How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 33
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene
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Case Study #1: Living Poetically
None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.
Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.
Irene the Artist
She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.
During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,
(French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia
Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.
Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)
As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.
Gifts of the spirit
Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.” She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.
She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:
- Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
- Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
- Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
- Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.
Irene of the generous spirit
Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.
Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.
The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.
I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.
Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.
Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.
Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat, hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.
Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.
(1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
“…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—”
“…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.)
“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.