from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:
Now, lying on my back in bed, I imagined Buddy saying, "Do you know what a poem is, Esther?"
"No, what?" I would say.
"A piece of dust."
Then just as he was smiling and starting to look proud, I would say, "So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you're curing. They're dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together."
And of course Buddy wouldn't have any answer to that, because what I said was true. People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn't see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep.
I have thumbed through my copy of The Bell Jar many times in the past thirty something years (wow) searching for that passage. The book is the one I read for the first time in high school and its pages are now so yellowed and brittle that I fear one day I will open it and it too will be dust. And although the pages may crumble in my fingers, the words are always with me, if not verbatim, then at least in spirit...literature is, of course, like that.
Poetry and stories have the ability to let us experience life beyond our own backyards. I grew up in the Midwest during the sixties...a Dick and Jane world. More bluntly, I grew up in an All White world. I attended all white schools and even the college I attended had less than a handful of minority students back then. Before adulthood, the only black person I knew well enough to hold a conversation with was Lydia, the elderly cleaning woman at my mother's office. And even she didn't look me in the eyes when we spoke. My backyard was small with a high fence; a fortress or a prison, depending on your view.
Each month in elementary school, our class ordered books from the Scholastic Book Club. I loved the Scholastic Book Club (I still do!). When I was in 4th or 5th grade I ordered and read a book whose title I wish I could remember because the book was life-changing. The story was fictional but based loosely on the Little Rock Nine. But this story was a kinder, gentler version of a young black girl to be the first to attend an all white school. It is natural to identify with the main character of a book even when the character's experiences take you to places and situations you could not possibly experience on your own. Through this little book, I got a staggering glimpse into a world far far away from my own backyard. I was fortunate to experience the power of literature at an early age. I beIieve that this influenced me to become a teacher.
So what has this to do with the topic? If I were to write a book/poetry....I would hope it may give a glimpse of understanding or empathy to someone; or at the very least, help them sleep (but not cause them to sleep :-).
The Challenge: Here are the first and last paragraphs from the first chapter of an idea I have been toying with...a novel entitled A God I Can Believe In....
Chapter 1 – In the Beginning
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
Annie read the passage again from the cover of the weekly church bulletin; then heard the words resounding in her mind as though for the first time. She was, in fact, well acquainted with this particular Bible verse as she had heard it on numerous occasions, most often booming from a fire-and-brimstone preacher as he paced across the front of the church, one arm raised, fisted, and pounding into an invisible devil just above his right shoulder. She had even sung the scripture once in a Christmas cantata. But this morning she really listened to the words as she recited them aloud. She heard them as an English teacher and aspiring poet.
“A Word God,” she thought. “Perhaps this is a God I could understand.”
Last paragraph of Chapter 1:
She would normally spend an entire afternoon browsing any bookstore but not today. Annie approached the tall plaid-shirted man at the Barnes and Noble Information desk.
“What are you looking for today, M’am?” inquired the cheery salesman.
Suddenly and profoundly, it all became clear to Annie.
“A book by Stephen Mitchell,” Annie replied, shaking herself from her reverie.
But what she had realized, she kept to herself.