National Poetry month has come to a close and I can now say in a whisper, I have not been a fan of Poetry. While I recognize Poetry is important to literature, memoir, history and culture in general, it usually leaves me unmoved. My reading taste leans towards getting lost in a good yarn, in the structure of the complex plot, or connecting to the cast of characters. Novels have been more my speed until recently. Two significant events have occurred to change my perspective on how much the power poetry, be it prose or verse, has in the world.
The first event happened on a warm night in the beginning of April. On this night, I attended the New York Book Show. The New York Book Show is the Emmy’s of the book production world. It’s an annual event celebrating the best-produced books, jackets and ancillary materials from last year. KnopfDoubleday were honored with 3 book awards. While basking in our production glory as well as schmoozing, I discovered another winner called The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. According to its publisher, this title “is a guide to the emerging subculture of literary tattoos—a collection of more than 150 full-color photographs of human epidermis indelibly adorned with quotations and illustrations from Dickinson to Pynchon, from Shakespeare to Plath.”
Tattoos and the art of tattooing have intrigued me for years. Turning the human body into a canvas using inks and brands is a centuries-old art form. Tattoos have represented different cultural values throughout world. In some societies, it was a sign of the warrior status, or young person coming of age, or decorative element on a bride. I have debated for years on getting my own tattoo. So imagine my surprise when I discovered a book that celebrates “literary anthology written on skin” exists.
While flipping through it, I tried to imagine a line of poetry that resonates so much that I wanted to carry it literally with me until the day I died. Despite the many lines of literature and poetry I have read, I admit that I could not think of anything. It was not until the second significant event occurred that I reassessed how I read and how I view a string of words. On a Friday night in my favorite bar, during a drinking session with my favorite tattooed storyteller, I asked the question: “If you were to get a tattoo of a literary quote, what would it be?”
My friend, let’s call him “Justin” for the purpose of this post, has many tattoos. Some only created in black ink, others created in a plethora of color. He seems to constantly be getting one or thinking about getting one or showing off his latest. The ones I love are the jade green dragon on his back, the black and white yin yang symbol on his right bicep and cherry bloom on his left pectoral muscle. All have been inspired by his love of Japanese folklore and Japanese women.
However, I had never seen a quote or word on the man until I asked my question. Justin responded with shy smile, rolled up his sleeve, and showed me his latest tattoo. A line from Ovid on the inside of his forearm in the Century typeface: “Be patient and tough; one day this pain will be useful to you.”
I asked why that line and why that writer. Justin says it’s based on same reason I return to my favorite book, return to the moments in a story that help me escape. It grants us a reprieved long enough to come up with a solution or simply endure what is happening outside the boundaries of my book. In his eyes, a tattoo is a reminder of the moments that made us who we are, or who we want to be. He chose Ovid because his poetry survived centuries and he is a perfect example of what kind of writer he wants to be. It is also a reminder that we all survived painful experiences. He chose that line and placement to be a daily mediation on love and art.
William H. Gass may have said it better, “It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in fiction, and in poetry, but flesh made word.” To take life and make it art is the goal of most writers and artists. When done well a poem or scene in a story has the ability to take a moment, a place, or an emotion strips it bare, leaving only the essential truths behind. Poetry targets the details in our lives that are universal in human existence: pain, love, death, joy. The power of words crosses cultures and physical boundaries we use to divides us, with the message we are connected and we can endure. Tattooing does the same thing for some.
With both events in mind and my the changing perspective, I asked my fellow Knopfers what line of poetry or prose would they tattoo on their “canvas” if they were willing:
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” From Love in Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“Mischief Managed” from Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” – from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
“If there is nothing to desire, there is nothing to regret” From If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova
“Spinning is its own reward. There wouldn’t be carousels if it weren’t so.” from Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
“Follow the flower to the ground” — from A Mad Gleam by Allen Ginsberg
And as for me,
“But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.” From Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
The image used is from a website called Contrariwise. Please check it out.