Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday Sept. 14, 2006
Holding Open the "Open of the World":
On Pursuing the Craft of Poetry
... the artist's deepened concentration lets what may have previously been difficult to see enter the realm of the knowable and so be made available, to both artist and others. -Jane Hirschfield,"Poetry and the Mind of Indirection," Nine Gates, p.111
A year ago spring, a lump grew on the left side of my husband's neck. It grew fast. I had had a lump in my breast a few years before that ballooned in a week fast growth was good, we learned then, it meant cyst. My husband's lump was cancer. We entered a country where neither of us spoke the language and both of us, our children too, were scared and we stumbled through the terrain, where sledgehammers came down on ants. We dwelt within the valley of the shadow of death.
I had found a book at a second hand store a few years ago, in a Scandinavian language, and no I don't want to know which. Transliterating the poems, trying to make sense in English, or sounds, or both, that speak to what we went through.
Look up transliteration in the dictionary and you won't find a cipher for this form. There is an element of absurdity, of hopelessness, of the immense possibility of failure and futility, an omni-present not-understanding but trying to hear, a feeling of disconnect, at most partial-understanding, some surprised unearthings of what we actually went through that come through my dogged attempt to find them in the limited sounds of this language I do not speak as I did not speak the language of cancer or of doctors, all of us speaking a sort of incomplete unsatisfying patois. There were no reasons, just the experience. My husband is robust and well again, but nobody is spared.
In Walking Light,Stephen Dunn writes:
"Maybe one aspect of affirmation in poetry occurs when a poem offers language for our inarticulate understandings. It affirms what we vaguely already knew, makes us less strange to ourselves, invites us more fully into the human fold."
-Stephen Dunn, Walking Light, p. 155
I am trying to approach saying the unsayable about an experience that seems pandemic. So many friends and family have been through surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, the loss of what we thought was the solid ground of life [only] to find that the ground under all of us is shaking all the time.
How do we live like this? With so much unsettling? Can I write it? Will it help? None of us gets that slip of paper that says, "For you 92 years, healthy, a quiet death in your sleep," or "baby, live it up, sixteen more days, then poof." Life doesn't break promises. It doesn't make any.
Poetry, this made thing I am so drawn to, does make promises and, with craft and luck and concentration, a poem I make, you make, fulfills at least some of [those promises]. We know poems that have succeeded. We want to make [those instead od these] kinds of poems. Who will help? William Stafford says:
It could happen anytime, tornado
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could you know. That's why we wake
and look out no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
I listen my way through the lines of my Scandanavian book, trying to find in its sounds a way to speak about last year. I have accumulated pages and pages of drafts for each poem I have worked through. The craft lies in going back and listening not only for our experience but for each remade poem's particular new music.
My first draft of poem 11 reads:
Yoda finds content:
All any sound limbers are gardens and land
And here's another:
Yaw that friends correct
debt fields collect
darts find gladness
all I need some little evidence that they'd
fuss over him.
Again, in Walking Light, Stephen Dunn says:
The revision process is when we worry the poem toward its virtues. We arrange and rearrange, suppress and add. We try to make it seem as if we danced all the way home.
-Stephen Dunn, Walking Light, p. 5
My current version of Poem 11 goes like this:
Jaded, find solace.
So debt fields collect,
All I need, some little avenues, life
As I work at this project, there are poems that cannot come through, much as I listen for them. Denise Levertov:
HUNTING THE PHOENIX
Leaf through discolored manuscripts,
make sure no words
lie thirsting, bleeding,
waiting for rescue. No:
old loves half-
articulated, moments forced
out of the stream of perception
to play 'statue',
and never released
they had no blood to shed.
You must seek
the ashy nest itself
if you hope to find
charred feathers, smouldering flightbones,
and a twist of singing flame
I'm with her from the first line, leafing through folders, beginnings scrawled on the backs of handouts, store receipts, the newspaper. And I too have had to say with her, "NO," though rarely do I throw them out.
That journal writing that forces moments out of the stream of perception to play "statue" that careful description that still may have no life in it no matter how carefully I have described the contents of the shelves at my grocery store 8, 9, 10 drafts still on my computer in the folder titled "Poetry No Hopers." Levertov says: you have to go back to the source, do the work, bring yourself into the writing or your poem will not come alive. Do not trust an effortless composition process, and especially not out of the lifeless corpses we cling to.
The poem speaks to me of these truths, and I nod in agreement, but then it opens its wings to bring me "smouldering flightbones" and then "a twist of singing or is it singe-ing flame/rekindling" which is the hope that keeps me at this, and delectable language besides.
William Stafford mentors me through poetry and life:
This is the grip, like this:
both hands. You can close
your eyes if you like. When I say,
"Now," it's time. Don't wait
or it's all over. But not
too soon, either just right.
Don't worry. Let's go.
Jane Hirschfield writes:
Within a good poem is the elegance scientists speak of when they describe a solution both economical and true. Cleaving close to the ground rules by which all language is made, good poetry carries broad information within brief speech. Image in particular, by gathering many energies toward a single end, creates an intense compression of meaning; it carries into the mind the solidity, particularity, and multifacetedness of actual objects. Such concreteness is a handle: it can be grasped. It must also be turned. That turning opens the reader into a place of enlarged awareness, where different connotations may resonate together. Before the slipperiness of unformed thought, the image offers purchase; to the solidity of things, it offers imagination's alchemical, stirring powers.
-Jane Hirschfield, Nine Gates, p. 114
We have all been shown the grip of the tennis racket, boat oar, reins and this is a survival course, not middle class recreation, our lives, our poetry are at stake. I started training as coxswain this summer, where I am learning about concise speech in real time. I cannot in the boat, as I do at my writing desk, close my eyes, because yes I often want to, the dark is fearsome but necessary, and pull my next word when it wants to come. Four rowers or eight depend on my words now. And now. I think this necessary not bluster but certainty of course can benefit my poetry. I may be wrong but we're going now. The poem says, "Now. It's time. Don't wait or it's all over." This cuts me directly in the procrastination. It will be all over: the end of the world is personal for each of us.
And the end of our poetry - We struggle, and then we remember about the closed eyes and the two hands and the fact that time is finite, and we sit down to write, no matter how ill equipped, pale talented, dog-voiced. When we write, the writing makes us writers. There is satisfaction in that. I go to the shelf, read poets on poetry, read poems. I can be lost, as Mary Oliver has written, all day, for this is like picking blackberries I go out with an empty pail, and in a couple of hours have filled both pail and stomach, my hands inky.
This morning, at Essential Baking on Madison, reading the Life & Arts Section of the Seattle P.I., a gray shape, the size of a football surged into the paper, past my head. A water glass spilled, we woozed to our feet, a couple cowered by the door. Two pigeons lifted their fat bodies on broad wings into the windows, falling, flapping and flattening themselves into the glass. A barista carried a white baker's apron from the back, set it over a grounded bird, cradled it gently like a floured rising loaf, and walked it out the door. This might become a poem.
Jane Hirschfield says:
Frost described the poet's work as wandering through a field, allowing those burrs that will to stick to his pants an apt illustration of the meanderings of mind that are integral to the process of writing.
-Jane Hirschfield, Nine Gates, p. 120
Craft and consciousness matter. But a poet's attention must also be open to what is not already understood, decided, weighed out. For a poem to be fully alive, the poet needs to surrender the protection of the known and venture into a different relationship with the subjector is it object? Both words miss of her attention. The poet must learn from what dwells outside her conceptions, capacities, and even language: from exile and silence."
-Jane Hirschfield, Nine Gates, pp 120-121
In this roomful of active confusion, what was my felt experience? How to express it?
The Polish poet, Zbigneiw Herbert, wrote in his poem:
I WOULD LIKE TO DESCRIBE
I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun
I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and it is uncertain
I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water
to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
but apparently this is not possible
and just to sayI love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue
so is blurred
so is blurred
what whitehaired gentlemen
separated once and for all
this is the subject
and this is the object
we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets
our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully
-Zbigniew Herbert, trans. By Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott
"we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets"
ah, a mound of planets.
"our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully"
Yes! We are beings of this earth, our bodies, our feet know this, live it, even as our conscious minds want to pry us out of our animal selves, worry stock market figures, flight schedules, deplore the wasting of time. We as poets want words, relationships between words, the spaces between them, to help us taste the earth, to shock us awake into our lives again.
It amazes and puzzles me to be told I am a member of the "reality-based community". It is an incredible reversal to read that the neo-cons and George W. are idealists.
Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, is helpful:
"...since modern thinking is ever more resolutely and exclusively turning into calculation, it concentrates all available energy and 'interests' in calculating. This type of thinking is itself already the explosion of a power that could blast everything into nothingness.
-Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, p. 84.
Which makes me reflect on the words of a commentator on KUOW today, who said of Karl Rove, and I paraphrase, that this guy is not some darkly evil lurker but a deeply pragmatic soul. Pragmatism may not be evil, but it is limited, and does not go beyond or deeper than itself.
Heidegger says of the work we poets do:
To be a work means to set up a world. World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being. The work as work sets up a world. The work holds open the Open of the world.
-Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 44-45.
Pragmatists and cynics cannot hold open the Open of the world. That is the poet's work. And our work is needed.
copyright2006 Laura Gamache
Laura Gamache is a Seattle poet and educator with work in Avatar Review 6, Crab Creek Review, Heliotrope, Pontoon 7, and other journals, in anthologies including In My Life: Encounters with the Beatles, Classics in the Classroom, and The North Atlantic Review. Laura teaches creative writing in the Puget Sound area through Seattle Arts & Lectures WITS and other programs. She was selected to participate in the Jack Straw Writers Program's Tenth Anniversary Celebration in 2006, having been a JSWP participant in 1999 and 2002. Her chapbook, nothing to hold onto, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2005.