March 20, 2011

Poetry & Change: Journaling, Pablo Neruda, and the Past

Journal writing and memoir provide a starting point for poems.  Journals especially are excellent places to generate poems and to grapple with changes that life brings.  Poems are especially built for grappling, and the poem by Neruda, "Past,"  shows us how well it can be done.  

Ira Progoff, author of At a Journal Workshop and founder of the Intensive Journal® process offers an in-depth and interesting method to explore life experience.   His technique of a multi-sectioned journal that records steppingstones, intersections, dreams, daily writing, and dialogues (with body, self, others and even society concepts or norms) offers a helpful tool to navigate life.  Not only does it increase awareness, it aids in decision-making.  I like what he says about phases in life:

"...many people are able to live through two or three distinct cycles of life. In each of these, there are a different person with different values and lifestyles. To be able to look forward to such successive developments opens a large potential not only for the later years of one's life but for the fullness of meaning in a human existence as a whole.  The main difficulty lies in the period of transition between two major units in a person's life.  When the old period has ended and a new period has not yet been substantially established, the emotional burdens of anxiety and self-doubt may be heavy to bear.  That is the time when it is especially important to have a progressive and organic method for enabling the perspectives of one's life to reshape themselves."  (p 115)

Progoff also refers to the writer and public statesman, Dag Hammarskjold.  He kept a journal that was eventually published, titled Markings.   The term 'marking' he borrowed from his habit of walking mountain trails.  Marks upon the trail help us find our way and avoid difficult spots. The term is evocative; I like to use it when I teach writing.  We are marked by different things, good and bad; those things shape us.  These are places that we should go to when we sit down to write. 

I would add that writing is an excellent way of coping. It is quiet and similar to meditation; it relaxes the body at the same time that it gives the mind a place for preoccupations and concerns.  Not only that, it costs next to nothing.  All that is needed is a notebook and pen.  For people who don't have a safe place to keep a journal, the internet offers a password protected online storage of files (see  and  To anybody who wants to begin journaling, I suggest short writing exercises that focus on particular details:  a pair of shoes, a hand tool, or a particular person.   When journal exercises delve into such exact details of one's own particular life, over-generalization and sentimentality is nicely sidestepped.

Another way to approach journaling or writing exercises is to focus on images.  An image, often the foundation of a poem, is vivid and powerful. It transcends languages and offers immediacy.

However, writing is more than a repository of memory or experience; it is also a tool of the mind and gives us a method to get past both memory and experience.  It is not about "dumping."  Even among friends, dumping all the negative experience can burden others.  A journal offers the ability to contain difficult experience.  Once written, we can stand back and observe our own experience. Writing allows writers to discover insights and shape the story, a profound and necessary step in taking control of one's life.

This brings me to consider the poem by Pablo Neruda, "Past."   The poem begins:
"We have to discard the past" and this is followed by image after image of demolition and construction.  It ends in this way:

"Now the heavy eyelid
covers the light of the eye
and what was once living
now no longer lives;
what we were, we are not.
And with words, although the letters
still have transparency and sound,
they change, and in the mouth changes;
the same mouth is now another mouth;
they change, lips, skin, circulation;
another being has occupied our skeleton;
what once was in us now is not.
It has gone, but if the call, we reply;
'I am here,' knowing that we are not,
that what once was, was and is lost,
is lost in the past, and now will not return." 

(click here to read the entire text:
This poem captures the anguish and loss; it holds the contradiction of saying we must 'discard the past' and the impossibility of doing so.   It is an example of the way that a poem, in very few words, goes right to the crux.  It may have begun in a journal, I don't know.  But out of the images he draws from, he pushes out into the deep heart of experience: it is always and forever changing.

Poetry is particularly an effective way to express this truth--any moment that we write about is a moment we can not hold. It slips away, becomes something else and so do we.  By writing, we can bring it close, see it and feel it, even though it has changed and perhaps changed us.  Poetry offers an intimacy that is hard to describe or experience anywhere else, it is a body experience but it happens in language.

What is it about the language of poetry that makes it so powerful?       

More than any other type of writing, poetry is shaped. Memoir also is a shaped form.  A memoir might capture a segment of someone's life, and it might select certain experiences.  An artist's memoir, for example, might contain only the experiences that were formative to that person and his or her art.

Poetry focuses on image and provides patterns of sound and form that make it memorable.  Neruda's poem relies on the construction and demolition.  "We go on throwing down/ first, broken tiles,/then pompous doors."   The word doors becomes not just wooden panels that allow entrance and exit in a building, but entrance and exit to other states of mind by use of the word "pompous."   It conveys memory, image, story, but also casts many shadows, as Mary Oliver says. It offers multiple meanings and it does this with the choice of words and their placement.  A line break is a way to nuance a sentence or phrase, to pause in a certain place and thereby add more meaning.  Neruda repeats words within the poem:  "There is nothing, there is always nothing" and "It was all alive,/ alive, alive, alive/ like a scarlet fish..."   Repetition and variation within a poem also create meaning in a way similar to waves on a lake, a score of music, a cloud of birds.   

Does poetry change the writer or reader?  The reader most certainly can be changed by reading, the reader takes the poem inside of his or her breath, and can be in-spired, a profound exercise in empathy. I think it does change the writer; as the writer becomes more and more adept at craft and learns how to ply the language more skillfully, he or she is changed.  As one writes, one begins to observe more, listen more, and consider more. 
Success as a writer might or might not bring positive changes; but I do think writing itself brings the ability to find context and to connect to others.

Revision is a necessary part of writing.  In revision, we develop an initial image or pattern to its fullest and strengthen the context and connections.  Revision is also necessary in life; we may not be able to change the events or incidents that mark us, but we can change what they mean for ourselves and others.   

Perhaps like Neruda, we would be able to hold the contradictions.   F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his great essay, "The Crack Up,"  wrote, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  This is what writing and especially poetry offers. 

Progoff, Ira.  At a Journal Workshop.  c1975.  Dialogue House Library, New York, NY.

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