January 23, 2013

Dancing with the Past

Wonderful poets draw from their own personal history as well as their community or nation's history: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Wislawa Szymborska, Yannis Ritsos, Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo. All writers have these wells of experience.  For many writers who attend writing workshops, the question emerges about how to develop raw material -- a writing exercise, journal entry, or a memory -- into an art.  How do you take a memory and turn it into a poem?

Things, people, places are the basic building blocks of all writing. These quickly focus the writer; a story emerges; the subject arrives. As a teacher, I ask students who are starting a new piece of writing to start from a person, place or thing.

I.  Objects

Pablo Neruda's poems emerged from toil and objects worn out by hands.  The things are potent subjects.  He wrote:
It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things - all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.
The history of objects - the mundane tools and things that we use day after day - hold a key to poetry. The writer is led by description and story of this object, and the object can convey a whole life lived around it.  It is a way to condense the story. In addition, the object offers a tactile and sharp image that becomes metaphor.  But it is also more than the objects.  This poem by Cesar Vallejo bears consideration:


My father sleeps. His august aspect
portrays a peaceful heart;
he is now so sweet . . .
if there is any bitterness in him, it will be me.

There is solitude in the hearth; there is praying;
and there is no news of the children today.
My father wakes up, he scans
the flight to Egypt, the cracking farewell.
He is now so close;
if there is any farness in him, it will be me.

And my mother strolls down by the orchards,
savouring an already flavourless flavour.
She is now so gentle,
so wing, so forward, so love.

There is solitude in the tranquil hearth,
without news, without green, without childhood.
And if there is anything broken this afternoon
and that descends and crackles,
it is two old white roads, curving.
My heart goes along them on foot.

CESAR VALLEJO (Peru: 1892- Paris- 1938)
Translations by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi
for more info:

In the poem "Distant Footsteps", Cesar Vallejo offers visual images of home: a father, mother, hearth.  I find this translation particularly well done. There is solitude in the hearth he says twice.  So despite the image of hearth, of warmth and family, we experience the solitude. His father sleeps. There is no news of the children today. The mother strolls down by the orchards. We suspect but don't know if so much time has passed that these figures have passed on. A figurative language is flowing from which many things are evoked - the flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary, the beginning of the story of Jesus.  He names distance, bitterness, far-ness, something broken that descends and crackles (crackles like fire). The poem ends in a third departure.  Here is a memory; however, the memory touches off another story, a deep cultural story, that the narrator must trod.  He goes along two roads.

As poets working with our material which is memory, I believe we must go along two roads as well - with our own particular material. One road is literal and the other figurative.  One road is personal and the other is cultural or historical. One is secular, the other is religious. Or if not religious, then mythical, mystical, or whatever you might name that something that is larger.  The title of this work, "Distant Footsteps," perfectly encapsulates the story of the family, the flight to Egypt and the journey of the heart.

Joy Harjo effectively weaves creation story into her poems, the sacred with the mundane. Her poems also reflect her music, the connection with Charlie (Bird) Parker and her own saxophone. Szymborska has a particularly succinct style, and she uses the past in her work very effectively. Her past, the war in Europe, emerges from her poems "Hatred" and "Some People."  She personifies Hatred; it leaps out across cities and centuries.  In the poem "Some People,"  the voice is in third person; the tone is removed, both distant and at the same time, intensely particular.

"We have poetry so we do not die of history," says Meena Alexander in the poem, "Question Time." At a workshop with Eavan Boland, a student asked about relating painful abuse or catastrophe in a poem. Boland cautioned writers to avoid political tourism, to avoid using material that can actually re-traumatize others.

I am reminded of Paul Valery's thoughts that the language of prose is designed to fall away once the meaning is delivered, but this is not so about poetry. The language in a poem is measured. It gives breath and life to the image or metaphor.  It as if a poem is a mechanism or a machine that will remake the poem anew each time the reader reads it.

Poetry is of the body -- visceral. It engages all the senses. It is, as Valery said, physiological. This physicality extends from a person to things and even landscape when poets use personification.


Create a map of the places you've been; underneath, place a map of your parents' and grandparents' places. All of these places have other, deeper stories, dramas, conflicts, tensions. The geography is layered and deep.  Of her book Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey said, "I was thinking about the buried history we overlook. Really so much of it is literally beneath us -- the real bones of the people who are beneath us. I think I’m someone who has a constant awareness of things that are invisible... I think it in some ways comes from growing up in New Orleans...people either love it or they hate it. People who hate it think it’s seedy. I always think that seediness is just the presence of this history. There are ghosts everywhere around you." She was written about the African American troop in the Civil War, the Native Guard, that was (unbeknownst to her while she was growing up) near her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi.  Her poems uncover the layers and speaks of the ghosts.

So like object, places are inextricably linked to people.  To write about one is to write about three.

Meena Alexander also said, "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret.

Memory, history, myth, music. The particular pattern of sounds, vowels, consonants, syllables, metrics, rhyme or near rhyme, and syntax becomes essential to the act of creating the poem.  But of course, each poet brings something else to the table.

Consciousness. Vision. The now-quality of the writer's mind.  Li-Young Lee has notes introducing a few poems on The Poetry Archive that reveal his mind at the time of creating the work - a preoccupation with both ends of life (young and old).  In other poems on the site, he mentions an anguish about having told his father he had indeed prayed when he had not. Or, for another poem, the magic sound elements and romance of a train station.  To see his notes and poems, visit:

In conclusion then, a poem begins. An image (a person, a place, or a thing) or an action is set in place in a way that is physiological. The poet likely begins intuitively. Poems are haunted by their pasts; the places where many things have happened, the objects worn by several hands, the people marked by the things that marked them. One listens to the work, finds the emerging pattern and music for the poem.
In order to find that, one must be very "present."  Being attentive, or being in the moment, describes this mindfulness. Gifts arrive.

I want to end this exploration about using memory to make poems with this work by Li-Young Lee, from Book of My Nights (BOA Editions).  It does not use memory, but the presence of the past is invoked by the word, heir.


What I spill in a dream
runs under my door,
ahead of my arrival
and the year's wide round,

to meet me in the color of hills
at dawn, or else collected
in a flower's name
I trace with my finger
in a book. Proving

only this: Listening is the ground
below my sleep,
where decision is born, and
whoever's heard the title
autumn knows him by
is heir to all those
unfurnished rooms inside the roses.

To say the meaning of this beautiful poem is impossible. It evokes many meanings.

But today, in the light of a meditation upon the use of memory and the past, I might offer this thought. None of us could even try to escape the past; the places, people and things that we write about are tangled with that past.

We have one last thing: gifts that arrive, the unexpected, the given, the random or accidental events.  Dreams.  What the poet spills in a dream runs beyond him or her, ahead of his or her arrival. It meets the landscape around us, and in the landscape, the living thing.  In Lee's poem, the roses.  The living thing offers its being, its qualities to the language that we work.  The rose has offered its scent, it's architecture; in autumn, the rosehips. The rose bush holds the next season's bloom. Here is the opportunity for the poet, a metaphor.  In this presides an astounding truth.

The past will take hold of you; sometimes, you will dance with it around the room. Depending, it is that mysterious stranger that sweeps you or that uncle who you don't want be near.  A scent from the past might trigger it, a taste of turmeric or allspice or cinnamon.  A sound. A touch. Then it will be gone.

May each writer be master enough of the craft, as Li-Young Lee is, to do the poem justice. The intersection between memory and the future, the intersection between person, place, and thing, the intersection of history, creation, music, dream occurs in the stanzas (Italian for rooms) that are being written. "Whoever's heard the title/ autumn knows him by/ is heir to all those unfurnished rooms."


For some more inspiration in developing your own material, drawing your own history of things, people, and places, I've put together some links to poems, quotes about writing from other writers, and writing prompts in the presentation linked here.  I also recommend collecting poems that you love and let them teach you things about form, about sound, about technique.  Spend time with poems, reread them, study their patterns. If they are touching to you, they will teach you valuable things about craft.


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