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Folding the Clothes
by Gordon Edwards

There is a poem that hangs on my wall written by Tess Gallagher, which she has named "I Stop Writing the Poem." It goes like this:

I stop writing the poem
to fold clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I'm still a woman.
I'll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I'll get back
to the poem. I'll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there's a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it's done.

© Copyright 1992, Tess Gallagher.
    From a man's perspective, this is a revealing poem about what it is like being a woman. That is what I imagine. But I also feel it is poem about poets. In the middle of writing she stops to fold clothes. It is not what makes her a woman; it does not define her, nor define Women writ large. It is part of her history; yet she is more than her history. But I think there is more going on here.

    In one sense, she points to a difference between poets and writers. Donald Hall wrote about this difference when he said that while prose "linear and sequential," in poetry "many things are going on at the same time and these layers of time and density of language make the poem uniquely poetic." There is something very important here, and there is something missing. What it says to me is that prose is about time and place, and so it is primarily historical-- not in the sense a retelling of facts, but that it has a setting and flow that mirrors the context and movement of time. Poetry, on the other hand, rises out of time in that it has a depth of experience that transcends time.

    Robert Frost wrote that "there can be no creative imagination unless there is a summoning up of experience, fresh from life." As an imaginative voice, poetry must rise out of our experience. Poetry begins in personal history, yet it rises out of it --transcends it --above it so to speak. And so it ceases to be history in the sense that time and place move on one tick ahead of the other.

    The poet longs for the experience of being lifted out, of feeling ecstasy as the mystics did, literally "out of one's mind." It is a longing I think for timelessness, for being free of the boundaries of time, being released from the cause and effect of personal history. So poetry flirts with escape and unreality, walking a fine line between sanity and madness.

    If poets were left here, in the clouds, there would be no speaking to those of us still on earth. As the mystics, they would be bound to silence. But that is not what happens. In this explosion of the moment, the mushroom of meaning within the most basic of experiences, there is also compression of the image. Poetry paints a richness of our experience and our imagination in few brush strokes of words. There is a compactness and density of meaning in the metaphor, the symbol and the image. Like a single sculpture viewed from different angles, there is a new experience with each step about the work. And there is an at-once-ness of viewing the richness and layers of meaning that is truly out-of-time.

    Unlike the mystics, in the end, poets do not leave history behind. At the least, poets use the language of history, the phrases and metaphors of context. At the most, they end up creating new histories that have every bit a beginning and an end, as people's lives. This is the true measure and meter of poetry: that it captures the moment, that it re-presents it to be experienced anew in the poem, so that it connects with the personal experience of the listener, and then presents the newness that transcends it as surprise and expectation.

    For the poet, this experience of creating the true poem creates a dilemma that is always unresolved-- the need to rise above and the need to be anchored within at the same time. Cut either one, and we stop writing the poem.

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    Document last modified on: 12/01/1997

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