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Mission Ramble


My students have been trained—mistrained, I’d say, by too many teachers—to believe that every work of literature is reducible to a theme. They call it, to my dismay, “the deeper meaning,” as if the treasure (and pleasure) of poetry resides not in the poem, but somewhere in its basements and dungeons. I do not read or teach poetry that way. I certainly don’t write it that way . . . as a dog buries its bone.

I have obsessions; I have fears; I have dreams. Mostly, I have questions. Rarely have I deeper meanings or themes or answers.

And when I do, I don’t bury them. Whatever satisfaction and fulfillment readers find in my poems emanates, I hope, from the experience etched in them—in the words, the music, the wondering, and wonder.

I often feel more like a jazz singer than a poet. The words denote and imply only insofar as the vocalist improvises a melody, a mood, and a rhythm. Sinatra’s phrasing; Billie’s mimesis. I seek to capture, with the diction and syntax of each poem the sound of speaking and simultaneously the sound of thinking and feeling.

I often feel more like an actor than a poet. I need to think and feel like the speakers of the poems: so many of them lost and helpless, foolish and mean. I need to understand them to play them . . . to give them voice and a chance to redeem themselves.

I often feel more like a painter than a poet. I see what’s horribly and beautifully in front of my eyes—only peripherally visible to passersby—and try to frame those images with colors sometimes bolder than real (sometimes black and white), with a composition that leads an audience in time through a narrative, and with discernible brushstrokes proving that some one, at least, has noticed.



After thirty years in Asia, twenty-five in Indonesia, I remain an outsider, but a loving one—working hard in my personal and professional life never to be or even seem imperial, but well aware that I will always have feet the size of Gulliver’s. Such tensions and paradoxes are part of Indonesia in particular, and one of the reasons it fascinates me so. This is a deeply religious nation, but its roots are in the soil of an animistic archipelago. For a Muslim back from Mecca to consult a dukun, a shaman, is no surprise; for a village’s most respected Christian convert to describe how his father turned into a snake to attack his enemies presents no contradiction; for a Jakarta street singer to wear an Osama bin Laden tee shirt and a New York Yankees cap distresses no one.

The ultimate paradox, the cohabitation of life and death, is solved no where on earth, but around this Asian ring of fire, it burns so dramatically and so frequently, that a poet can be forgiven for believing that he has come to accept the fragility of his own life on a planet so powerfully spirited amidst a universe so wonderfully incomprehensible. What is dead? What is alive? Maybe the questions, though unanswerable, are irrelevant. Maybe poetry defies the questions.

glyphs1.jpg Writing a poem is a strangely selfless act, I think. Although the motivation for starting a poem is often a deeply personal feeling of loss or pain or confusion or joy that must be expressed, the poem will make its own demands on the poet. The poem wants clarity; the poem wants beauty; the poem wants to become a medium through which one individual experience can be communicated over miles and years to be felt by unknown “generations.”  And so the poet must come to care more about the poem than about the intimate emotion that gave it inspiration. In this way, poetry heals--not by disremembering, but rather by revising memory into a palpable presence. One that can be shared. Poetry immortalizes.