On Sex, the Marvelous, and the Ordinary

04/29/2013 10:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

I love her work. The radical honesty of it, the searing tenderness of it, the joyousness, the irony, the sheer beauty of it. The poet Ellen Bass writes as a human being who shudders with the immensity, the worry, the love of being alive. She writes to connect with other human beings who shudder in their own way but may not have the words to say so.

We talked recently in a little café in downtown San Jose. She's spry and sprightly, a vibrant presence, a feast of ideas and a fountain of words that -- she warns me -- sometimes run away with her. I tell her not to worry; I will run after her and catch her sleeve.
"But let me ask you this," I say. "What is it that you think makes a poem a poem?"

She paused, pondering one of the questions that must have followed her down through the years.

"I would say that poetry is a way to say the unsayable, to find words to reach beyond words," she said finally. "After all, originally poetry was prayer and the priests were poets and still now poetry requires the practice of paying attention".

"Mary Oliver captures that sentiment in two lovely lines", I said, "in her poem 'The Summer Day':

I don't know what a prayer is.
But I do know how to pay attention.

"Exactly. Poetry like the deepest prayer tries to come into direct contact with reality, rather than our thoughts about it -- it tries to have a direct connection with the moment, the only moment we have. 'To make a stone stoney, that is the purpose of art,' a Russian philosopher once said. Ultimately, poetry is connection -- it is a way of connecting with this world that we live in; connecting our experience with the whole human experience".

She took a swig of tea and bit her way into a bagel.

"Poetry is the means I use to grapple with life; to handle and knead it; to struggle with it until I can see its shape, its irony, its tragedy and beauty. Poetry lets me work with life until I can accept it in its commonality -- accept its shadows as well as its beauty in others and also in myself. It helps me stop wanting things to be different, to accept the way people are, however they are, and to approach life with the desire to see more clearly, without judgment, the truth of what is before my eyes".

That so little a word as poetry can carry such heft and meaning, I thought. And yet, the way Bass delivers her words, it seems to carry it all so lightly.

"What you say reminds me of a theme I see everywhere in your work," I said, "and that is the rescuing of ordinary things and people from oblivion and anonymity. Everything and everyone seems to have value for you. Nothing is unworthy of your attention. Never mind the glamorous, the conventionally beautiful, you seem to say, in your poem, "Birds Do It.

..........the fat woman with the bad perm
who serves cold croissants at the airport,
the bus driver mumbling through ill-fitting teeth,
the grocery clerk with tufts of hair sprouting from his ears -
They all just made love.

"You say it as if to shake us awake to the fact that everyone, but everyone, shares the dreams, the longings, the desires that come with being human."

"It's true. I'm a big fan of the ordinary, the dull, the neglected. I was arrogant for too long, and I've made enough mistakes of my own to allow other people to have them too. The actual world before me in this moment, however it shows up, is marvelous enough to keep me in awe. 'There's another world,' said Paul Eluard, 'and it is this one.'

She's not kidding. I believe her. And nothing brings those worlds into one place in her work more than the subject of sexual intimacy."

"You reveal deeply personal details about your sex life with your partner in a way that reminds me of the poetry of Sharon Olds. In "The Sad Truth" you write

My lover is a woman. I cherish her sex.
The puffy lips of the vulva like ripe apricot halves
I love the slippery slide of her vagina..

How does your partner feel about being described so graphically in public?

"We've been married for 30 years. I can't speak directly for her, but I do know she knows the deal by now - the trouble with being married to a poet is that they say what they want to. Personally, I don't feel exposed. Sex is common to all of us. We all do it, young, old, pretty, ugly, differently abled, gay, straight. And what I do is not much different from what anyone else does. I suppose I have a mission when it comes to sex. I want to celebrate its essential goodness and joyousness. I want to portray all kinds of ordinary people having a vital connection to life and others through sex. No", she said, "taking a last bite from that bagel, cold by now; "it's not writing about sex that makes me feel vulnerable. It's showing the way my mind works".

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