Submitted with completed book of poetry for review to the Gonzaga University English Department & Creative Writing Track Assessment Panel
I am hanging on to a deep-set personal belief that I possessed some type of poetic mentality prior to stealing every other poetic notion or practice from those who said all of it better already. The inevitable question of “why continue, then?” comes next, but that is how I defend this “mentality.” I would certainly not carry on blindly, grasping for skill that seems so unattainable, or for the truths that have been expressed perfectly before I considered an attempt— if I did not need to. I would say no to all of this if I knew that I did not have to subscribe to the very process and religion of writing itself. Li-Young Lee describes the notion of poets as figures carrying the message of “the invisible”—an idea that I feel connects to my own perception of “poetic mentality.” Lee states,
“…[Poets are] saying, ‘We’re witnesses of the visible.’ No. That’s not our original mission. Our mission is witnessing the invisible and making it revealed in the visible so that everybody can line up and know what they’re lining up with. Like Whitman—lining up with the cosmos that they are. They aren’t lining up with the Pope or with ‘good behavior.’ They are beyond good and evil. The true self is beyond good and evil, and all poems are the voice of the true self. So, when you read a poem, you’re hearing your true self.
“The poet is the one saying the best and brightest things to a reader […] I see our mission as much larger than witnessing only the material world. And it isn’t to report on a twenty-years war. Twenty years? What is that? That’s nothing. It’s to report on something much bigger. There’s only one news. This visible stuff: that’s not the news. We’ve seen this! The news is that we are the universe. That’s the only news there ever was; that’s the only news that the poet reports that lasts. We want to hear the news. We need to hear the news” (Lee 193-195).
Without standing witness to the at times unfathomable skill of those writers who seem to have a divine aura—Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats—I think this mentality I am speaking of, and that I think Lee is describing in part here, would be lost; there is no question that it would dissolve into the chaos and white noise of our modern world.
I attribute my most significant development as a writer, however, to the poets who are real to me. That is, I am not afraid to communicate with their poetry. Their work, while still genius to me, does not close the golden gates of perfection on my practice; rather, it provides a level of accessibility in style and humanness that allows me to walk out into new territories rather than closing a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and giving up. These crucial poets include Sam Green, Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, Jane Hirshfield, Louise Gluck, Li-Young Lee, and Adrienne Rich.
I recall a moment of invitation into poetry writing that occurred for me last fall. As our poetry class began reading “The Grace of Necessity” by Sam Green, I was struck by the idea that I could actually take things from published, talented writers. My professor was telling me to steal things. Although I describe this moment somewhat lightly, I will never forget what it was like to open a book of poetry and have permission to “take” what I had once separated myself from with a wall of fear and intimidation. I think that I became greedy here—and friendly, humble Sam Green happened to be my first victim. In fact, I have a five-page word document with ideas taken from Green’s work. With the inspiration of Green’s stylistic approaches, I began assigning myself rules: “next time you try to write a poem, interrupt whatever you are saying halfway through and force yourself to make a different conclusion”, for example. These “Sam Green Rules” (though not all of them) proved to be an excellent starting point for my exploration of free verse in particular.
As I worked on my own poems, I quickly became obsessed with one technique: gesture. This obsession has not gone anywhere since then, and I am constantly taken aback by gesture choices made by poets while reading, and often attempt similar styles in my own work. Green’s “The Grace of Necessity” introduced me to conversational gestures such as “How could…”, “Actually…”, “On second thought—”, “Listen…”, and etcetera. I recall feeling jipped: did other people know about this? Was anyone else surprised, wanting more of this stuff? Why didn’t anyone tell me before?
Gesture demands my interest unlike any other technique within poetry, and since my “Sam Green Epiphany” I have given much thought to its art. Chris Howell discusses the function of successful gesture:
“I think of that line in ‘To The Muse’ where Wright says, ‘Still, it lets you/ Walk about on tiptoe if you don’t/ Jiggle the needle. / It might stab your heart, you see.’
“You see”– It is difficult to explain why these two words perform what I’ve been describing as a resonance — it is that gesture coming off of an explanation into an appeal for agreement which is in itself rhetorical. Of course you see. But you also see, or feel, let’s say, that the emotional weight of the simple utterance “you see” is so great, it is as though the reader spoke those words, spoke them to a child. And that poem, or any poem that is going to work the way I’m suggesting, has to work as though the reader composes it while reading it. Has to. So, in a way, it’s your (the reader’s) experience. Not experience written about, but experience itself, the experience of knowing” (Howell 113).
There is a haiku by Seifu-jo that I think of each time I consider the function of such a gesture: “A tiny child / shown a flower / opens its mouth.” And that is just how I see gesture behaving, and I think Howell might see it that way too; there is an innocence—the gesture is at once conversational and admits to mortality—many times, it humbles the work and, in my experience, can produce a heart-breaking effect for the reader when done in ways such as James Wright’s simple “you see” in “To The Muse.” The speaker in this poem in particular reveals all vulnerability it seems, simply through the subject matter, but then the reader stumbles upon that “you see”—and I can’t stress it enough, how impossible to ignore that is, and how immediately shattering…it’s all over for the reader. Read “To The Muse” and try to skate over this moment; I do not think a feeling human could do it.
Naomi Shihab Nyeexudes a humble, gentle perspective in her poetry from “19 Varities of Gazelle” that calls to attention the importance of being genuine and honest within poetry. Perhaps this idea evolved from meeting Naomi personally; she struck me as an individual whose presence is “peace” in many ways. She described for me advice she received from William Stafford: “think about what you would have said, if given another opportunity, and write that.” Nye must adhere strictly to this advice, for even on the topic of war within many of her poems, she does not falter; she says what she should have said, with a quiet peace that combats the violence of the subject better than anger or rage could, it seems.
Nye’s poetry presented further invitation for me in the way that Sam Green’s work did. I noticed how conversational, open, and untouched her “artifacts” from the external world were in her poetry. For example, in her poem, “My Father and the Figtree”, she incorporates dialogue directly from her father, such as, “I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth—gift of Allah!” Witnessing Nye’s loyalty to the origin of an artifact or emotion was a significant turning point for me. Reading Nye pushed the boundaries of what I felt I could do within a poem; I had not considered before that the image or sound that once gripped me and motivated writing would simply be enough—it is best, at times, to let things be. Nye taught me how to let things speak for themselves. This is especially true for the poem “There are people outside”, from my manuscript; the images are taken straight from observation and informed the subject of my poem without demanding alteration on my part.
The inspiration I found simply from these two visiting poets expanded rapidly and I began to uncover other influential poets. William Stafford’s illusive use of form and technique caught my attention; in his work, I found an immediate accessibility in terms of subject—I was “hit” by meaning in many experiences—and yet his work is deserving of in-depth exploration, for although it seems he uses basic structures and straight-forward language, there are many times his poetry can be surprising in its formal intricacies that could not be anything but calculated and deliberate. For example, in “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”, Stafford does not adhere to a strict rhyming pattern necessarily, but it is clear that this is a highly organized poem. The meaning of the ending words seem to mirror one another in some ways; the idea of “I am” and “you are” in the first two lines of the first stanza certainly seem deliberate. Similarly, “world” and “star” have a subject-driven relationship in this first stanza as well. In the second stanza, “break” and “dyke” bring us closer to a traditional rhyme; and “break” certainly has a relationship with “broken dyke” in terms of meaning. One could argue that “tail” and “cruelty” in the third stanza have a sound-based relationship. In the following stanza, “talk” and “dark” possess similar sound and visual traits. Finally, in the last stanza, the obvious rhyme of “sleep” and “deep” offers the reader a conclusion or fulfills what feels like a pending promise by this time in the poem.
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
- If you don’t know the kind of person I am
- and I don’t know the kind of person you are
- a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
- and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
- For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
- a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
- sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
- storming out to play through the broken dyke.
- And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
- but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
- I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
- to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
- And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
- a remote important region in all who talk:
- though we could fool each other, we should consider—
- lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
- For it is important that awake people be awake,
- or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
- the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
• • •
My experiences with form are limited to one semester of a strong desire to understand and imitate forms coupled with an even stronger intimidation and insecurity that produced a crippling effect in my own writing. My intent when exploring forms and their many functions was and is to reach a level of understanding so that form might produce a more subconscious writing experience that informed me of the poem’s content, rather than the other way around. Through the process of adhering to a form, I imagined that my mind would be liberated from subject and the “invisible” would return to the page, surprising me by the very nature of its vessel. This longed-for experience is yet to occur for me, however. I attribute my own fear of form to this problem, but also to the intimidation of arduous work. This moment in writing will not happen until practice has done its time. My study of form this semester did provide me with new approaches for my own work and introduced me to the importance of visual techniques within poetry especially. Robyn Schiff describes the relationship between the words and the design of the page:
“I think of white space in a poem as the silence that’s contending with the articulation the poem is trying to achieve. In a poem there’s always a push and pull between what can be said and what can not. That combination is the heart of expression. White space is the silence encroaching upon the chatter. It’s particularly threatening in the middle of a sentence in a highly enjambed, violent break in saying. I very rarely use interlineal white space, but the white space that moves me most is the margin itself. I don’t often use the weed-wacker approach—you know, a straight, evenly spaced stanza edge—because it tends to neutralize the margin. I like it to look a little wild” (Schiff).
The manipulation of the page and the space between the words, for example, was another territory similar to that of gesture in that I did not realize it was “allowed” until I encountered work that dealt with this technique heavily. This technique proved to be another missing element from my understanding of poetics; the words, the page, the images, the gesture—these pieces have gradually come together for me, shaping my understanding of the deliberate decisions made my poets in every aspect of the poem and the page—and further opening up my own options as a writer.
For now, my approach to writing free verse poetry and poetry in form remains severely divided—a divide that I am working to blur, with William Stafford as a source of inspiration for “ghost form” in particular. Free verse continues to operate as that way of waking up and shutting down all at once while something occurs briefly, as though at the hands of a possessed individual at times. There is the collecting of artifacts, words, images, that are later collaborated for a longer, more meditative work—but the fleeting moments of inspiration that produce the abrupt, typically twelve or thirteen-line poem are the moments that form my fundamental reliance on poetry.
This “invasion” of the body that seems to happen now and then is quite distinct from any process of writing in form, thus far, and remains the most genuine in relationship to my understanding of poetic mentality. D. H. Lawrence writes on the “poetry of the present” and describes a similar perception of free verse poetry:
“The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end must have that exquisite finality, perfection which belongs to all that is far off. It is in the realm of all that is perfect. It is of the nature of all that is complete and consummate. The completeness, this consummateness, the finality and the perfection are conveyed in exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which returns upon itself like a dance…But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished” (Lawrence,Poetry of the Present).
This is what I am drawn to most: work with the present. The idea that an image or a moment is just that; one moment, and we are meant to understand perhaps only part of it, or all that we can—and because of this limitation, we should not transform this artifact into an idea that we force into a finished state or product. There is a level of humility at work here, in my understanding of this type of poetry; the vessel/poet does not assume a position of authority over the “glory” that is occurring, and therefore it remains more intact. The glory is more intact in its own incompletion; it is closer to what it is, closer despite the impossibility of holding the present in one’s hand. Lawrence states,
“But all that can be said, first and last, is that free verse is, or should be direct utterance from the instant, whole man. It is the soul and the mind and body surging at once, nothing left out. They speak all together. There is some confusion, some discord. But the confusion and the discord only belong to the reality, as noise belongs to the plunge of water. It is no use inventing fancy laws for free verse, no use drawing a melodic line which all the feet must toe” (Lawrence).
• • •
All poetry is political within its time. Poetic mentality is the opposition of violent language and behaviors, the silent cure for the white noise and mindless sensations that threaten our intellectual and spiritual well being constantly, and from all sides. Poetry is in many ways the only way for me to stay “awake” despite the objecting modern world that is constantly at my back, noisy and restless, waiting to rob me of this “awakened” state. The need to remind myself to avoid the cultural numbness around me has expanded into a constant anxiety of sorts. If it were not for the patience, quiet, and observation required when writing or working with poetry, I would feel lost. Poetry is, for me, the only way of experiencing the external world without being taken by it. It is an informative state that sees beyond what is being seen and grasps for something more significant and fulfilling. Without poetry, I would have no tool to face the sordid reality that I have explored more recently through a theoretical lens in particular. The imbalances, injustices, and limitations of the world that I (we) must participate in can only be treated through the simultaneously delicate and dynamic voice of poetry. Adrienne Rich writes on poetry’s function within liberation and the relationship between poet and the collective:
“I take it that poetry—if it is poetry—is liberatory at its core. Not revolution itself, ‘but a way of knowing/ why it must come’”
“But the thing I want to focus on here is the question of poetry’s very medium, language: what we think it can and cannot do, and how. I will draw on two apparently polarized attitudes and try to see what each can offer us. One holds that poetry is pure exploration of language, a kind of “research” into language, which by its rejection of conventional expectations is inherently subversive to dominant and oppressive structures, and to the degradation of language these structures have produced. Poetry that seeks to communicate directly, beyond or beside its formal dynamics, can only fall into collusion with this degradation, this impoverishment, of language…I want to read, and make, poems that are out there on the edge of meaning yet can mean something to the collective. I don’t believe it’s only the isolated visionary who goes to the edge of meaning: I think the collective needs to go there too, because in fact that edge is where we can see what it would really be like to live without meaning, dissociated. But I also want to read, and make, poems that remind me ‘why it must come,’ why what June Jordan calls the logic of in community. This poetry is worth our most sacred and profane passion, because it embodies our desire, what we might create, in the difficult world around the poem” (Rich 116-119).
While I describe poetry as a therapeutic, religious idea for myself personally, there is also with that type of belief in the process, and a certain duty to the content and function of the work. Poets can and should be healers for the clutter and destruction of the external world; a place we all must be, and therefore a place deserving of a balm that is emotionally and spiritually accessible for the collective.
• • •
Where do I belong or stand within the landscape of these poets who have sacrificed themselves as heroic vessels of truth? I have grappled with the relationship between poet and reader this semester in particular; wiring poetry is such a personal therapy, and yet, there is an important element of writing poetry that extends the “therapy” to the collective—Li-Young Lee and Adrienne Rich prove that this is a crucial duty of the poet—to not hoard truth, but to use oneself as a vessel of truth for the greater majority. It seems that there is an inevitable alienation of poetry from the rest of the world in consideration of our modern distractions. I fear that the majority is simply not “present” enough to bother reading poetry—and those who do read and care about poetry and its function will be reading it, apart from the rest. More than ever, I believe our world needs poetry and art to awaken the collective emotionally to the experience of living and recognizing one another. Poetry, in its most basic essence, seems to be the solution—but I do not know that the collective will respond to this form. I envision myself as an advocate for poetry and “presence” despite the challenge of this situation. Even if no one reads poetry, it must be written. As Li-Young Lee states, “If no one read poetry. Nobody. If nobody read it! We would still be the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Lee 194).