Why All This Music?

Why All This Music? June 26, 2012

Guest Post

I grew up in the Mohawk River valley of upstate New York. By the time the long, frigid winter was over, we’d often seen more snow than anywhere in the country.

Life was rugged both inside and outdoors.

My dad was angry and drunk and hit my brother and me and crashed our family vehicles and hated his job and, I think, himself. He made pitchforks at the Union Tool Company, working in the forge, a role even the toughest guys in the factory respected. Some of them tried it for a few days for the higher pay but couldn’t hack it. My father did it for twenty-seven years. He came home with burns on his clothes and skin several times a week.

My father was an alcoholic whose own father promptly drank himself to death after causing my grandmother and their three kids to leave him for good—an event that, in 1950s working class America, was normally reserved for a profound level of misery.

One Father’s Day, when I was six or seven, my dad put me in the car but didn’t say where we were going. When we arrived at Ilion Cemetery, we got out, walked over to his father’s grave, stared at it, walked back to the car, and drove home. Not a word passed between us. That was almost thirty years ago.

In his book Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes:

There’s a proverb that shows up in many cultures and goes something like this: the willow that bends in the wind survives; the oak that resists, breaks. The wisdom that underlies the personal lyric is akin to this proverb. This wisdom says: the way to survive disorder is to let it enter you, to open yourself to it, rather than resisting it or denying its power and presence.

Having something healthy to do with one’s pain is central for Orr, whose early collection, Gathering the Bones Together, deals with the accidental death of his brother. Peter Orr was eight years old when their father took them hunting and a gun that Greg was holding went off, killing Peter.

How does one “gather the bones together”—reconstitute that which is lost? It’s impossible. Orr later turned to poetry, translating experience into language. Art was a response to deep, personal pain and, as he claims, a way of surviving. He writes, “It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves.”

Writing poetry became a choice to stay alive in the long term, to achieve a form of order in the most basic and practical sense.

Poetry also helped me open myself to the disorder of my early life by exploring it imaginatively. I’ve written many poems about where and how I grew up. I even found a symbol in a strange gesture my grandparents made years ago: they planted a plum tree in the field beside their house.

One does not grow plums in Leatherstocking Country, and so that plum tree died—but not until yielding a few summers of sweet fruit as unexpected as grace. For me, the plum tree came to stand for all fragile things in a harsh place, some of which miraculously survive and even flourish.

When I first discovered the power of poetry to help me make sense of chaos, I went through a period of reading and writing for the next epiphany, hunting it down as a thrill seeker does the next rush.

Of course that’s not sustainable. Someone has said that the trouble with life is its daily-ness. Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, points out that we cannot live at the center—that it is not our lot to experience ecstasy or beauty day after day.

But neither can we live only on the fringes of the ordinary. When we stay out there too long, we risk isolation, depression, eccentricity; we lose the human connection we need. So, Rohr says, all life is a dance between the center and the edges. Our hope, he adds, is to learn to dance more gracefully.

Gregory Orr’s poetry not only suggests the dance from the center to the margins but enacts it. In the mystical volume Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved, Orr asks the poignant question:

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…

If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

I write about my dad. I write about the plum tree. I’ve since broken the silence about my father’s father; we’ve had one or two conversations about him, which is one or two more than I had the first thirty years of my life. All of these subjects are, for me, paradoxical—a slow dance between center and margin.

To be honest, I’m not always sure which direction I’m moving in.

A few months after my first volume of poems came out, my father wrote me a short note. It said, “I read your book. You remembered everything, and you wrote it all down.”

I hate to grasp after explanation where mystery must suffice, but I wonder if his words contain a kind of recognition that disorder entered us but imagination has begun to transform it.

I’ll never know, but I know I count myself in Gregory Orr’s camp, among people for whom poetry is indeed a matter of survival. If my writing yields fruit for a season—and only enough for me, my dad, and maybe a handful of neighbors, then I will keep on. I’ll keep dancing from carcass to spark and back as long as the music plays.

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  • Gorgeous and brave work, Dan. And what a pleasure it is to see some of the thoughts/discussions of the Glen Workshop (East) “gathered together” in this way. Thank you, friend.

    • Dan

      Thank you, Adele. And thanks again to you and our fellow Glen East friends for letting me hash out some of these thoughts on the fire escape. 🙂

    • Bravo, Dan. You move the human heart with this essay. Thank you for sharing!

      • Dan

        Thank you, Sheryl– I appreciate that so much!

  • Thank you so much, Dan, for telling your story. The plum tree– so beautiful– and your description of “fragile things in a harsh place.” This post tells me so much about you, good man.

    • Dan

      Thanks, Denise. So good to see you in South Hadley. Let me know if you ever make your way back to your native state–we have lots of room.

  • Dyana Herron

    Amazing work, Dan. Meeting and hearing Gregory Orr at Glen East really loosened some kind of knot in me, and you did a great job of describing how vital and transformational it is to think of poetry as a means of survival. Thanks for this.

    • Dan

      Thanks, Dyana. I felt the same “loosening of a knot” when I dove into POETRY AS SURVIVAL to prep for my introduction. Great seeing you at Glen East, and looking forward to next time.

  • This is so beautiful and brave and wise. And I echo Adele’s comment about seeing the goodness of Glen East running through this post. Wonderful, Dan.

    • Dan

      Thank you, Katie. I’m so glad to have met you, and I’m excited to follow your excellent work.

  • Marvelous to find you here on Good Letters, Dan. And what a grace-filled post. Rohr’s image of all life as a dance between center and margins is profoundly beautifully, as is the way you then develop this image. I’m reminded of Auden’s line “If there when Grace dances, I should dance.” (from “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten”)

    • Dan

      Thank you, Peggy! And thank you for the Auden. I’m forever grateful to the Image/Glen community for this conversation we can all have, and that many of need so deeply.

  • This says so much: “You remembered everything, and you wrote it all down.”

    • Dan

      Absolutely, Kari. I chew on that phrase a great deal, and hesitated to go near it. 🙂

  • Dan, I’ve been waiting for this. Thank you for posting. Your introduction was fitting. Your words sing. Being in his class was life changing. Here’s the nutgragh of the entire week for me, the unforgettable take away.

    “What are the disorders that are significant in your life that have urgency, that are worthy of the attention of your imagination. Articulate them, order them, dramatize them.”

    What Dyana said. Ditto. “It loosened some kind of knot in me.” 🙂

    • Dan

      Thank you, Kathleen! Next time we Glen together, let’s have a meal. I would love to hear more about being in the poetry workshop.

  • Your words caught at my throat. Wise and weathered. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life. I look forward to reading your poetry.

    • Dan

      Thank you, Mikaela–I appreciate that very much.

  • Tyler McCabe

    Thank you, Dan. It’s wonderful to read two lives–Greg Orr’s and your own–twined together. I think anyone who has ever experienced trauma would agree with these thoughts.

    • Dan

      Thanks, Tyler. And thanks for all the good work that went into Glen East, where these thoughts started coming together.

  • This is absolutely beautiful and true. Thank you.

    • Dan

      Thank you, Sara. It was tough to write. I appreciate the support very, very much.

  • Really wonderful piece, Dan. Thank you for your honest words.

    • Dan

      Thank you, Tania. Hope your summer travels are going well, and I look forward to catching up soon.

  • Well done!

    • Dan

      Thanks, David! Orr was amazing and I’m still just scratching the surface of his work. Hope to see you in Chicago again soon–loved the reading you and Steve did.

  • Jo Vance

    Thank you, thank you, Dan. These words are so true. I grappled with Orr’s work earlier this year as a way to save myself from a loss. I am so grateful you shared your grapplings with us.

    • Dan

      Jo, thank you, and great to “hear your voice” insofar as that’s possible online. Orr’s work is a gift, and has helped me understand my own poems and why I write. Glad we share some of this experience. Let me know how things are going if you get a chance.

  • Yup.
    Either life-giving or depleting. And sometimes both.
    Dan, your prosaic commentary on poetry is fabulous stuff.
    I think maybe you belong to another camp of artist coach.
    I’m in that camp myself.

    • Dan

      Mick, thank you–that means a lot to me. Nonfiction is frightening for me, but can be cathartic when I take it on.

      You know how much I appreciate what you do…we should figure out how to work together on a project at some point…

  • Very good. I was impressed how, the moment Gregory Orr spoke those lines how the places was electrified… and how the metaphor lived throughout the week. I’ve repeated it many times to friends in the last two weeks. Thanks for sharing this here and letting us see how you’ve embodied the way of transformation. Your last line evoke the tears.

    • Dan

      Dale, you’re absolutely right–his words became flesh for us, and helped me on the journey (as did the many wonderful conversations taking place throughout the week). I love the Glen for the ways it increases me and all of us. Glad to meet you there and looking forward to following your work.

  • Kevin Fitton

    What I love is that you bring writing and living together here. It’s not writing as an excuse to avoid living but writing to make living possible.

    • Dan

      Thanks, Kevin–I’m trying to live into that every day. Like many other things, it’s easy for me to make it an either/or when it certainly is a both/and, and a complex one to boot.

      Looking forward to reading more of your work soon.

  • In the week since I first read this post, the image of the plum tree keeps returning to my mind—”a few summers of sweet fruit as unexpected as grace,” even in “a harsh place.” Thank you for seeing and remembering, and for capturing it in a dance we can all share.

  • Dan

    Kristin, thank you so much for chewing on the image with me. I can’t tell you how much that means.

  • Dan,
    I am just now “catching up” after being out-of touch. Lovely post–eloquent and graceful. I so wanted to be at Glen East, sounds as if I missed a mountain-moving experience. Blessings to you.

    • Dan

      Thanks, David–Glen East was just what I needed when I needed it. How incredible to spend time with friends old and new, and of course to get good words from amazing artists. Where would I be without this Image/Glen/SPU MFA community of ours? 🙂