December 30, 2011

Revision and The Body

Good poems are written in the body.  Some might say that poems are written with the body.  The five senses are full engaged. The poem is connected to the body of the person and to the earth's body.  

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," says Emily Dickinson.  She reminds me that part of the body is energy. The first half of this sentence, "if I feel physically..."  is countered by the next part, "as if the top of my head were taken off." I think of this as energy. These days we are aware of an energy body in alternative healing, Hindu or yoga philosophy, people talk about the chakras and the concept of kundalini, the upward journey through the body toward union with the divine. This experience is a spiritual one. I define the word spirituality in this way--a mutuality of spirits, a feeling of congruence with another. Poetry is the union or communion of the spirit. 

How does one create a poem that gives another person this experience? I do think there are ways to revise increase the poems physicality and spirituality. First question then is, is the poem written in the body? Does it employ all the senses? Is it fully physical?  

The next question is about spirit or energy. This part of revision, in my experience is about taking out the extra junk: extra words, explanation, interpretation.  It involves becoming more simple, more focused, more evocative.  In my college writing class with teacher Wayne Moen, I learned that the more evocative a poem, the stronger it was.  He insisted that we allow the reader to participate in making meaning.  Lawrence Sterne also said this; he was the author of Tristam Shandy. Do not insult the reader, Sterne warned, by telling him what to think or feel. The revision technique needed is one of ellision. Take out clutter, words, lines, sections of the poem in a fearless surgery.  

The next way to increase the energy of the poem is through the rhythm and sound of the words. One strives to create a certain music, even if it is not a formal poem, the poet pays attention to the vowels, consonants and where the stresses fall. Other things increase the energy as well -- resistances, frictions, contrasts, textures.  

Muriel Rukeyser wrote about energy:  "In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions." 

"The only danger is in not going far enough. The usable truth here deals with change. But we are speaking of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility. 

"If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are the obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion, and several kinds of death." --Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser was a poet and social activist. The Life of Poetry was published in 1949.  She was actively against the war and censorship (remember McCarthyism). The first chapters of her book examine the resistances that our culture has had to poetry. People say they "don't have time for it."  I love the way she analyzes this as a fear.  "A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response."  Are we willing to open ourselves to an emotional experience? Are we willing to take a poem inside, to listen with our own senses to the world another has given us? Are we willing to have time for the spirit?

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