There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. – Washington Irving
Thank you, Washington Irving.
I cry. A lot. Often. I am a crier. I have no problem crying in front of people. I do an impressive ugly cry, too.
Sometimes I cry because I’m overwhelmed or happy or sad or angry. But often I’m crying for other people, real and fictional. Any time an emotional scene unfolds on the screen, for instance, my husband and my son automatically turn to look at me with “Are you crying?” The old Folgers Coffee commercial with the brother and the sister and Christmas morning – I can’t even. Also, any stories of under-privileged or disenfranchised people getting hard-earned scholarships to go to college – hands down, those just destroy me.
Poetry readings are no exception since poems are often charged with emotions. I will admit, though, sometimes all the crying is a bit embarrassing. It feels like a shortcoming to not be able to experience poetry with just a meaningful nod or a thoughtful “hmm.” Such responses seem more intellectual and sophisticated. For me, it’s almost as if my body reacts to the poetry by immediately turning on the faucet, and I feel betrayed by the body.
For example, at a recent poetry event with Steven Leyva and Josh Soto (“Beans with No Salt” hosted by HoCoPoLitSo for the Columbia Festival of Arts), just one word set me off. One tiny, little 4-letter word had me bawling. So embarrassing.
Leyva read a poem called “Tsunade, I’m afraid” and his performance was a brilliant illustration of how the “white space,” the silence, the pauses, and the breaks are crucial to the task of the poem. I held my breath during his short pause. Then, when he finally uttered the word, immediately my eyes watered. That was not the word I expected to hear. Then, the poem ended. On that word. I won’t tell you the magic word. You’ll have to wait ’til Leyva’s next book is published. And it will destroy you, too.
At the January 30th launch reading of Little Patuxent Review (Myth) at Oliver Carriage House, however, I wasn’t the only one crying.
Amanda Miska came from Philadelphia to read her poem, “Missed Connections for My Self.” Her poem follows the conventions of a Craigslist section called “Missed Connections” where people post messages looking for strangers they almost met and now want to find to re-connect. In her introduction, Miska explained that she had been struggling to re-connect with her self and her new, different body after becoming a mother. There are 6 sections to the poem, which she says she wrote on her iPhone, with titles like “I Know You Were Doing the Best You Could – w4w (XSport Fitness)” and “I Want to Show you the Delicious Side of Life – w4w (Dunkin’ Donuts).”
Miska couldn’t help but cry a little as she read her poem. The poems were deeply personal. And needless to say, I cried. Like a baby. No, that’s not true. I cried like a grown woman who knew exactly what Miska was talking about, who could feel her words, who lived (and still lives) those emotions.
Later on in the reading, Edgar Gabriel Silex read several poems, but it was “Demeter” that made the poet himself fight back the tears. The last stanza of the poem reads, “and saints and angels were all gone he came into my room / one day trying to harm me and I hit my father threw him down / and stood over him crying […]” Well, when the poet chokes up, what chance do I have? None. Out poured the tears.
As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
In school, we are taught to differentiate the poet from the speaker of the poem. Of course many poems speak in the voice of persona or character created by the poet. But sometimes poems speak for the poet, the poet’s experiences, the poet’s life, the poet’s memories, and the poet’s knowledge – sometimes directly and other times indirectly. Whatever “Demeter” is as a work of literary art – fiction or nonfiction – it’s one of what Silex calls “the ninety-plus essential human stories” that are believed to be out there. He says, “our libraries are filled with variations of these stories, told over and over through history, culture, and time. What changes in them, of course, is the Time-the-Teller.”
Perhaps this is why we cry. We know these stories. We know all of these stories, that is. But instead of making us dull or our lives mundane, they make us understand one another, draw us closer.
In the words of James Baldwin…
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
It’s not the intellectual understanding or the cognitive awareness of the feeling – like pain, hunger, fear, hurt and so on – but the ability to imagine how someone felt it – that’s what triggers my empathy. Empathy requires imagination. Without imagination, we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of another.
I can imagine, for example, the shame that the speaker of Miska’s poem must have felt when she almost fell while trying to walk inconspicuously out of Dunkin’ Donuts. I can imagine, again, the anger (fear? hope? triumph? sadness? regret?) that the speaker in “Demeter” must have felt as he fought back his father and ran away. And when he says, “I ran / and still run from anything stinking of heaven or hell” I can picture this person who is haunted and even hunted by these memories and emotional bruises. Maybe Paulo Coelho is right – “tears are words waiting to be written.”
So, the next time you see me crying at a poetry reading (most likely at Irish Evening on February 19th), pass me a Kleenex and join me in the crying.