Walworth, Candace. "The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace--Book Review." Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (JAEPL). 20 (Winter 2015).
Bly, Robert, Hillman, James, and Michael Meade, (Eds.) 1992. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men. New York: HarperPerennial.
—Candace Walworth, published in The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. Winter 1997-98: Volume 3.
Last year my seventy-five year old friend June invited me to Sunday evening poetry potlucks in her living room. Her inspiration was this: to invite a few friends together to share the news of our hearts through poetry. To enter June’s living room, a poem needed only one credential —that it flourish in at least one person’s heart. No leftovers, please, her invitation stated. No poetry you once loved but no longer do. We agreed to liberate ourselves from the discussion of what constitutes “good poetry” for the evening and committed ourselves instead to offering one another the truths of our hearts through poetry. It’s no coincidence that many of the poems collected in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart have been read at the Sunday evening poetry potlucks. June’s invitation was similar to that of Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, co-editors of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. The intention of their collaboration was to collect the poems which “moved men the most in gatherings over the last ten years” (p. xx). The volume ranges from ethnopoetics (tribal and oral poetries) to Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, Anna Achmatova, Sharon Olds, William Blake, and Pablo Nerd, among many others. The poets you might expect to find in such a collection—Kabir, Rumi, and Rilke—are here. And for me there were plenty of surprises, poets and poems I had never heard, or heard of, before.
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart traces the vital ear-heart connection that brought groups of men in the late twentieth century together to explore concerns such as work and community; earthly love; sadness about destruction of the earth; Mother and the Great Mother; zaniness and wildness. Each of the 330 poems included takes up residence in one of 16 chapters, each naming a concern of the heart. An Introduction precedes each chapter, stoking the theoretical fire of the book. The prose style is irreverent, exuberant, and playful, scouting out edges whenever possible. Err or the side of outrageousness rather than correctness, the editorial motto might have been.
The subtitle of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart is Poems for Men. In the foreword, the editors note that “By calling it Poems for Men we don’t mean that this collection is not to be read by women; we would rejoice if women read it” (p. xxi). Though HarperCollins earmarked this book for Poetry/Gender Studies, I would cast my vote for Poetry/Soul Studies if such a category existed or could be invented. The editors emphasize not the differences that separate men and women but the differences that add a mystery, a spice to life. In chapters such as “Father’s Prayers for Sons and Daughters,” “Mother and the Great Mother,” and “The Naive Male,” we’re asked to look where gender issues are pointing, not at the finger pointing. For me -- as a woman reading this book -- the hum of gender throughout was not much louder than my refrigerator. It went on and then off, often fading into the background.
“We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation” (p. ix), write Bly, Hillman, and Meade in the Foreword. The editors remind us that, while many of us learned to criticize poetry, in other parts of the world, people learned by listening to and reciting poetry. The elegant weave of poetry and social commentary throughout raises the question: Where does one end and the other begin?
The heart of the book is a street smart heart, a heart that isn’t afraid to face difficult truths, to haul language up from the bottom of the psyche. A strong current of archetypal psychology runs through the book, especially in the introductions to chapters that focus on personal and collective shadow material. There are several such chapters. One is simply called “War,” which includes Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” as well as Mark Twain’s classic “The War Prayer.” Familiar poems often find homes in unfamiliar places. For instance, Gwendlyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” shows up in a chapter called “Making a Hole in Denial” while Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” appears in the chapter “Mother and the Great Mother.” Many, but not all, of the poems are accompanied by an introductory gloss. James Hillman introduces Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” in this way: “The poem raises the spirit by exaggeration, extending the imagination to the four corners of the earth and the farthest reaches of history. It says, Your mother isn’t just a me; she’s a myth. Of course, she’s too much!” (p. 410).
Storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade introduces a way of listening to shadow-poems: “Unpleasant ideas and words inhabit each of these poems. They don’t seek agreement or approval. They permeate the history of poetry the way that dark and fierce emotions permeate our lives” (p. 288). Meade takes us further into the domain of the shadow in a chapter called “The Second Layer: Anger, Hatred, Outrage.” He describes the First Layer as consisting of “surface courtesies”; the Second Layer “bubbles with feelings, emotions, and indelible attitudes we’d rather not have, wouldn’t choose, and shouldn’t express”; while the Third Layer is home to our fundamental sense of “union and connection with all things” (p. 287).
Once we have made it through the “giants, hags, trolls . . . and outraged motorists” who populate the Second Layer, what about celebrating the vast landscape of human loves? The editors include varieties of love not often celebrated in American culture, for instance, a chapter called “Loving the Community and Work.” “Earthly Love” is given a place of honor, as is transcendent love in the chapter “The Spendrift Gaze toward Paradise.” And what about the bridge between earthly and transcendent love? Kabir, mystic poet of Northern India, responds: “If you find nothing now, / you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of / Death./ If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you / will have the face of satisfied desire” (p. 369). I discovered no shortage of love poems in this volume, which takes advantage of the opportunity to redefine what a love poem is: “All good poems are love poems —not because they tell of love and lovers, but because they reveal the poet’s love of language. Not about love, the poem is love” (p. 158).
I appreciated the emotional ecology of the book, the balance between hard-hitting critique and the soft touch of the wise-fool. As in a medicine forest, where trees with poisonous bark and seeds grow next to trees with the antidote, here, too, poisons and their antidotes live side by side. “A question painfully put in one poem is answered in another” (p. xx). The poisons named range from denial and war to “inflated jargon” and the loss of animals from our lives. A partial list of antidotes prescribed by the authors includes the following: “getting used to having that flavor of bitter truth in the mouth (p. 199); “extravagance for breaking through used language (p. 137); “the practice of the wild” (p. 4); “memory images,” (p. 473); and cultivating the heart, what Antonio Machado calls working with “your old failures” (p. 372).
Zaniness is such an important antidote that an entire chapter is dedicated to the human impulse to play with language, to party with words. Lewis Carroll’s “Father William” opens the chapter, followed by contributions from Langston Hughes, Louis Jenkins, and Bob Dylan, among others. What does it take to master zaniness? There’s not much to go on, but here’s a tidbit: You must preserve “the zaniness without collapsing into banality or meaningless” (p. 450). Funny thing about the zany chapter, there’s no poetry by women here. This omission inspired me to begin a search for writing by women that touches the chord of zaniness. Suggestions, anyone?
David Ignatrow’s poem “I should be content / to look at a mountain / for what it is / and not as a comment / on my life” (p. 471) serves as a gateway to the final chapter, “Loving the World Anyway.” The central question here is: How do we move beyond self-enclosure? Hillman begins the investigation of “loving the world anyway” by describing an all too familiar attitude of irritation: “Rain is a bother; winter nights come too early; things break down and require attention. How can I possibly love a world that consists so largely in Muzak, traffic, and bad coffee?” (p. 473). Then, Hillman pushes a button beyond complaint and tries to answer the question: What does it mean to love the world anyway? We love the world anyway by keeping our eyes and ears, nose, tongue, and skin awake, by careful attention to the ordinary delights of daily life (as in Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks”). In this chapter, we’re challenged to ask ourselves: What keeps us from loving the world unconditionally? And, what’s the difference between our experience of romantic (individual) love and our love for the world? W. S. Merwin’s “West Wall” is noted as a poem which merges “love for a person with love for the world; both ripen together” (p. 493).
Along with June’s poetry potlucks, this volume re-awakened my love of being read to. If this book has a secret, unstated mission, it is to seduce us into reading it out loud to friends and lovers, cats and dogs, trees, mountains, and rivers -- to those we unabashedly love. Here’s Hillman: “Good language asks to be spoken aloud, mind to mind and heart to heart, by embodied voices that still retain the animal and by tongues that still delight in savoring vowels and the clipped splitting of explosive consonants” (p. 159). As you read this book, you may want to experiment with “retaining the animal ” in your voice. A good poem to practice with, I found, was Robert Frost’s “Wilderness,” included in the final chapter.
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart is one among many recent writings that challenged me to reconsider my relationship with poetry. In The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (1994), David Whyte tells what it was like for him to bring poetry to corporate America. Where there’s loss of soul, offer soul-medicine, says Whyte, who burns through the attitude of superiority toward those who live and work in corporate America. If poetry has anything to do with awakening our hearts—why not corporate America’s, too? If poetry is (among other things) a path which leads to greater compassion and insight – why exclude anyone? The theme of inclusion/exclusion is also raised by Dana Gioia, who challenges the image of poet (and poetry) as outsider (Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, 1992). Jane Hirshfield’s recent anthology of spiritual poetry by women (Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, 1994) could be considered a companion volume to The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. The main difference in approach is that Hirshfield's anthology focuses on the poetry and spirituality of affirmation, while The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart takes the Via Negativa (the shadow) as its spiritual and psychological point of departure. On the local front, I wonder whether June’s poetry potlucks might be one tiny indicator of what’s happening among small groups of friends in unknown living rooms across the country.
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart begins and ends with the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The title is from Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and the farewell poem of the volume from Yeats’ “Vacillation.” As I turned over the last page of the book, it seemed as if Bly, Hillman and Meade had rented Yeats and were now returning him to the nonanthology of the world where he can be rented again and again. How many times can the same poem be rented before it’s worn out? Plenty, this volume suggests. By loving a poem, by committing it to heart, you don’t deprive anyone of anything. And thank goodness, copyright laws have no jurisdiction in matters of the heart. Kinko’s can’t stop you from committing Yeats (or anyone else) to heart. Make the poetry you love yours. Make from scratch what you can’t find in a box or a book. Then give it away. Love the world anyway. Know that you are blessed and can bless. Here’s Yeats, with the closing note of the book: “My fiftieth year had come and gone / I sat, a solitary man, In a crowded London shop, / An open book and empty cup / On the marble table-top. / While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed; / And twenty minutes more or less / It seemed, so great my happiness, / That I was blessed and could bless” (p. 507).
As I write, the Sunday evening poetry potlucks (so named because we share poetry as food) continue to thrive, now in our second year. We’re going deeper now, moving more freely between layers, with a greater capacity to listen through (as in “to see through”) words to the space from which they arise. Last Sunday evening we got on a roll of “Second Layer” poetry. Alone, I would not have been able to sustain the descent. Some places it’s best not to travel alone, and some things can only be learned in the company of friends. No wonder this book reeks of collaboration. The joy of exchange I feel with the Sunday evening group is, I think, the same spirit of exchange that generated this book. Regarding their collaboration, the editors note: “These poems have been argued over, repeated, mixed with tears and laughter, and required to end events that didn’t want to close” (p. xx). For me, they created a book that belongs in the stay-up-late-to-read category. As I did, I too mixed tears with laughter. I decided to write this review as a way of continuing the conversation I, as reader, was invited to join.