If you’re like me, it’s not every day that a poem just pops into your head, so when it happens, you can’t help but reflect on it. This is me reflecting on the poem I published yesterday, “In the Garden of the Ivory Tower”.
First, what does the refrain mean? The “ivory tower” is a well-known idiom referring to the isolated, hyper-intellectual, hyper-privileged world of academia, distanced from many of the harsh realities of society. To be in its garden, I suppose, is to be in its presence, under its influence, without necessarily being in it to stay. It’s a liminal space, on the border between “the ivory tower” and “the real world”.
It’s where I am.
I’m a student at Swarthmore College, and walking its campus, contemplating the issues discussed in seminars—I feel like I’m in this liminal space. Moreover, the campus is an arboretum: literally a stunning garden of trees.
So what do the other lines mean?
“Words flow freely” refers, I believe, to more than just words—the air is swirling with ideas at the various colleges which together comprise this academic garden. There’s writing, galore, yes—students write and read papers nearly daily, professors write books, and the libraries offer more than just about any you can find outside the academic realm—but there are also the abstract thoughts, the quiet spaces, the late nights and the radical new perspectives which all go beyond the scope of words.
It’s a beautiful thing. But it also has a flip-side: sometimes words flow too freely in this space. We, its inhabitants, think and write our way up the ladder of abstraction but sometimes forget to come down. We are in constant danger of losing touch with reality; drifting away from the very issues in our lived experience for which a passion brought us here in the first place. We fight for our causes with words and ideas, but sometimes forget that these words and ideas live in isolation from the places that need them most.
This, in part, is what I think I mean by “Worlds flow feebly”. Our worlds, our realities, our most visceral pains and most bountiful joys, flow only feebly through this place. They’re not absent: they fuel our passions and pursuits. But neither are they strong and immediate, brimming with the urgency with which they’re felt elsewhere: they merely flow past, like gentle reminders.
Of course, this isn’t all bad: it’s unreasonable, unhealthy, and even impossible to bear the full weight of our reality at every moment in every place. I’m not saying ignorance is bliss—far from it: rather, I’m saying that in order for us to collectively confront and improve upon the harsher parts of our reality, we can’t all hold all of it at once. We must face it regularly—especially those of us who aren’t forced to face it daily—to keep close in touch with what we’re fighting for, but buried beneath it for perpetuity our ability to change it is weakened, if not lost. It’s a tricky balance.
I think my poem is alluding to that balance. The ivory tower is a place away from the immediacy of our reality, often disconnecting its inhabitants from the fullness of the problems in our world, while at the same time providing a space to analyze these problems in deep and powerful ways. Its garden is a border, a liminal space between the isolation of the tower and the realness of the world.
Add the last stanza, and I think the poem is about me trying to find that balance.