Fred Marchant approaches the unspeakable horror and loss of life in the Haiti earthquake with a gingerly air of obligation. It’s the poet’s job, he says, to find words and speak them. His instructions came from his teacher of old, Saul Bellow. Bellow said he took them from Keats’ line that art and artists dwell in “the vale of soul-making,” not in the commonplace “vale of tears.”
I find the line in a famous Keats letter
from April 21, 1810 — 200 years ago, almost to the day. “Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making,’ Keats wrote. “Then you will find out the use of the world… I will put it in the most homely form possible–I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”
In Fred Marchant’s cheerful radicalism, the impulse then is to take up meaning-making and life-building as a pastoral, virtually sacramental opportunity:
If you believe in language, and you believe in language’s capacity for carrying human experience, both inner and outer dimensions of it, then you have to lean into it and try… Poetry is an art, it’s the art of using this language in ways one hasn’t quite dreamed of yet, that somehow express things that one hasn’t quite yet named even. The degree to which any poet, any writer, can muster the resources of language that would allow or enable you to stand with someone suffering in these kinds of catastrophes. Then, I think, that is the sum total of human good.
I mentioned earlier that Saul Bellow had been a teacher of mine. One of the great things that Saul taught me — he told me to read Keats’ great letter about this world being a vale of soul-making. And Saul said think about what that word means, soul-making. Think about how it implies that the soul could be diminished or could be greater, depending. It was offering a theory of art. The work of art is in fact increasing the dimension of soul in the moment you’re alive. And frankly, there are moments in life when it disappears.
His Haiti poem is “A Place at the Table”:
It means you can face your accusers.
It means there is no place to hide.
It means you will not drift off to sleep,
or carve your name on your arm.
Or give anyone here the finger.
It means you do not have to wave your hand as if you were drowning.
It means there is nothing here that will drown you.
It means you really do not have to have the answer.
Since there are only a few of you left, sitting across from you,
it means you can study their faces as you would the clouds outside.
You will not totally forget them.
It means you are now, roughly, for a while, just about equal.
In the center before you there is nothing unless someone gives it.
It means that when you are gone, everyone feels it.
It means that when you leave, you feel as if you haven’t.
That you still have a place at the table.
Later in your life this moment will return to you as a mote
of dust that floats in on the spars of sunlight.
It will search every room until it finds you.
from The Looking House. Graywolf Press, 2009
Fred Marchant has the distinction of being the first Marine Corps Officer honorably discharged for conscientious objection, during the war in Vietnam. Fred directs the creative writing program at Suffolk University in Boston and has published three books of poetry.
This reading continues our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” Tomorrow: Mariléne Phipps-Kettlewell.