Saturday, January 16, 2010

What Hurt You Out Of Poetry?

Most of us remember W.H. Auden's famous line to Yeats, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry," and think about the stereotypical "tortured poet," or remember some personal pain that propelled us into writing our first poems. But how many of us have been hurt out of poetry by a job that demands too much time or energy, by the responsibilities of raising a family, by the disappointment of rejection slip after rejection slip for our poems or our book manuscript, by teaching position interviews that led nowhere?

While pursuing a degree in creative writing, we were externally motivated to stick to a reading plan and to maintain the discipline of writing--if not daily, at least several times a week. After several months (or even years) without that formal structure, perhaps we have not shifted gears and found the internal motivation to advance in the creation of our art. If this is true, I ask you (and me) a question: If you were hurt out of poetry (by something), then what are you willing to give up in order to get it back? In other words, what are you willing to sacrifice for your art?

Larry Levis, in "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage" asked a far more lyrical, but related, question:

"What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty window?

When the angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without you

Knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble, & the one swing
In the cage comes to rest after its almost imperceptible,

Almost endless, swaying?"

Hear Levis' answer:

"I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I'm bent over until it's infinite,

I'm going to make it talk. I'm going to make it
Confess everything."

What are we willing to do to make our desks talk? Are we willing to stare at it every single morning until it confesses everything? Anything? Until its old? Infinite?

A poet who had the daily practice of rising and writing at 3:00 AM was William Stafford. He was the first real poet I ever heard read live. I was twenty years old, and had never experienced the confluence of idea, form and unassuming passion, like I did whenever I heard him read "Near," a poem that calls for instinctual, immediate action, without waiting for anything else to happen:


Walking along in this not quite prose way,
we both know it is not quite prose we speak.
And it is time to notice the intolerable snow
innumerably touching before we sink.

It is time to notice, I say, the freezing snow
hesitating toward us from its gray heaven.
Listen! It is falling not quite silently,
and under it still you and I are walking.

Maybe there are trumpets in the houses we pass
or a red bird singing from an evergreen.
But nothing will happen till we pause to flame
what we know before any signal's given.

I don't know if something hurt you into or out of poetry. But I do know that if you've read enough and written enough poetry to earn a degree in it (or worked toward one), then you know enough to start a flame with language. So instead of waiting until you know more or are a better writer or any of a hundred other things that might or might not happen in order to make it easier for you: sit down and write a line. Do it before you do anything else after reading this. Anything else! Do it! Make your desk confess something. Flame what you know before any signal's given.

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