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The Power of Personal Experience – Part I

Frank X. Gaspar, Night of a Thousand Blossoms

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.

Frank X. Gaspar, Night of a Thousand Blossoms

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

Click here to read Part II of Richard St. John’s “The Power of Personal Experience”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert J. Wickenheiser #

    Rick: You open the door to experiencing the genuine excitement and passion that is poetry. To experience poetry as love or music will ultimately allow one to “get it,” although this is far less important, to be sure. Both your Part I and Part II do much to pass on the love and quality of poetry and that effect that poetry has on our lives. Well done!


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  1. Vol. 1, No. 6: The Case for Poetry in Our Age | The Muse Dialogue

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