Before I could write this post I had to read a poem. Reaching to the bookshelf, I arbitrarily picked Wallace Stevens’ “Asides on the Oboe.” A hard poem. A hard poet, who has been sleeping in my ear for years, repeating his lines when I least expect them. Reading “Oboe” cleared the way through the daily thicket to the protected space where I work. Getting there, keeping the space clear, is a survivalist exercise. Routine is part of it. Over time, the small strategies of the day become a ritual. The thing about ritual is how it binds you.
I wrote big chunks of a novel (A Handful of Kings, Simon & Schuster) on the Virginia Railway Express, commuting to work in Washington, D.C. A forty-minute ride that demanded such strict adherence to my routine that it too became a ritual. The train pulls up. If there’s a quiet car, go for it. If not, the main thing is to get a seat, any seat. (I never figured out how to write standing up.) Sit. Open a pad of paper. The pad has to have a stiff cardboard back, in place of a desk. Open. Write, leaving every other line blank so that you have white space to go back and make changes. Tune out the distractions of fellow riders. Tune out, especially, that guy with the aggrieved voice on his phone conducting a banking transaction that really no one in the car wants to be hearing. Write. Tune out. Be conscious, in the most minimal way possible, of the stations so that you don’t miss L’Enfant Plaza. Write.
I no longer ride the V.R.E. I don’t miss it. I don’t write in the waiting rooms of doctors as often as I once did. I do still require a routine, though. Writing longhand is part of it. I am increasingly resistant to writing with a word processor. Fiction rises or sinks on sentences. Mine come out sturdier, they are more likely to stand, if they begin at the moving intersection of lead and paper. I’m not sure why that is the case, but sitting down with a stiff-backed pad of paper is, for me, a luxurious need.
Then there is poetry. Robert Ready, one of America’s great readers, says that the poets are the best of us. Because I write fiction, it’s hard for me to go along with him. But I do. I tend to find a poet and read her obsessively. Lately it has been Wistawa Szymborska. Morning after morning, she takes my breath away. Why is that? How does reading a poem usefully provoke a writer? Any number of readers will have any number of explanations. But for purposes of firing the imagination, startling juxtapositions are one reason poems do what they do. The adjective fixed to a noun in whose neighborhood you never dreamed of coming across it. A diction hammered to such evocative precision that you can practically see the writer’s hands bloody from the making. Turnings, swervings, roundabouts where you thought the road must go on straight to a predictable horizon. As Ready says, the best of us.
Much as I love, say, the stories of Joseph Conrad, the work of few fiction writers causes the indispensable jolt to the system that a strong poem does. It’s a matter of taste. What works for one will not do for another. For me, the stories of Chekhov, the novels of Machado de Assis, have that awakening effect. I read them for the pleasures of electric shock. But they are the exception to the rule of poetry. Fascination follows fascination as I find new poets and go back to the ones I read a long time ago. Meantime, my poetry shelves fill up. Routine hardens into ritual. Tomorrow, when I sit to work, it will start with reading a poem. Next year, when I sit to work, it will start with a poem.
Regardless of our life circumstances, we each have a biological mother and father. 50% of our genetic make-up comes from Mom, and 50% comes from Dad. But as writers, we also have another set of “parents.” They may be living, or they may have died decades, even centuries ago. They may come from another country or write in a foreign language. We may not agree with their politics or life choices, nevertheless these other parents influence our lives. They are the poets and writers who have shaped if not our genetic futures, then certainly our creative destinies. These special parents are not simply the writers we admire―they are the writers whose work has turned us inside out, touched our souls, and changed the way we put pen to paper. Often, we recognize our creative parents immediately and instinctively. Sometimes, our connection to them becomes evident only over time.
My poetry “Mom” is Anne Sexton. Although I’d written as a child, I returned to writing seriously as a wife and mother during the decade when feminist and confessional writing flourished. Involved in both undergraduate studies and an ongoing women’s writing workshop, I was taught that nothing in a woman’s life was out of bounds. Suddenly, it was okay to write about our most intimate bodily details, about our psychological struggles, our families’ flaws and our innermost yearnings. Of course, reading Anne Sexton was required. I admired her poetry for its boldness and its craft, but I didn’t recognize her as my poetry mother until a few years later, when I was about to graduate, finally, with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing.
It was late, maybe midnight or 1 a.m. My husband and my two children were sleeping, and I was in the family room, curled in a chair, laboring over a poem that wasn’t quite working. I was deep into that space we writers can sometimes enter, that place in which time is meaningless and there seems to be an open conduit between our unconscious mind and our hand. Pausing in my writing, I felt a presence enter the room. It was clearly feminine, and generously approving. It seemed to surround me and―perhaps because in that mysterious space we have access to understandings that elude us otherwise―I knew, in my very marrow, that this presence was Anne Sexton. Then and there, she claimed me.
She’d died by her own hand in 1974, years before this visitation occurred. I was already moving away from purely confessional writing, sensing that some events were better left to memory or exploration in a private journal. And, at that point, Sexton wasn’t even my “favorite” poet. Maybe I’d been half-asleep or dreaming. Regardless, in that encounter, I was infused with a deep recognition. There was, and is, something about her ability to blend the formal with the personal, the way she risks the edge in her poetry, and how her poetic voice is both vulnerable and determined, that captured me. Her presence faded, and I returned to my poem; new, just-right words easily led to a perfect closure. Since then, when my poetic bravery wanes or my poetry becomes too staid, too bland, I return to be nourished by Anne Sexton’s poetic strengths.
Wallace Stevens is my poetry “Dad.” (Imagine that marriage, Anne and Wallace debating the purposes of poetry over dinner!) Again, although I’d read volumes of Steven’s work as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I was doing graduate work at New York University that I recognized Stevens as my creative father. One of my teachers, Galway Kinnell, required regular memorization of poems. We had to absorb every word, every line break, every punctuation mark, and so be prepared not only to speak our chosen poems, but also to transcribe them perfectly. One week, I chose Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” If you don’t know this poem, find it. Read it. Get lost in it. That’s what I did, and in the process some of Stevens’ poetry DNA became mine. After I recited the poem, Galway Kinnell said, “His rhythms seem to suit you perfectly,” and I could feel it too. It was as if Stevens’ poetic constructions―the placement of his line breaks, the mysterious underbelly of his stanzas―fit into my own creative sensibilities like a final puzzle piece locking into place.
There were other factors too. Stevens had a day job, as I did. His co-workers didn’t know he was a poet, and neither did mine. He embraced a certain privacy and orderliness, evident in his poetry, and yet that order worked to amplify, in a paradoxical way, the secrets and tensions that lived beneath the surface. In “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Stevens suggests that it’s the misery of not having poetry, of not having something beautiful in your heart, that might be fatal to the human spirit. When my poetic music threatens to fade, or my poems seem too superficial, lacking that lovely “touch of strange,” I return to Stevens, especially to that poem I memorized so long ago.
Maybe you have also discovered your creative parents along the way. Artists too have creative parents, and it’s not unheard of for a writer to have an artist or a sculptor as his or her creative parent. Happily, we can even assemble entire families. Although in reality I’m an only child, my poetry sisters are Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux. My poetry brother is, without a doubt, Henri Cole. My poetry aunt, on my mother’s side, is Louise Glück. My poetry uncle, on my father’s side, is Yehuda Amichai. My favorite poetry cousin is nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner. An eclectic family indeed, but wholly mine. And while I honor them differently than I honor my actual relatives, I return to my creative parents and siblings again and again, for guidance, for reassurance, and simply for the pure pleasure of being in their company.
Our creative writing group is gathered around a table at the back of the local coffee/chocolate/artisanal wine shop. Behind us, elaborate chalkboard drawings of owls with variously widening eyes denote the levels of caffeine available in the shop’s custom brews and infusions. Over time the chalkboard has been brushed against, with only half of the drawings still visible. Most of our group members work at the same school, and we meet once a week to try ‘writing in different directions’ – that is, purely for ourselves, separate from the email vents or lesson-planning typically done during the work day. One of the group’s rules: no school business during writing time.
We are just settling down to brainstorm writing prompts when one teacher arrives late, flustered, and immediately launches into a story about an email exchange with the parent of one of her students. Several members glance around the shop, scanning for possible parents or district administrators. Others shift, making slightly discouraging sounds, which are ignored. Another teacher arrives, saying after a beat, “Oh no, we’re not talking shop, are we?”
To which someone suggests, “Well, we don’t have to. We can start our own conversation bubble.” And then she compliments the sunglasses the other is wearing, and the new arrival, unaware of the general discomfort or agitation of the venting teacher, happily begins chatting.
Now, anyone who has been around elementary or secondary teachers will notice an interesting phenomenon – their voices tend to rise throughout the day, and for the first hour or so after school, many remain in ‘teacher-mode,’ speaking in a ringing tone modulated to be easily heard and understood in a classroom filled with restless students.
The new conversation picks up in volume – and the venting teacher increases her volume as well. All three voices continue for about a minute in real time without one deferring to the other, making it impossible to clearly hear any of them. Afterwards, a sudden quiet falls. I wait to see if anyone will comment on what has just happened – and realize, with a start, that the ‘anyone’ in our group most likely to make a joke or light remark is me. But the venting teacher is looking down, and it’s impossible to read her mood. Irritation? Near tears? Relief? Not wanting to possibly hurt her feelings, I stay silent. Then it’s over, and we go on with our prompts. It is strange and awkward, but to me it is also fascinating, exposing for a moment those rules of conversation – role, deferral and dominance – that are usually hidden, largely intuitive, and only noticeable when they are not followed.
It reminds me of my own various internal voices, how they shift and fight one another, and all the things I do as a writer that either get in their way or give them room to play out their own dynamics within my poems. Many poems that most interest me are those where voices are given ample space to contradict one another, rather than being directed into a more unified whole. I don’t mean to imply a value judgment, that one is inherently better than the other, only my own personal preference. And it is, of course, simply an aesthetic preference – even seemingly chaotic voices within an effective poem are still being controlled or directed in some way, in order for the reader to engage meaningfully with the language.
Some poets cut between voices so well the shifts barely register, as when Larry Levis’ speaker in “In the City of Light” says: “My only advice is not to go away./Or, go away. Most/Of my decisions have been wrong.” The authoritative voice appears and is spun so quickly, we hardly notice it (although it is easier to hear when read aloud,) in part because the surfacing of contradictory voices within Levis’ poems are consistent with the ‘larger voice’ of his poetry as a whole.
But even poems whose voice tends toward the oracular, a type of poetic voice that Wallace Stevens mastered, can also embrace ‘authoritative contradiction.’ In his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens declares: “It must be visible or invisible,/Invisible or visible or both:/A seeing and unseeing in the eye.” The voice in these lines seems to split into two mirrored, equally weighted voices, each scriptural in its authority, and Stevens allows them to remain so without imposing a third voice to mediate their contradictions.
Again, I don’t intend to make an argument for one treatment of voice over another in anyone’s writing – writers who are well-read and observant tend to intuitively work voice out on the page for themselves over time, just as people do in real-life conversations. It is wonderfully instructive, however, to be present and aware in those transgressive moments when a voice from all our ‘multitudes’ breaks free and surfaces, however briefly, to insist on its existence.
Levis, Larry. “In the City of Light,” from The Selected Levis. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.
Stevens, Wallace. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
Poets, like anyone else, have always had a real life in the real world. Unless they were Homer retelling a traditional story, they have always begun from somewhere within their own experience. (And who knows why Homer chose to tell that particular story?) The focus of most poets, however, has not always been as narrow as it seems to be today.
Ever since Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton and others moved American poetry into the “confessional” mode, our national poetic dialog has become a litany of self-centered anecdotes and monologues: “here’s what I saw” or “such-and-such happened to me.”
Well, speaking of being self-centered, I personally am sick and tired of those often rather limited poems. They remind me of my “friends” who post regularly on Facebook what they ate for breakfast and how many miles they ran.
That’s why I am teaching a new poetry workshop – to prod participants toward some fresher or deeper perspective on their own experience. This workshop is called Child, Shaman, Sage: Widening the I (Eye) of the Poem, and I am proposing three possible directions in which participants might develop their personal poems.
1. One direction is to take on the child’s point of view. Drop the adult knowledge and open the poem to the naive sensorium and limited experience of the young.
2. Another direction is toward magic. Take on the fluid and shape-shifting powers of the shaman.
3. And the third direction is, of course, the sage who can consider the whole world beyond the personal. The sage can help the writer ask, “Where does my little story fit in the wider universe?
Let’s explore some poems whose authors have used these various strategies.
William Carlos Williams is notorious for the faux-naïveté of “This is just to say…”
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
While the poem isn’t written to his mother, it’s still a sort of “hey, Ma, I didn’t mean to do it.” And here is another WCW poem which depends on that uncluttered vision of the child:
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red firetruck
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
To appreciate this little son et lumière show, we need to go back to being about five years old, still excited about having learned our numbers, and extra thrilled that this number is on a fire truck and we can read it. Plus there’s the excitement of being out so
late at night, after it’s already dark. Only this point of view allows us to fully appreciate the big wow.
Another familiar poem, “in just” by e.e. cummings, flirts with the world of the child.
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
and we’re perfectly happy to believe in the goat-footed little lame balloon man? Here cummings yanks us back to when we used to run our friends’ names together in a verbal blur. And then he adds the magic balloon man. But more about magic in a little bit. For now, let’s look at the most adult and philosophical of poets, Wallace Stevens, who in section XI of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” evokes the tale of Cinderella:
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach…
Although the child’s fairytale reference comes up only briefly, it adds to Stevens’ multi-dimensional look at multi-dimensionality.
Our final “child” in this discussion is John Ashbery who has always liked to play with words and ideas. His poem “What Is Written” follows a runaway train of thought worthy of the young. What happens when a bird steals a spool of thread?
Why is that bird ignoring us,
pausing in mid-flight to take another direction?
Is it a feeling of guilt about the spool
it dropped on the bank of a stream
into which it eventually rolled? Dark spool,
moving oceanward now – what other fate could have been yours?
You could have lived in a drawer
for many years, imprisoned, a ward of the state. Now you are free
to call the shots pretty much as they come.
Poor, bald thing.
Ashbery’s ability to speak to a spool and imagine its life in a drawer makes a good transition into my second route to enlarging poems, the technique I’m calling shamanic magic. I’m not talking about South American magic realism, but about the ability to leap boundaries into the impossible – and surely it’s coincidence rather than magic that two of my three examples are named Hughes. One of them, Langston Hughes, in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” claims the ability to have lived in multiple times and places:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I build my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Before humans even existed, the speaker knew rivers, and he has lived through the earliest civilizations into the history of the United States. It is by these powerful experiences that he can claim, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
As Langston Hughes crosses time barriers, Ted Hughes is known for crossing the barriers of species. Instead of looking at crows, let’s look at a semi-human figure, the traditional wild man of the woods, or, as Hughes uses the old word, the “Wodwo.”
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water…
…Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own?
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking
When I first read this poem, not knowing what a wodwo was, I thought Hughes might be transforming himself into a dog. His act of imagination becomes bigger when he is that less familiar creature. (Does being a wild man explain the non-standard punctuation?).
We find another kind of magic in “Hymn” by contemporary Oregon poet Ed Skoog:
My brother is pulling
down the shade
of his detective agency’s
office window. My
brother is locking
the deer in the zoo.
searches his armor
for the golden key.
My brother steps inside
his apartment hidden
in a portside alley
just as a tank rolls by.
Tanks are quieter
than you’d think.
I have so many
brothers, I don’t
know who isn’t
among their numbers.
Every man and woman
who has repaired
a shoe is my brother.
that has apparition
above ground is
my brother. Invis-
ibility is also.
I have omitted several of Skoog’s made-up brothers and also the figurative sisters, but with or without them, you can see this is not a factual poem. In all these poems of impossibility, the world becomes richer and more amazing than it was before we knew the poems.
Finally we come to the sage who offers us the larger context of experience as well as the experience of a larger context.
Consider this tiny poem by little-known poet named Chase Fire. (Isn’t that a wonderful name?)
The Depth of the Galaxy
in a starlit creek…
the depth of the galaxy
around my ankles
A similar manipulation of context is used by Edward Hirsch in “The Widening Sky”:
I am so small walking on the beach
at night under the widening sky.
I am disappearing so far into the dark
I have vanished from sight.
I am a tiny seashell
that has secretly drifted ashore
and carries the sound of the ocean
surging through its body.
I am so small now no one can see me.
How can I be filled with such a vast love?
Just as these poets play with size, a “sage” poet can also play with time. That’s what
A.E. Housman does in “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble” where he thinks back to a Roman soldier standing cold guard in Britain.
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ‘twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
And then there are some amazing pieces like “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats where the poet is the child, the shaman, and the sage all at once.
“Her thighs caressed/By the dark webs” is the young girl simply seeing what is and not knowing enough to call it rape; “her nape caught in his bill” is the transformation to birdhood; and then come the amazing consequences only a sage could see and write:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
We know that Zeus’ orgasm will change the world. Leda will be the mother of both Helen and later Clytemnestra, that Helen will cause the Trojan War, the breaching of the great walls, the final burning of the city. We know Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon when he finally comes home from Troy. We know that nothing is without consequences.
Needless to say, most of these poems I have quoted would be tough models for anyone but I hope that as my workshop participants revise they can try exploring the concept “child, shaman, sage.” May they find inspiration to stretch their own work beyond the simple report “this personal thing happened to me and here’s how it made me feel.” The English language and the human mind are wider than a Facebook posting.