FALL 2009

Michael Henson


I still remember the night I first read ---that is, read well--- “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It was late at night; my wife and son had gone to bed and, in my insomniac manner, I took a book to the couch. Everything was quiet, even the mice in the cabinets, even the boom box of the dope boys down the street. In that silence, the poem opened to me in a new way, all elbows and smells, voices and riversounds, rich, lively detail. But as the poem proceeds, the poet begins to speak directly to the reader:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me.

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, that you might suppose.

At this point, he had me. I was willing to go anywhere he would take me. And then I came to these lines:

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

I was sure, at that moment, he was right there in the room with me.
I had the sense, a distinctly physical ---and not entirely comfortable--- sense that Walt Whitman was speaking the words of the poem directly to me, as if his beard was at my ear, as if he stood just behind me, just out of sight, but present, physically present, as no speaker in a poem has ever been present to me before or since.


It might be possible to sort poets into polar opposites: the recluse and the bard. Nothing pure about this; most poets are something of each. The bardic, public poet must retreat at least long enough to set words down on paper and even the most private of recluses has dreams, at times, of having an audience outside the walls of a small upstairs room. But some tend more toward the one than toward the other.

The recluse ---I think of Emily Dickinson--- speaks small (deceptively small) and does not appear to reach out to anyone. I think also of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who would rather have had his poems burnt than published. Or many thousands of others of whom we will never hear because they wrote for themselves alone and did not seek to reach out to others.

At the other pole, that of the bard, Whitman is the salient example. The bard writes large and tries consciously to speak for, of, and to a community. Even the shape of his or her writing assumes on an audience. This would include the Beats, rappers, slam poets, Dylan Thomas, and anyone who regularly signs up at an open-mike reading.

But I do not think the bardic, public poets are the only ones who create community.

I would like to argue, partly for the sake of where the argument takes me, that any poet, if he or she writes true, creates community. For if you write a poem and I read it well (and if you have written it true) then there is a connection between us. My spirit comprehends at some wordless level something of your spirit. We are linked; we are connected. The connection may be fleeting; it may be very short-lived. I may forget all about you and your poem by tomorrow, or even later today.
Or I may be profoundly changed and the connection, as a lived, conscious nexus, may last a long time. You may never know you made this connection. And most times, as these things go, you do not. But there has been a moment, however small in the scale of all that is random and disconnected and alienated and fractured in our lives, when one consciousness has reached, through the medium of the poem, to another,
We have created ---you by writing the poem true, I by reading it well—a kind of small, momentary community.
Does this connection change the world?
I would like to think so.


There are poems which appear to me to be deliberately counter-communal. which seem to me to work against community. The language poets, for example, do not seem to me to care whether they make a personal connection to a reader or not. Yet, there does appear to be a community of people who read and relate to this sort of poem. So what do I know? I can recognize my prejudices; at times, I can even overthrow my prejudices. And I can decide not to judge. Which is something we learn to do in building community.


At various times in my life, I have worked as a community organizer. For part of that time, I had a mentor in the field who told me that what we were doing was not necessarily winning victories for a community (he was not of the Saul Alinsky school; he was, himself, something of a poet). In doing community organizing, we were organizing community, he said, and the creation of community was a victory, all by itself.

Leave aside for a moment political considerations (and leave aside the debate about the Alinsky model of community organizing) and think about what we build when we build community. We create bonds among a group of people who share some common interest and common need and in the process of addressing that interest and need come also to share an identity and a sense of fellow-feeling and an ethos of mutual support. This is worth having even if we don’t win the new playground or stop the power plant (though I won’t deny that winning is nice).

I would argue that the true poem does this work of community-building as well. Even if it is only shared from you to me or from me to you, if you write a poem true and I read it well, we connect and that connection is of a fellow-feeling and identification and is mutually supportive, even if we never know each other and the community we build lasts only for the time it takes me to get to the next poem.


Poets and their poems form community at various levels. There is that one-on-one level by which your poem (or that of Emily Dickenson, or that of Walt Whitman) speaks to me and we have a connection, one human to another. We tend to think of communities as larger entities than a pair of mutual reader-poets. But as our world continues to isolate us, set us one against another, dog against alienated dog, I think we should be happy to see any barrier against understanding and communication break down.

So let us give due respect to the recluse. She does not go out often, but she reaches us from the study of her Amherst house ---a little removed from the center of town, and she tells us things about herself ---and ourselves--- that do not leave us for she has known us from long ago. As we read her, she stands just behind us, just out of sight.


So where is the community that the poem builds? When I was a community organizer, it seemed fairly simple to define the community. I could point to the geographic boundaries of the community I supposedly organized. We had the Mill Creek to the east, the Ohio River to the south, Maryland Avenue to the west, and Ernst Street to the north and everything within those bounds was the “community.” But that was deceptive. The community I hoped to help was defined only in part by geography. The real community was only that part of the “community” where I worked. The real community to be organized was among that group of people who shared a concern for the issue ---in this case, environmental justice--- and who more importantly shared a concern for each other, a fellow-feeling, and an ethos of mutual support. We had to build this community before we could hope to impact the “community” as a geographic whole.

I believe that this happens with the poem, though it happens in the ether, beyond geography, within the poem-reader nexus, in a mind-to-mind or (if the poem is true enough) soul-to-soul connection through the medium of the poem.

There is, I believe, a world-wide spiritual community made up of poets and readers who have constructed these human ties in spite of time and place, indifferent to all that seeks to divide, atomize, and break us down.


But can the community of the poet-reader nexus happen on a more direct, person-to-person level? The most obvious place to look is where people are reading their poems to one another, as in a writers group or a poetry reading, in kitchens and coffeehouses, in church basements, bars, and writing centers like The Loft in Minneapolis or InkTank in Cincinnati. The impetus for the poem to build community in such a setting is explicit. A poet reads, and if the poem is true, or true enough, and if the people in the room listen well, or well enough, then something in them will say Yes, this is what brings us together. This puts into words what we have been feeling. How deep a Yes depends on how deeply true is the poem (and on how deeply the hearers have listened). But if a poem is true, not in its literal or factual truth, but in the emotional and symbolic way of a poem, then the group’s connection takes on some of that truth and the group becomes that much more of a community.


The poet-scholar Jenifer Vernon describes the building of “new kinds of lumpy-shaped community” through a multi-cultural open-mike poetry series in San Diego and of the connections created among disparate individuals who might not otherwise ever meet. She quotes the San Diego poet Salim Sivaad,

There’s definitely a thing where there’s a synergy happening
between you and the audience, the audience is feeding your
art and you’re feeding the audience art, it works both ways,
and it’s the best thing, man. I mean, art in isolation for art’s
sake is dead! Art is for the upliftment of society, and what
better way than in a very direct, public context, like
performance. 1

Art, he says, is for the upliftment of society. And how does the art of the poem uplift society? By the creation of identity, fellow-feeling, and mutual support. By creating community.


Again, does all this community-building make a difference in the world? I would like to think so. I would like to think a poem has the sort of power that makes a difference in the world.

In 2003, all over the United States, poets, instigated by Sam Hamill, organized readings and events under the aegis of Poets Against the War. We wrote and read our hearts out, but we didn’t, obviously, stop the war. We spent several evenings reading and ranting and the war went right on ahead without us.

We did not stop the war. What we stopped was the feeling that we were alone. Yes, we were preaching to the choir. But the choir at that time felt very isolated, powerless, and threatened. Sharing the poems, everything from ghazals to raps, allowed us to speak to each other. We had, for that time at least, a mutual concern, a fellow-feeling, and a period of mutual support. We still have not, as of this writing, stopped that damn war. But we stopped feeling alone.


I belong to a conscious community of poets and writers called the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. If I have the history right, the thing that brought the original core together was love of poetry and beer and hatred of strip-mining. We hold two regularly scheduled meetings a year, we hold occasional readings, and we publish a little journal we call, for reasons I have never understood, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. We read, we talk, some of us drink the beer, we plan our next meeting, and we do not appear to otherwise change the world. We also do not appear to be much of a threat to the mining industry. But something does happen. Richard Hague ---the under-recognized poet who is, I believe, one of the finest poets writing in this country today--- describes it in this poem which I cite in full:

Talking Together

Annual meeting of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative,
Highlander Center, Tennessee, l982

Lord, how our voices often mingle,
creeks rounding down from a thousand miles
to wed the same bright river

And how we mouth our favorite names:
say poplar, sycamore, broom sedge
like prayers

And how we have seen the same birds
flock among the white pine groves
of the oldground we’ve helped heal,
And how we seem to have heard the same stories,
seen the same men on street corners
of small towns so barren
they have no football team

And how we have loved women who look and speak like sisters
And how we have hunted the same deer
on stands decades apart,
And how we have found the same stones in creeks
And how we have seen the same wonders at night
in places hundreds of miles distant
(wild cherry branches shuttling in the breeze,
Arcturus living like an eye above the oak)

And how we have failed the same jobs,
workers slumped over Chevys and Fords,
machinists hurt in our hearts by slivers of steel,
hunters limping upridge with bloodied feet

And how, when we find ourselves together,
standing around gas pumps or stoves in old stores,
waiting for tires to be changed,
for children to be drilled by the clinic dentist in town,
for fathers to die in the hospitals of county seats

We find something to say that means us,
that names us neighbors and kin,
that finds within us words to connect:
coon hounds loved in common,
a relative with the same name,
a character true to type in all our places:

Lord, how our lives often mingle,
how we mouth our favorite names,
how we sing in voices old, flat, or sweet:

How we know one we know another,
how we love even what we hate
for how it brings us together. 2

At the end of our meeting, we drive down from the mountain with a little more courage. We feel a little more engaged with the world, a little more resolved to act out of fellow-feeling and mutual support, a little more likely to share that with others.

That, in a fractured, disconnected, and alienating world, is a victory in itself.



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