February 20, 2011

The Practice of Poetry: Emptiness

What does it take to write?  I believe it takes emptiness.  In 1928, Virginia Woolf said it took a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year, the space and time to write.  Helene Cixous, in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, says loss often triggers a writer to write.  First loss, then emptiness occurs that only writing can ameliorate.   

Writing is perhaps a compulsion, a solution to an ache. I’m not sure what brings it on. The cure is writing, but soon after having written, the ache or urge returns. Instead of a vicious, I’d call it a spacious cycle.       

One makes time for writing by clearing a schedule and rearranging obligations to allow oneself a block of time. It doesn’t have to be a lot, even just an hour or two daily.  One does the same to create space. A room of one’s own is wonderful, but for many years, I have worked in a quiet corner of shared bedroom or living room.  Time and space are the prerequisites for a fruitful emptiness.  

One becomes a good writer by being a good reader.  They are two sides of the same coin of quietness. In order to write poetry, I read poetry.  I believe that poetry is a language within a language, and that reading poetry opens a door for me to enter in.      

More importantly, the emptiness or clearing must be interior.  Empty the self by pouring regularly onto the page, and then share what you write with supportive others. Lewis Hyde talks about the concept of pot latch in his book, The Gift.  This is a spiritual wisdom: by giving the gift away, one will keep receiving. Emptying helps clear space inside the mind that can then be filled with what the muse brings.  

A writing teacher, Kate Green, recommended visualizing the muse. In a writing exercise, writing students were asked to give a persona to the muse, to describe physical characteristics and then to identify their muse’s wants and needs. Let yourself by guided by this useful exercise. If your muse wants an empty chair, give her an empty chair. If she wants an orange wall, then by all means, paint the wall orange.  Find ways to please the source.    

The material--what the writing is about--is given.  One writes from the imagination.  Writers write what we write, we write from our observations, obsessions, experiences, longings.  Finding ways to tap the subconscious is useful: write from dreams or associations or intuition. Try aleotropic techniques. Chance.  Play.  

When I say that writing comes from emptiness, I don’t necessarily mean loneliness, a feeling of being left or abandoned.  These can certainly be important sources of writing, but the emptiness can also be peaceful, an emptiness that is pure potential. One cultivates a receptivity.  Without anxiety. One can learn to be present with peaceful non-expectation and gratefulness, aware of being.  It is a state of listening.  

Writing practice helps with this type of listening. It is not so different from Buddhist meditation practice that helps train the mind. The mind is fretful, afraid, preoccupied, distracted. Many internal obstacles must be overcome with patience and compassion toward self. In time, with intention and steady practice, this gives way to peaceful emptiness.  

All of writing is process. First comes receptivity, openness, willingness. Next, vision and re-vision. One must be able to recognize potential in the material and develop and hone it.  One must be able to write with an eye for image and an ear for sound.  Revision is a form of letting go.   

Poetry and process are actually the same. The practice is the discipline of regular writing.  It doesn’t make sense to wait to be inspired, because it is usually in the process of writing that one receives the gift.  One listens to the work and let’s oneself be guided by it in the process.  For me, poetry springs from and feeds the spirit. (The Latin word spiritus means breath.)  The breath of the poem is distilled, intense. For me, it is a beautiful sound meditation that achieves both emptiness and the presence of Being. 

February 17, 2011

The Body of the Poem

It is productive to consider the form, or body, of individual poems. The body perceives with the senses, as does the poem. I consider the “eyes” of the poem--who is gazing and at what.    I consider the breath. The poet has created a sound and rhythm that will recreate in the breath of the reader. In addition, the poem listens to something. As a reader, I listen to the world the poet has given me.  Next, the poem employs touch in the textures of the poem. There may be a scent or a taste. The five senses are common elements to each poem.  The form or pattern that manifests visually and aurally might be lyrical, narrative or dramatic. The form may call up ritual, or it may create its own pleasing combination of forces and frictions and conjure many associations. The variations are fascinating.       

Consider this:

I Am the Great Sun
   (from a Norman Crucifix of 1632)
by Charles Causley (from Union Street, 1957)

I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
     I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
     I am the captain you will not obey.

I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
     I am the city where you will not stay,
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
     I am that God to whom you will not pray.

I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,
     I am the lover who you will betray,
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
     I am the holy dove who you will slay.

I am your life, but if you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.  

This poem has a deep and clear pattern.  It is a sonnet and also a form called an anaphora (the lines begin with the same phrase).  Each line has ten or eleven syllables.  The words are short and plain. The rhyme is not just end words but in the second to last end words:  see/free, believe/leave, hear/cheer, name/blame.  The sonnet form has 14 lines, roughly iambic pentameter (the iamb is the basic unit of breath in English, an unaccented syllable, followed by an accented syllable) (pentameter is 10 syllables). The stanzas are quatrains, four lines in each with alternate lines that rhyme.  They are consistent in size except for the last couplet. The anaphora form is used a lot in the Bible and in other poetic works (see Walt Whitman).  It is an arresting and beautiful form.  

One notices the sound:  long vowel sounds (a, e) and short o sounds, and the v consonants in captive, leave, believe, lover, victor, dove, never.  

This poem is also a persona poem. It seems to take the persona--it speaks from the Norman crucifix. Sometimes this method is called “a mask.”  The poet puts on the mask and speaks as if from that object, person, or place.  The body of this poem is very striking and powerful.  

Consider this:     

Why I Need the Birds
by Lisel Mueller

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together —
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

“Why I Need the Birds” by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press.

This poem, in contrast to the “I Am the Great Sun,” is free verse.  However, it still has form.  It still has its own pattern.  The lines are about 5 or 6 syllables each with a longer line coming at regular intervals. The sound element is well crafted, the ‘a’ vowel resounds with a long ‘i’ sound.  There is a narrative arc to the poem that is circular.  it begins in the morning, goes through the night and ends right before dawn.  There are two stanzas, roughly the same length, one has 13 lines, the next 14.  The design is pleasing.   The figurative language, the bed traveling, and the precise details swiftly take our imagination.    When we enter the body of this poem and perceive with its eyes and ears, we experience a breath-taking circuit around the earth.   

Real bodies have a skeletal and muscular structure.  They have hearts and minds. They have nervous systems and circulatory systems. In the same way, good poems have these. In fact, the shape of the poem has both external and internal dimensions. The form of “I Am The Great Sun” borrows from the crucifix opposing directions. In the poem, the poet has worked out sentences that include assertion and negation. The opposing forces or tensions around or within the work create a powerful dynamic.   The circular form of “Why I Need the Birds” also pleases with its circle of day and night, circle around the earth, and circle of bird’s flight. The “eye” of the poem that sleeps appreciates the birds that serve as sentinels and guides.   

When you write a poem, you also create a body for the poem. In revision, pay close attention to the five senses.  Give precise details.  Find your pattern and let the pattern connect to the larger pattern of which we are all a part.   Let the body of the poem reinforce and even expand the meaning.