How Can I Keep from Singing?

Learn to Speak Your Mind Through Poetry

The next 40-plus posts in this blog comprise an online course in contemplative poetry, How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically. 

PLEASE NOTE: The free-evaluation period for this course has ended. The readings, lessons, and assignments will remain public for a time, but for professional instruction, feedback, and assessment; publication in course journal; and Certificate in Contemplative Poetry, you’ll need to pay full tuition, which is $840 for one year.

Enrollment Information

TO ENROLL: Please e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net with the following information:

  • Include your name, phone number, and e-mail address (if different from that from which your message originates). 
  • Indicate your payment preference: Single payment of $840 or two payments of $420 each (the second payment will be due 60 days after start of course).
  • Optional: What does the phrase “living poetically” mean to you? Include your answer in the body of this e-mail.
  • Please put POETRY in the subject line unless you have received the course as a gift, in which case please put POETRY SCHOLARSHIP in the subject line.

You will receive an invoice (or confirmation, if scholarship) within a few days. Instructions will follow upon receipt of your payment. Course graduates will receive a CERTIFICATE IN CONTEMPLATIVE POETRY.

About the Course

The course — How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically — is more than a traditional poetry-writing course. It is designed to teach you to explore and express the subconscious mind through poetry. The structure and conventions of poetry create a safe context and a narrow channel for expression, so that revelations from the deep within don’t flood and overwhelm your awareness.

You’ll also learn how writing poetry can expand and color your perspective — extremely useful when events or circumstances seem overwhelming, exceptionally confusing, bleak, or threatening. You might call it “putting a good spin on a tough time,” but that implies something superficial, like using makeup in different shades to call attention to high cheekbones and away from too prominent a chin. When by writing poetry you cast a different light on a situation, the expression is organic. “Life” and the poetic cast you throw upon it merge, as in a chemical reaction: two substances combine to form a different substance altogether. A few paragraphs down you’ll find an example (“Altars”) from my own embracing of a living situation that seemed, on the surface, rather grim.

I will explain “living poetically” in greater detail as we go along, though I would be interested in hearing what the phrase conveys to you. (See “Enrollment Information,” above. Right now I’ll just say that “living poetically” is a good thing that involves serenity and well-being, achieved in part through the discipline of writing poetry as a form of meditation.)

Photo by Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

Photo by Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

The introductory lessons describe the goals and define the terms used in this course, all in a way you should find interesting and thought-provoking.

After the introductory sections, there will be regular assignments. These will be fun and revealing. Besides learning about poets and poetry, you’ll investigate topics including the English language, the arts in general, the emotions, meditation and the self.

At the conclusion of the course, I will compile some of the poetry received from you and other students—the best poems, or those that best represent the course objectives—into an e-book, which all participants may download for free.

Today’s installment is the first part of the preface. It describes a period in my own life that was particularly poetic—not because of any conscious effort on my part, but because I had unknowingly slipped into a benign rhythm, like finding oneself on a riverboat and being carried by a current that happens to be going in the right direction.

pothos-round-blue-bkgrd

ALTARS

If I were going to live here—and to all
appearances I was, the heap of luggage at my
feet attesting to the fact—then there would
need to be a very lot of plants, I thought. In
my experience, a few lush, hardy pothos were
the ticket: instant ambience and simple
propagation—cuttings in a jar of water,
nothing to it.  Pothos thrive that way,
requiring hardly any light and not a bit of
fuss. I set them side by side or cluster them in
corners. Right away they are the best of
friends. You see it in the sweet (and shy at the
beginning) twining of their stems. They show
up better, too, in bunches. Shiny leaves and
sturdy, twisty vines attract the eye and give a
timid space vitality… so easy, with this
simple show of domesticity, to stake a claim:
This is my place.

I spot a well-placed window and I feel like it’s 
my birthday. Every home must have a few, to
ward off melancholy. Dark moods brighten in
the company of pots of jaunty herbs along the
narrow boundary between inside and out,
especially—not that it’s necessary, strictly
speaking, but appealing, and salubrious as well—
if I can hang a pair of devil’s ivy (pothos by another
name) directly 
overhead and don’t forget to dust
the leaves with regularity. It’s not that they object to
getting grimy now and then, however. If their soil is
overdry they droop pathetically. Hydration brings them
back before your eyes. They show their gratitude so
energetically you’ll want to put them on a leash. For
little more than water the reward is foliage, thick and
shining like my mama’s kitchen floor. They’re given
every window with an east exposure, and I spend
my first few waking minutes with them as
they come to life again. 

Note the very moment when the first rays 
brush the leaves, the way a mother strokes her
baby’s face… and let the 
moment be a regular
appointment 
so you don’t forget to stop and sit
and watch 
habitually, in awe of what you’re
witnessing, 
the sacred intimacy of it.

Try not to think too much about the
photosynthesis that’s happening. It
fascinates, 
but this is an exchange of
love between the 
earth and sky you’re
looking on, and the display 
is brief… a
micro-dawn, a breath of  prayer,
 a song
of praise (Where is it coming from? It
isn’t you? It must be me), and one can
scarcely help 
but worship then the Power
that upon the first encounter stirred a
need to turn a plain green 
growing
thing into a kind of altar.

Of an evening, passing through, a spirit
likes to pause at such a place of holiness
and whimsy, drawing in another lively one
or two, apparently attracted by the microscopic
movements you and I, preoccupied,neglected to
observe. Now you have company, a cozy few, who
somehow sensed that you were disinclined to be
alone just then, and they were every bit as pleased
as you and I to find that what we started with our
ivied accidental altar had, without our necessarily
intending it, or even giving it much thought—
although we wanted it; what’s not to want? But,
you see, we didn’t know how near it was—had
of its own volition taken root and grown. Now
look at us. By water, grace, 
and alchemy,
we’re here. We’re home.

—by Mary Campbell
April 2008

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

E-Course Lesson 1. Preface (part 1)

How Can I Keep from Singing?

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

Robert Wadsworth Lowry, 1860, based on a traditional Quaker hymn

APRIL 1990. The sky is a deep, unbroken blue from horizon to horizon. Even at noon, the desert sun is gentle, gathering strength for the brutal summer.

You are rattling gleefully down the freeway toward Mexico in the most marvelous vehicle you have ever owned. It is a 1983 Chinook: a teeny-tiny house on wheels. You’ve got your built-in icebox, got your sink, got your two-burner propane stove. There’s a little dining booth that unfolds into a double bed, and there’s another, smaller bed above the front seats; there are closets and cupboards and a Porta-Potty. You have upholstered the benches in brown-red-yellow calico and made cute little curtains to match. This is a traveling cottage for women and children. Grown men who are uneasy with calico and cute little curtains can drive their phallic Corvettes or their ATVs.

Though aerodynamically challenged — basically a fiberglass box on a Toyota chassis with a four-cylinder engine — the Chinook gets twenty miles to a gallon of gas in town, twenty-five on the highway.

You are bound for Puerto Peñasco, a five-hour drive to paradise, where you can lounge on the playa and comprar trinkets you don’t need, just to hear yourself hablar español badly: “¿Quantos dólares para esta dije, por favor?”

The windows of your little Chinook are wide open so that the Whole World can hear you and your two sons, ages nine and ten, lustily singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho,” although you are the only one not faking at least half the words, and the Whole World is making way too much noise anyway.

Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico (\" width=

You’re on the “Nine Bright Shiners” and suddenly you are soloing. Your chorus has gone silent, with the “Ten Commandments,” the “Eleven Who Went to Heaven,” and the “Twelve Apostles” still unsung.

“Mom?”

“…and eight for the April Rainers. Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky and six for the Six Proud Walkers.* Five for the Symbols at Your Door and four for the—”

“Mom!”

“…Gospel Makers. Three, three, the Rivals, I’ll sing you two, two, the Lily-White Boys, clo-thed all—”

“MOM! What are the ‘Symbols at Your Door’?”

The back seat, obviously, has undergone a mood shift. Lusty Singing Mood has given way to Pensive Mood. Now there will be questions… familiar questions… deep, philosophical questions arranged around familiar themes:

The What-Would-You-Do-for-a-Million-Dollars Theme

“Mom, would you eat Clarence’s poop for a million dollars?” (If you could, you would, but you gag just thinking about it.)

(Clarence is a Weimaraner. Not that your answer would be different if Clarence were a French poodle or the Queen of Sheba. Maybe if Clarence were a parakeet, and maybe for two million dollars….)

“Mom, would you run naked through Disneyland for a million dollars?” (You bet. In a heartbeat.)

“Mom, if you knew that Jack and I would be happy and have wonderful parents who loved us and took good care of us, would you sell us for a million dollars?” (Nah.) “A billion dollars?” (Nope. Not for all the money in the world.)

The What’s-It-All-About Theme

“Mom, is it true that we’re not really real, we’re just part of somebody’s dream?” (You’re pretty real to me, Kiddo.)

“No, really, Mom, how do we know we’re real?”

Children are such a blessing. You get to hand off the great existential questions. The next generation is allowed to ponder the nature of reality, freeing you to ponder how Eli’s teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, intends to “curb his spontaneity.” You wonder if electrodes will be involved.

Reality is macaroni and cheese with raisins. Reality is seeing a small boy in a small boat bobbing in the distance, in the Gulf of California, being carried by the wind and tide toward China; feeling your heart lurch when you realize that he is your small boy and he doesn’t know anyone in China; begging a man in a uniform for help when all the Spanish you know involves buying trinkets and “una cerveza, por favor” and something about volatil in an aeroplano to Los Estados Unidos to visitar your Tia Yolanda.

Reality is single parenting, reading aloud for hours before bed, the water bill, the gas bill, Mexican food and margaritas on the beach, a broken arm, a flat tire, a helpful friend, a new bike, tousled heads on damp pillows when the house is quiet and outside a lone nightingale mimics an entire tropical forest.

Reality is rhythmic, a poem punctuated by surprises, a dance, now whirling, now gliding, now stumbling, regaining one’s footing, getting a little dizzy, looking around, and being reassured that one is where one needs to be, for now.


* For years I sang the wrong words here— “the Six Brown Walkers.” I had no curiosity about the origins of this ancient, mystical song until I realized I could look it up on the Internet. You’ll find a fascinating account in Wikipedia, which traces the lyrics to medieval Kabbalism (the earliest version of the song is in Hebrew), Celtic paganism, and Christianity. While you’re online, check out kissthisguy.com, “The Archive of Misheard Lyrics,” where you’ll discover you weren’t the only one who thought Jimi Hendrix was singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” or that the oft-misinterpreted Creedence Clearwater Revival megahit was about “a bad moon on the rise,” not “a bathroom on the right” (“Bad Moon Rising,” in which songwriter John Fogerty was discussing, of all people, Richard Nixon).

© 2008 Mary Campbell and Annagrammatica.com, all rights reserved. Course participants (e-mail Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net to register) may make one copy of each installment in this series for individual use. Any other duplication or redistribution in any form is unlawful.

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