Poetry for Southern California
Andrea Scarpino Guest Editorial
by Andrea Scarpino
In the poem, “Ourselves or Nothing,” Carolyn Forché writes, “everywhere and always/ go after that which is lost.” Since I first read those words more than ten years ago, they have directly shaped my writing and thinking about poetry, the poet’s place in the world, and how poetry can be an agent of change. When I was writing my first collection of poems, a chapbook with explicitly political themes, I understood her words in a political vein: to be a poet means to speak truth to power, to search for unheralded and forgotten voices and to record them, to hold lost stories up to the light again. As I was writing, I searched for atrocities forgotten by the American imagination, for forgotten people (mostly women, who are mostly forgotten in history anyway) who had directly experienced war or atrocity but whose voices hadn’t been recorded, for lost moments that define who we continue to be as a people.
I wasn’t always as successful as I wanted to be in writing “that which is lost,” but I always tried to keep Forché’s words as my compass in bringing the political into my poetry, and my poetry into the political. Then, as I was preparing my manuscript to send out for publication, my grandmother, father and a friend all died in the space of three months. Suddenly, I found a very different way to understand Forché’s directive. Instead of seeing her words through a political lens, I began to see them through the personal, to think of them as instructing me to write about the people in my life who were suddenly and unexpectedly lost.
So I started writing more personal poems focused on my own stories of loss and I researched other poetry and writing of loss, from elegies and memoirs to research on how Americans currently think about dying and death. Again, I haven’t always been as successful as I’ve wanted in writing “that which is lost,” but I continue to find Forché’s words a guiding principle, and I’m beginning to think that’s because they’re the heart of all lasting poetry. Doesn’t all good poetry have some sort of loss at its center, some sadness or trauma, some awareness of the ephemeral nature of our lives?
Lousy love poems, I’ve told my students in the past, are often lousy because they don’t contain any tension, any darkness, any threat of a life without love. Instead, they drip with saccharin pink professions that just don’t ring true to our complicated experiences with love. Love poems that do grab a reader’s emotions, on the other hand, contain some sort of tension. They may focus on a love that has already ended or is threatening to end, or they may hint at death eventually separating those in love. Whatever the case, “that which is lost” or that which threatens to be lost helps ground them.
Think of W. H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” for example, whose speaker addresses a lover who has died. When Auden writes, “He was my North, my South, my East and West,” part of the power of his words comes from the past tense “was.” If the verb had been in present tense, and the poem written as if the lover were still alive, the poem wouldn’t ring true in the same way; in fact, I would argue, it would seem melodramatic, overly wrought. When Auden writes at the end of the third stanza, “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong,” and then in the poem’s last line, “For nothing now can ever come to any good,” we excuse him melodrama because we understand his speaker is grieving. Auden is “going after “that which is lost” and holding it up for us to see, helping his reader understand both the depth of his speaker’s love, and the depth of his pain and grief.
Returning to Forché’s “Ourselves or Nothing” in the months after my own personal losses, I realized that, indeed, her poem also tells of personal relationships. It’s not just a political poem, although the political is coursing through its veins, and it’s not just a poem about the burden of remembering atrocity, which is what my memory had focused on. It’s also a poem about friendship, about the writing life, about what it means to choose “ourselves” over “nothing.” All along, when I had been thinking of the poem instructing me to search out the politically oppressed who are lost to history, I had ignored or forgotten the fact that the poem also instructs us to search out personal relationships with others, to choose “ourselves” as a radical act when faced with destruction and death.
So I find myself these days searching for the lost in my own stories, expanding my vision of what it means to be a poet who consciously and with great effort goes “after that which is lost,” and understanding Forché through a more personal, relational lens I hadn’t even remembered was part of her poem. This is the gift of great poetry: it allows us to return to it again and again with new understanding, new remembering, new frameworks with which to shape our own writing lives.
Andrea Scarpino is the author of the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press). She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and widely published in both print and online journals. A longtime activist, she has worked for anti-war movements, feminist campaigns and environmental organizations. She currently is the West Coast Correspondent for the blog Planet of the Blind.