Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tragedy, The "Shirt", And Fires of the Mind

Tomorrow, March 25, 2011, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.  The fire killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women.  The horror of the event cannot be understated (see these photos) and the effect of the tragedy on labor rules and workers rights in America ranks the fire among the most important events in the labor movement.

But if you ask most Americans about the fire, they won't know what you are talking about.

Such is history.  Stories can be forgotten, and history is nothing but stories.  And we know what they say about those who forget history....

So here's a tale about my own history with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, poetry, and the magic of connections.

Somewhere in my past I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  I don't know where or when.  But I knew enough that when, in 1996 I heard Robert Pinsky (soon to become the Poet Laureate of the US) read his poem "Shirt" at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I knew exactly what he meant when he referenced the "infamous fire".  Immediately my mind opened and somehow my knowledge of that fire flooded back to me.

My point here has something to do with learning, something to do with poetry, and everything to do with our freakin' awesome brains.  How did I remember this fire and why?  And what's it got to do with poetry?  Everything.  If we are to read poetry well, we must allow ourselves two things.  First, we must allow ourselves to actually hear it out loud.  Robert Pinsky is, perhaps the most vocal proponent of poetry as an art of the body.  I once heard him define poetry as "The art of the sound of the language", and his book, The Sounds of Poetry  is one of the finest, most concise books on the subject.  So to "read poetry"we must hear it aloud.  Pinsky is a master of reading, gifted with a deep, resonant voice.  You will not forget the experience.  You will learn, if you listen to him, the importance of the best words in the best order, and how poetry can teach you in a way nothing else can.

But I said that if we are to read poetry well, we must allow two things...and so to the second.  That to read poetry well, we must open ourselves to connections.  That is, we must allow our minds to reach out to all that we know and have experienced in order to make connections, for the content of poetry is nothing if not an attempt to connect the way words "mean" things with the felt meaning that is our life.

Pinsky's "Shirt" is a masterful example of this act of connecting.  As a whole, "Shirt" is a musing on material culture, on how the objects in our lives have histories.  Pinsky is tracing the history of the shirt in much the same way James Burke (of PBS's "Connections"series and such books as The Pinball Effect ) has done in his wide ranging riffs on the histories of things as varied as a particular shade of green in a woman's dress to the carburetor.  But where Burke is detailing the histories, Pinsky is using the tropes and techniques of the poet, rhythm, alliteration, allusion, to weave a web of connections.  Where Burke's work reveals the incredible coincidences and connections that make our things possible, Pinsky's poem reveals the genius of the human mind at work as it leaps from one word to the next, one association or synaptic connection to the next, pausing to expand on an interesting fact (the Triangle Factory Fire, the kilt) and then listing again until a new association occurs.

While Pinsky's poem is remarkable for the histories he chooses and the manner in which he arrives at those stories, such associative discoveries are not unique to his poetry.  In fact, the way one arrives at meaning in most poems is by following the association, the allusions, the connections (both literal and metaphorical) within the text, its sound as well as its sense.  I think here of Billy Collins' "The Lanyard" in which he makes an overt bow to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (and the infamous madeline that started that cascade of memories) as a way to define his own mind being sent into the past by a word ("lanyard") and the flood of memories the word triggered.

And the examples wouldn't stop there:  Robert Frost's "Birches", Yusef Komunyakaa's "My Father's Love Letters" are just two more that come to mind.

And while, yes, this is a post about a tragic fire and a poem, even more it is about the power of poetry to ignite memory, and the manner in which we recall things.  And finally, as a teacher, this is my philosophical musing (only one of many) on learning and teaching.  It's all poetry, all associations and allusion.  It's all about "the back, the yoke, the yardage...the labor, the color, the shade.  The shirt."