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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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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).
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.
The Self communicating with the self
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…
…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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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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