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To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

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Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self

 

Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:

THE OTHER SIDE

"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.
 

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.
 

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.
 

THE SUMMER OF GOING BAREFOOT  

"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.
  

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.
 

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.
 

ANNA SIGHS   

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.
 

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.
 

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.
 

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.
 

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.

 

In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

* * *

 

 

 

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Who Are You?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 10

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.

All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous

[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?

These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,

  • During or after a crisis
  • During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
  • When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
  • When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
  • When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
  • When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
  • When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
  • When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday

As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions

What is the self?

Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want


In what sense can you know yourself?

Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.

(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)

There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).  

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.

The Buddha

The Buddha

Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?

Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is

  • a widow
  • a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
  • a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
  • not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.

Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.

In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.

She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,

Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”

Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”

But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.

The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.

During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.

I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.

_______________ 

* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.

 

Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.

If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):

What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?

It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.

Next: Chapter 4, Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible