How does a poet attempt to view and experience the world as a poet in a world that does not reward those characteristics? I will try to answer this question as the daily grind locks horns with the aesthetics and poetics of a working poet.
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I've recently had the opportunity to allow myself to stand outside of myself and gaze out at the edge of a smoldering world, the smoldering world of my history of trauma.
It is nothing unique, nothing more or less than anyone else's, I'm sure, and I think that may have been my first mistake in thinking that I could handle all of it. I've been so busy dealing with it all, day in and day out, fighting the symptoms but not the disease, that I forgot to step back and remind myself that this is mine and only mine. It is my responsibility to own it, my responsibility to learn about it, my responsibility to take care of it so I can live my life.
It begins with the coma, with that initial disconnection from my brain and a concerted attempt by myself and my doctors to reconnect it, but my emotional landscape was set ablaze by the dual natures of my parents own emotional landscapes: my father, unable to connect because growing up love wasn't safe and in order to prevent himself from becoming the monster his father was, he stayed at arm's length from me, still loving me but still distant, as if his heart might explode by getting too close. My mother, struggling with bipolar disorder most of her life, the emphasis always remained on her emotional safety, on her emotional landscape and mine was sort of left at my own devices.
And I ran into dark corners, into corners that hadn't burned yet and I laid the foundations of my friendships and relationships there, until they burned. I was like the Road Warrior, alone, just looking for that next oasis in a post-apocalyptic mess. Only I wasn't a bad ass, I wasn't a hero, I couldn't even save myself.
A few years ago, I ran out of places to run to...and then my dad died...and then my marriage began to collapse because of an infidelity, an infidelity I allowed because all around me there was no comfort in the love of friends and family and this burning city of my emotions made everyday feel like a crisis. I hid inside fake emotions, inside emotions that I thought people wanted me to feel. I even manipulated them in order to give creedence to those fake emotions so they felt all the more real to me. That caused more pain to myself and loved ones that I didn't count on.
And now I'm outside of myself, policing every manipulative or potentially dangerous impulse I have, still unsafe in myself, but safe from the burning of the past, and now I have to build up a new city of my emotions. And I have to lay foundations on top of the rubble, foundations in emotions I've never known: self-trust, self-respect, self-forgiveness, self-discipline, and self-confidence. I know that I can feel these and that it will finally be, it must be, a genuine feeling, but the question is how to do it while preventing the inferno that engulfed my life over the past two years from rising up again and taking my tiny successes and turning them into ashes.
It is all I can do some days to get out of bed. It is all I can do to pay a bill, or do a chore, or remind myself that I like to play Magic: The Gathering. I reach deep for each fraction of each friendly smile.
I think this slow, ever-present plodding along is where all that self-whatever is going to come from. I hope it is.
I seriously hope it is. Because I don't want to be the Road Warrior in my own head anymore.
She smells like flowers and magic on a morning that the rain has decided to come down and celebrate how water falls. The drainage spout from the building next door
pours out onto the grass below in heavy clumps. How different water falls when it is tangent to a mountain, how necessary waterfall seems, how dedicated the water is to being in one place, cradled by the ground
as puddles and mountain lakes, streaming towards an ocean held by the rock of this earth. These bedfellows, water and
soil are like her and I, sleeping late, and it is like magic on this morning that she has decided to stay.
There is a fun form I've been composing with semi-frequently lately: the double dactyl. I wrote several while I was on vacation recently and truly only began to relax once I had begun writing them Light verse lovers might recognize it as the "Higgledy Piggledy" lyric. An example:
Jolted the ball but was
Jilted in bed.
Marilyn walked, but he
Laid her in rose bouquets
When she was dead.
The first line must be "Higgledy Piggledy" and the second line must be a name of who the poem is about. The last line of each stanza breaks the double dactyl rhythm (STRESS-unstress-unstress, STRESS-unstress-unstress) with a trochee (STRESS-unstress) and an iamb (unstress-STRESS). The second line of the second stanza has to be a made up 6 syllable word that also fits the rhythm of the double dactyl. All other lines are written in double dactyls.
The thing about forms is that they help provide a framework for a poem when you're not sure what to write. Writer's block shouldn't be a problem for a writer as long as they have a few minutes to play with a form. Writer's block is not about a lack of ideas, it's about too much pressure on having a good idea.
The form frees you from that pressure by saying, "Fuck a good idea, just find an idea that fits this."
My experience with formal poetry has taken me down some pretty interesting twists and turns in the path to a poem and it is rarely ever a wate of time.
It's fun and when you have fun, you let your guard down, you release those pressures and you can breathe free.
As a writer, that breathing free is so important. In that free breath of air, you can hear the rhythms of all past language, the iambs and trochees and dactyls that so many other writers before you breathed. And in breathing with them, you put yourself in sync with them, like two lovers, one holding the other's ear to their breast to let the heartbeat in one calm the other until you're breathing in sync, two hearts beating in sync. And in sync and in harmony is a really peaceful place to be for a poet.
Being a writer of light verse won't ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but it may be a way to stay in a vacation state of mind. Which during extremely difficult times is a better place to keep your mind.
So I wrote a lot about my coma in the beginning and I'm going to return to it again because that's what I do. That's what any writer does, they return to threads that keep showing up in the great tapestry of their life or their work.
I'm going to start with what I do now. I am compelled to study and talk about and discover how people acquire languages and this is languages in its broadest sense to its most specific sense. Over my life I have asked questions such as: How does one acquire the language to fit in to a certain social group or profession? How does a child learn to read and write? How does someone discover the context it takes to translate a poem into English well? How do I describe in language that everyone can understand my own unique and half-terrifying, half-comforting experience of being trapped inside yourself, your body a prison you later have to relearn to trust, your body a planetarium for your mind to project all its fantasies onto the wall of?
I address the first question in the English composition course I teach for the University of Alaska. In it, I have the students collect empirical data about the writing conventions being used in their field so that they can see through empirical research how to write within their field. Otherwise, they're left to guess half-consciously, and learn through trial and error. I use the work of John Swales and several genre analysis studies to not only describe this process and model it, but also to help dtudents engage in this part of their learning.
I addressed the second question when I worked at the Boys & Girls Club. I had the honor of working with a particular child who, not only had some behavior challenges, was also struggling with his literacy at school, so much in fact, that he may have been held back. I took it upon myself to learn the components of early language acquisition (alphabetics, fluency, and comprehension) and then to use a multi-tiered approach to his learning these principles about the language. By the time he was through my classroom, he was reading and writing at the approriate level.
I address the third question when I translate a poem, particularly one in a language whose culture I'm not familiar with. I work heavily upon notes from my Romanian friend when I am helping her with assistance in translating from or to Romanian. This process involves a lot of clarifying emails back and forth across the ocean, a lot of suggested substitutions and deviations from the literal translation. I learn bushels full of valuable enculturation with every translation.
The last question though, that's a tough one. Ultimately, my mind has a distrust of its body, it fears it and its unreliability, but also sleeps well within it, like a coccon, encased by it, protecting the imagination from escape, from sabotage, from disruption.
Talking was difficult after I came out of the coma and it is often difficult today, when other's are present. When I am alone, when I am with just my thoughts, my imagination, I am able to speak, under my breath, seamlessly with no stutters, with no hems and haws, and "what do you call its." A person's presence, even those I trust more than myself, have a silencing effect on me.
And I wonder sometimes if I wouldn't function better on my own, a hermit, with no connections to other humans, just so I can feel freer with my thoughts and able to make what I imagine happen.
But I crave that human connection, even if I fail or connect poorly. I am like the computer seeking the internet but shutting itself off from it because my firewall is on.
Which is about as close as I can come to a metaphor for saying the following conclusion about what my life has been leading up to. I say it without sorrow, without a need to be pitied, without pride. I say it as a matter of fact only.
I have experienced oblivion first-hand. I do not fit in this world, nor do I belong outside of it.
Poets, in many ways, are trained to believe in impermanence, that all beauty fades, that all living things die, that love, in all its splendor, decays.
And so we write poems and odes to the impermanent, in an attempt to memorialize them, in order to make the impermanent seem less permanent. For if Shelley hadn't written about those two vast trunkless legs of stone, who would remember Ozymandias and his crumbled ruins?
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away". --Percy Bysshe Shelley
The monuments we build out of stone or glass or metal seem permanent, but they are hard to copy. They are one of a kind. If they are destroyed, they never return to their former glory. But I can make copy after copy of a poem and distribute them to people I know, I can post it on the web, I can recite it during those silences in a conversation.
And you might recieve that poem, might take a few minutes to read or listen to it. Maybe a few more to try to let it move you or help you connect it with something that matters in your life.
And it might be a lovely moment in your life. Or maybe you'll discredit it. That happens a lot too and although we poets complain about it, we do it too. We're human. Only so much can touch a human being and sometimes poems don't do for one person, what they do for others. You build a relationship with a poem, like you do with a person. You have some you go back to time and time again in times of need. You have some you hate and those you love dearly. You have a favorite poem and you may even have one you don't read often enough but when you do it takes you back to another time and place.
And the moment when you realize you're thinking about people you know now instead of the poems I'm describing is the moment when you see the impermanance we poets see.
I've been struggling with my marriage lately and with my father's passing and the two events, though unrelated are affecting each other and I've just recently learned just how so.
People keep throwing the word "happy" at me, as in "Only you can make yourself happy." Or "I wanna make you happy." Or "You have to decide what's going to make you happy." Why is happy, a temporary emotion treated as if it were a permanent thing in our lives, as if it were a state of being or a goal. It is simply one of many emotions that are as impermanent as every other emotion.
Fear is, if not permanent, persistent. It takes hold within us. It abides within us and so I think what we mean by "being happy" in the permanent state, is really living without fear.
I'm not very good at planning for the future because Robert Frost taught me that way leads onto way and I shouldn't expect to go back and that the road not taken versus the road less traveled by makes all the difference. So a future is about as impermanent as anything can get. Nothing is set in stone, or better, verse.
So I strive to live in the moment. The poet's moment, the moment of awakening into the future, the moment where the thing being remembered ceases and the memorial begins. That moment of becoming something else, that moment where love becomes sensual touch becomes love again. That moment of stretching far and away.
Dagli albori del secolo si discute se la poesia sia dentro o fuori. Dapprima vinse il dentro, poi contrattaccò duramente il fuori e dopo anni si addivene a un forfait che non potrà durare perché il fuori è armato fino ai denti.
The word for word Italian to English transliteration:
Since the dawn of the century discussion If the poetry is in or out. He won the first, then counterattacked hard inside the outside and after he became a forfeit that will not last because the outside is armed to the teeth
English Interpretive Translation:
Our modern poets have argued whether poetry comes from inside the poet or outside. Poetry revealed himself from inside the battlements and In was thought to have won, but then, he relinquished because outside, Poetry was armed to the teeth.
I've never taken a course in Italian. The transliteration was conducted by some Microsoft program designed to translate web pages. But that is not where the poem's meaning comes from. It is as if I have chipped away at the stone to reveal some of the geode underneath. The act of translation must first transliterate, but it also must interpret.
Montale seems to say here that it is both inside the soul and outside the body. It exists wherever there is a human being and I agree with him. Poetry as an internal act is very personal, very protective. The poet constructing poetry for himself creates a world and its structures for him to live and work in, to protect him from the outside.
But the poet must also construct poetry for the world, the poet must use his words as weapons to tear down ideas that people hide behind, to force them into the open, to reveal the vulnerability of us all. To lay bare our faults and injustices, and to set us free from our illusions.
Poetry must be both inside and outside, must reflect this constant conflict of this inner landscape and our outer environment. And good poetry, the poetry that really is able to turn us from being protected to being proactive, from being on the defense, to taking up arms against our oppressors, that poetry that serves to connect us to our other, better self, is also the barrier between the two worlds. It is also the door.
And in Adrienne Rich's words, "It promises nothing. It is only a door."
And it occurs to me that non-believers can go ahead and not believe in poetry or the soul or the spirit or the life force or whatever other invisible things we have created words for out of a need to hope for something better. Just because you don't believe in it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It only means you haven't opened the door.
And you haven't opened the door because you want it to promise you something which it cannot.
I feel courageous opening that door and I gladly walk through, not knowing if I am going outside or inside. That is the job of the poet: to walk through poetry, to live through poetry, to speak through poetry, to infuse everything we contact with poetry.