/altogether."

Letter #1 sets the tone for the letters that follow. It begins with a sudden realization that "the stakes are myself." All we have is our selves, our bodies, our lives. If this is all I have, the poem tells me, I had better be careful how I play and what I risk.

In the last few lines of the poem, we are taken from the spinning roulette wheel to a GO board, and it is "my move."  GO is a meditative game where you win by slowly and patiently surrounding the opponent.  Each player places a stone on a point where the lines intersect, gradually enclosing territory.

In the GO board of the poem, however, we move stealthily, "stepping always (we hope) between the lines."  In other words, we may be on a GO board where all moves are made ON the lines – but we will live by our own rules, looking always from different perspectives, and slithering -- unobtrusively, smoothly, gliding and sliding -- across the landscape of our lives.

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