Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Poetry Starter at Just Poets

On November 5 at 1:30 pm, in the Lavery Library at St. John Fisher College on East Ave., Rochester, NY, I'll be giving a little talk on writing poetry and then providing a poetry starter. These are my notes toward that talk. Maybe they will inspire you to come, or, if you can't make it, provide a poetry starter for you right now.

Poetry has both a public and a private face. All poetry has to be personal. It has to reflect emotions that the poet feels deeply to make the poem real. On the other hand, if it is too personal, it loses its ability to communicate to readers.

Frequently, the inspiration for a poem arrives while I am looking at the news, reading books, or watching CNN. An interesting event occurs somewhere in that informational soup. That is where the poem begins. Say I read that Sigmund Freud opened a drawer behind his sofa in 1937 as he packed to leave Europe to escape the Nazis. In this drawer he discovered a fur hat which belonged to his father, Josef. It reminds him of a time when he was ten. His father had overcome financial difficulties to achieve a level of prosperity again. He bought himself this fur hat to wear on long walks through the woods around Vienna.

One day a man confronted him while on one of his walks, and called him a Jew. "You Jew" he yelled at him and he threw his fur hat in the mud puddle they were both facing. Later on, Sigmund's father told him this story to warn him about Anti-Semitism, but Sigmund was a spirited child and chastised his father for not fighting back.

I wrote this poems several years ago, and I now think that the reason that this story interested me is that I had some issues with my father. He worked for 38 years for the Gleason Works, an engineering firm in Rochester. After a while, he didn't advance as fast as he wanted to in the firm, but he stuck with it. I blamed him for that and I know he understood my reproach. Many decades later, I stayed at a univerity job much longer than was good for me. How could I have been so stupid as to do the same thing I blamed my father for doing?

Here is the poem that resulted:

In the Drawer

Gary Lehmann

In the drawer
behind the couch
Sigmund Freud
kept a fine fur hat
his father wore
to walk through
the Parks of Vienna.

In the park
behind the wall
Sigmund Freud’s father
met a man dressed in velvet
who called him a Jew.
“You Jew!” he said
pushing his fur hat into a puddle.

In the mind
behind the sofa in the drawer
Sigmund Freud
kept his disgust for the father
who did not answer back
and wrung muddy water
from his fine fur hat.

It is interesting that my personal reaction to my father is not an explicit part of this poem, but it certainly is part of the emotion in the poem. If I hadn’t had that personal experience, there would be no reason for me to have any insight into Freud’s dilemma. After all, he attacked his father for not confronting racist views and now, in 1939, he was doing the exact same thing himself. Life hands you these little insights from time to time. I just don’t think that every poem has to focus directly on the poet per se.

I think good poetry merges the public and the private. The personal aspect does not have to be explicit. It is present in the emotion that drives the public story. You will only find interesting stories that have some personal connection, even if you don't exactly understand what that connection might be at the time you are writing the poem.

Recently, I have been interested in the situation that developed at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans as Hurracane Katrina broke through the levees that protected the city from flooding. As the water rose, public power cut off. Later on, the back-up generator, which some genius located in the basement of the hospital, also cut out.

Suddenly, the first floor of the hospital was flooded. All the nurses and doctors rushed to help get patients up to the second floor. The evevators didn't work. There was a lack of coordination because the intercom system was out. The heavy hospital beds had to be abandoned, so every patient had to be put on a stretcher and carried to the second floor where there were no rooms available for them and not enough beds.

In every other room in the hospital, a simultaneous emergency occurred. The ventilators stopped ventilating. The operating rooms became inoperable. The suction machines stopped sucking. The place was in total darkness. Heart monitors stopped monitoring. Everything stopped at once. The modern hospital is designed to be powered. When stuff goes off all at once, you have the day from hell.

Now in the aftermath, Public Health officials in New Orleans are examining 45 bodies in the morgue to see if any of them were helped out of their rapidly diminishing lives by desperate doctors or nurses who couldn't cope with the sudden overload of emergencies. What would you do if you saw a patient drowning in blood you couldn't suction away? How do you save the life of a patient who needs constant ventilation, when the ventilator stops? What would you do to help a patient in extreme pain when you knew there was nothing to do to help? This same emergency is happening not just in this room but in every room on the ward. Similar life threatening emergencies are occurring on every floor through every door all at the same time.

In war, medics triage patients with the priority given to those patients who have the best chance of survival. That means that sometimes really injured patients have to die so many more easily saved patients can be returned to the battle. This is an accepted ethical practice in wartime, but is this the same?

I'm interested in this problem for a poem, because I think that in my life I have made decisions which affected other people's lives. The poem may be about the impact of Katrina on Memorial Hospital patients and staff, but behind it will be my own feelings and experiences informing the emotions I attempt to convey.

So, take some time to consider your own issues as relate to this tragedy and see if there isn't a poem in you about this situation. Come at it from whatever perspective engages your interest. Find the hot spot in the story and dig into it. Underneath there somewhere will be your feelings and experiences, but if you are like me, it might take weeks or months before that relationship becomes clear. Start by locating the part of the story that moves you most and then just explore it.

Be well and do good writing.


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