The Power of Personal Experience – Part I
by Richard St. John
There are lots of ways to talk about poetry. Here’s one that resonates, especially, for me: Poetry is a way of telling truth. A particular kind of truth: not the stripped-down “truth” of a mathematical equation or controlled scientific experiment, but the felt, lived truth of human experience.
A good blueprint and set of instructions might tell you how to construct a piece of furniture. A good poem helps you experience what it’s like to run your fingers across the grain of an old oak table – and not just any table – perhaps the table you came to cherish over hundreds of shared, sometimes contentious family gatherings, the table just now being carried away from the forced sale of your brother’s estate.
It’s personal. It’s the uniqueness and complexity of human experience – and in that person-to-person particularity we discover or recapture something important about the world and ourselves. We may encounter something new – experience very different from our own. More often, as Robert Frost put it, poetry is “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”
Here are some lines from Frank X. Gaspar, that evoke the complexity of human relationships, our intimacy and separateness that can come and disappear in an instant:You can’t see far into the city on a night like this, the blanket, the cool smell of the sea, the dampness that sits like velvet on the rose bushes and the African lilies and the fenders of the neighbor’s truck. You don’t want less love—this ground has been covered before— you want more love, even when you can’t say what it means, even though it binds you to the world, which you can only lose. Then it is jasmine in the night, night of a thousand blossoms, and my wife in one room breathing and my son in one room breathing, and me in one room breathing. It’s how loving this place comes, slowly, then suddenly with great surprise, and then vanishing again into mystery. Am I dreaming all of this? Is that a train’s long whistle riding the heavenly fog? Am I drunk on holy books and the late hours? Now a car rolls down the street, filling it with light then emptying it again. It’s like that. Just like that.
Yes, it is just like that. And you’ll never learn it from a scientific experiment.
But what if you feel you just “don’t get” poetry? Maybe you’ve found it a little daunting or you hated the poems you were forced to read in high school.
Well, I’d like to talk with you about that, too – in my next installment for The Muse Dialogue.
 If you want to check out the whole poem or more of Frank X. Gaspar’s work, I encourage you to do so, in either of two excellent volumes: Night of a Thousand Blossoms (Alice James Books, 2004) or The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (Autumn House Press, 2011).
Richard St. John is a poet and former Executive Director of Autumn House Press.