I remember when I was in my last undergrad poetry workshop, and a bunch of us had been -- as 21- and 22-year-olds will -- bringing in poem after poem about lost or unrequited love, childhood trauma, and the like. Toward the end of the semester, Roger Mitchell told us, "Write about the big stuff. Grapple with the cosmos."Edited to add: Apparently I was wrong -- Roger Mitchell's class was spring semester of my junior year. Maura Stanton's class, the following fall semester, was actually my last undergrad workshop. Not that anyone cares but me.
I then proceeded to write an extremely silly poem in which I encountered the Cosmos in a dark alley somewhere and had a little cosmic wrestling match (and it even got published!), but silly poem aside, I think he was exactly right. While you can grapple with the cosmos through poems about bad love and childhood trauma, I think at its best what poetry does is to reach through its own subject to touch the unspeakable, the unnameable. The stuff that Li-Young Lee would say happens in the line breaks. And I think you can do that using the language of science, of Greek mythology, of romantic love, or of Barbie dolls -- it's just probably a whole lot easier to get distracted from the deeper goal when you're playing with Barbie dolls.
Anyhow, Em asked me to post the Cosmos poem so, uh, here it is. Remember, I was a mere child of 21 at the time. (eek!) Oh, and also, there was a running joke in the class about "snow in April," since it had (you can see this coming, right?) snowed in April, and almost every single person in the class trotted in with a poem about snow in April that week. So that's sort of an in-joke in this poem.
GRAPPLING WITH THE COSMOS
"Write a poem that tackles the big issues.
Grapple with the cosmos... "
in the grey April snow
me & the cosmos met
on the bad side of town
kicking litter out of the way
it was a face-off from the start
the cosmos, he had this grudge
against me, we traded insults
& fists for a while
he gave me a black
eye but I got him with a left
to the jaw
teeth were flying
we rolled around on the pavement some
when he stumbled out
of the alley there was nothing
but the wind bouncing off brick walls
it was one of those dark
& stormy nights in April, the kind
young writers are obliged to revel
in & I went to this bar
just to get a beer
sit at a corner table & write
a poem, but the cosmos followed me in
he used all the oldest lines in the book
I mean of all people
he should have been able to come up
with something I'd never heard
but I fell for him
turned out he lived
just around the corner, & in no time
we were wrestling in the dark
but I woke up at four
in the morning with darkness
on the other side of the bed & hunger
rattling the windows
found my way home where my friend
asked me where I'd been "oh out
grappling with the cosmos"
she's used to me being
a poet, or trying to, & didn't ask
what I meant by that just
fixed me a cup of catnip tea
"was it good for the cosmos too?"
spent the day watching clouds
change, never did
get that poem written
published in Sidewalks, 1991