KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Commentary: 595 words [R]

Digressions on Poetry, Prose,
and a Lingonberry Bush

by Stephen Kuusisto

Poetry differs from other forms of expression in two essential ways: it does not aspire to tell the literal truth and it can get at the truth with unreliable methods. Or to put it another way: you can glean the truth from a poem but the process is quasi-occult, like reading the entrails of birds. The Roman Legion always did this before setting out on a campaign. It’s possible that by reading avian intestines the Romans bought themselves some extra time to hang around the capital and that, in turn, this would have improved the morale of the troops. Such is the incalculable power of art—even those who do not care about it can derive benefits from living in an artistic culture. But I digress.

Poetry is only concerned with a provisional kind of truth. I’ve been reminded of this lately because someone asked me after a reading at Chattaqua how it happens that my writing is so visual when I am obviously blind. I have been asked this question literally hundreds of times and I’ll likely never elude it. I’m getting used to it. Yet I think that I would like the question more if I thought it had merit.

The problem is that people think literary writing is the same thing as journalism. It’s as if the audience says: “Nonfiction has to be like a photograph.” They don’t know this is what they’re thinking but this is the ingrown narrative assumption of our time.

The idea that nonfiction is a form of journalism stems from the years just after the First World War when photographs first appeared in newspapers. Suddenly “the image” was all the rage, even if you wrote for the Kansas City Star or the Columbus Dispatch. Ernest Hemingway wrote a paragraph in his notebook about the carcass of a dead dog beside a railway platform and in effect nonfiction was wedded to the camera, at least in the eyes of the public.

The thing my well-meaning questioners don’t understand is that I’m not writing prose that’s powered by the appearance of truth (“verisimilitude” is what Henry James called it). I am driven by the vagaries of poetry and the imagery in my prose is entirely unreliable though it feels clear for all of that. I do not write about what I see; I write about what I do not see with words that feel good to the ear. When I write about the morning skin of ice on a birch tree I’m saying it because it feels right, not because I’ve watched it.

When the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote lines like the ones below, no one thought he was reporting how the moon really looks. He was writing a poem. He was concerning himself with the truth in an unreliable way.

When the moon rises,
Moon of a hundred equal faces,
Silver coins break out in sobs
In pockets...

One can get a good sense of the moon from Lorca but it won’t look like the moon in the photo on the front page of the metro section, which is of course why we like poetry and why we wrap fish with the newspaper.

There’s another reason people are fooled by the clarity of a blind writer’s prose. Most readers have forgotten that language is essentially magical. All nouns are merely images. Man. Horse. Street. Lingonberry bush. If I can write it, or say it, you will see it. No wonder the ancients thought the poets knew something.

—From Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011); republished here by author’s permission

Stephen Kuusisto
Issue 2, Winter 2015

Poet, disability activist, director of the Renée Crown Honors Program at Syracus University, and author of the award-winning memoirs Planet of the Blind (Delta, 1998) and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening (W. W. Norton and Company, 2013).

His book Letters to Borges is a collection of political poems about disability and was published in 2013 by Copper Canyon Press. His first collection of poems, Only Bread, Only Light, is also available from Copper Canyon Press (2000).

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Letter to Borges in His Parlor, one of the “epistolary” poems from Kuusisto’s book, Letters to Borges, which he discusses in a three-minute video on YouTube (February 2013)

Book Review: Letters to Borges by Michael Northen in Wordgathering (Volume 7, Issue 2, June 2013)

Praxis: Deliberate Beauty, prose poetry in Tupelo Quarterly (TQ1)

An Interview with Stephen Kuusisto in Random House’s Bold Type

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