Remembering James White and his lesson about the subject of poetry

A recent article by John Townsend in Lavender Magazine, (June 11-24, 2015), Remembering James L. White, brought to mind that period in the 1980s when I was a young poet hungry for recognition and casting about for what would ease me over that obstacle of earnest writing but no audience.

I was fortunate enough to be associated with the COPMAS Poets in the Schools then, and one day Molly (LaBerge) Taylor asked me to meet a new poet who was coming to town, Jim White. I drove out to the airport to pick him up and we hit it off right away, primarily because Jim was so open, so gentle and so generous. Soon he was coming over regularly to our house for meals and companionship, quickly becoming a great friend of our children and, more than a guest, becoming a member of our family.

From the outset, Jim brought something new and surprising to our writing community. Each time he gave a reading of his poetry, he read new work! That may not sound so unusual now, but back then there were about seven recognized poets in our city and they would read the same work over and over again whenever they appeared at a reading, as if those well-rehearsed poems were their identity card and they did not want to change what they had already invented heavily in.

Jim, on the other hand, was writing on an entirely different plane. He had little or no sense of a fixed identity and went looking for himself in each new poem he wrote. Another way to say this is he wrote about his life, that day, that moment, as he made each new poem. All this was big news to me, as I had been trying to write poetry about what I thought I knew, rather than about what I didn’t know.

That was thirty or more years ago and I am still learning his lesson. Jim left us several guide books for the journey to learning…and accepting…who we are, most notably The Salt Ecstasies, his final book of poetry, published by Graywolf Press in 1982 just a few months after his untimely death from heart disease.

So…what is poetry for? In the light of what Jim’s work teaches us, poetry is a way to learn about honesty, personal honesty. It is a way to draw back the arras of “I don’t want to go there” and to look deeply into our own lives. Said another way, poetry lifts us from the mental formulations Buddhist teaching suggest keep us imprisoned in fear or anger or uncertainty and allows us to embrace our fear, or shame, or joy.

By making this claim for poetry I am not suggesting there are no other avenues to self knowledge, or to engaging in honesty at the deepest level, or even to our demons.   I am offering, in defense of poetry in an age which seems hell-bent on avoiding any mentions of struggle or hard work, the rewards for spending time finding just the right word, the best turn of phrase, the most precise and apt image – instead of settling for the first thought that comes along – are legion.

For me, at this point in my life of writing, it means I am learning to pause and invoke an awareness of the precious gift of living. To find the latitude for savoring the inherent colors and fragrances of each moment instead of thinking up some supposed truth about life is finally, liberating. It means I have long abandoned the notion of having others evaluate and judge and praise or criticize my work. Something else entirely is occurring now when I write a poem. I exist…in the most vibrant and present way possible. And this tingling awareness of what it means to be alive spills over into all those moments of the day when I am not at my desk writing poetry.

Once, in a younger and more romantic fit, I allowed it might be more difficult for me to stop writing poetry than to stop breathing. Now I am growing in the understanding the two are the same. And I wish the same realizations to shower down on anyone else committed to the path of learning to write a poem.



Cooking for someone can be loaded with danger.
He’ll get here at six and I’m filled with a small fear
of conversation at the table.
I always toy with the edge across my throat,
between the cabbage, the duck and coffee we stare into.

There are many ways to scream.
I’ve chosen the silent one
because I’m afraid of being discovered as I am, not
who he remembers 20 years ago.

I want to say things have changed since then.
I’ve smoked my lungs black and eaten my heart out.
Lost each leaf of hair and seen friends to their graves.

So the real talk is never said.
After a polite time he leaves a bit early.
I want to re-run dinner again
with simpler food, the apartment a little messy.
I’d like to walk right over the edge and say,
‘Who we were then is fable.’
But that takes believing we’re someone right now.

Instead I sit down to a second meal.
I’m famished from things left unsaid,
go to bed too early, and wake totally
at the national anthem, before the TV hisses
into blue snow.

I get up. I eat again.

© Estate of James L. White. The Salt Ecstasies published by Graywolf Press, printed with permission.

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