On the Pacific coast of North America, starfish are falling to pieces. A disease called sea star wasting syndrome has swept the region, causing a massive die-off. Limbs fall off, tissue deteriorates and the organisms die rapidly. Though starfish usually regenerate, these ones can’t. No one knows why.
What does one do with this new piece of bizarre, troubling information about the state of our oceans? Some will embark on extra research, others will likely find it uninteresting and discard it immediately. Scott Beal writes a poem.
Beal, who attended the University (and was an Arts writer for the Daily), currently teaches at the University in the English Department, the Sweetland Center and the Lloyd Hall Scholar’s Program. He is also the Dzanc Writer-in-Residence at Ann Arbor Open School, a father and a poet.
“I’ll learn things about the world that are puzzling and surprising and want to figure out what to think of it, what to learn from it. I’m really trying to learn something about how I interact with people and how that is mirrored or contradicted by the ways that other beings on the planet interact with each other,” Beal said of his poem, “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.” Some of his other poems have similar missions, including one about the interactions between hermaphroditic snails.
Other pieces of Beal’s are autobiographical, coming from particular experiences, like the time he found a note under his windshield wiper accusing of him of stealing someone’s money, or explaining to one of his daughters that lightning can strike people.
“I think every poem comes from a different place,” he said. “You start off with something puzzling and try to riddle it out.”
Still, a common theme lies at the heart of any good poem.
“(A good poem) will move us in a new way, and show us the path to better compassion, a better sense of justice and fairness,” he said. “It is aware of its implications and complicities.”
Most of Beal’s poems are not direct responses to individual issues, though he told me he considers privilege and justice when he writer. I challenged him on this idea, and asked him to explain the way that themes of justice and compassion are at work in “Warning and Watch,” the poem about lightning that is 13 lines long.
His response moved me. There are a couple of ways in which this path to compassion and justice lays beneath the imagery of clouds.
First of all, there is the notion of how to help his children navigate a dangerous world, he explained, referring to his daughter’s fear at the thought of being struck by lightning. That particular thought opens up a general sense of wonder about the world.
“In that moment you can spin into a consciousness of being alive, and increasing your awareness of being a living organism on the planet also helps build empathy and value in human life,” he said.
Of course, not all good poems need to do this. There are other reasons to love and appreciate poetry.
“I’m drawn to the idea of making language do new things, energizing it and making it dazzling and sizzling,” he said.
In the poetry class he is currently teaching at the University, he has implemented a system called “Gamified Grading,” where getting an A requires earning a certain number of points, say, 3,500. Every poem is worth a certain number of points, regardless of his liking for it, although it can be improved with revision.
“We’re trained to think of it as, there’s a meaning, you can paraphrase it, but only if you can decode it. And then you think, this isn’t for me, this is an art form that is deliberately trying to leave me out,” he said.
Boiled down, I received three important messages from Beal about the power of poetry: It utilizes and appreciates the best of what language can be, it is a means of making sense of the world around us and it is a means of understanding our place within that world.