Friday, July 13, 2007

A Poetry of Moments

Back when I wrote up that "Eight Random Things" meme, I invited readers to chime in with any other questions they had. Jeff took me up on that offer by asking me the following:

You've wanted to be a poet all your life. This is equivalent to saying that you've wanted to work in a certain medium all your life. But isn't the message more important than the medium, if you want to deeply affect people's lives? ... What is your message?

Today is one of those days when I have other things on my mind, but I also realize that it's been quite a while since I updated with anything substantial. So if you'll forgive the scatter-brained nature, I'd like to try to answer that question now.

I think I've mentioned in this blog before (perhaps not) the story my parents told me about when I was very little. Long before I could read or write, I would sit for hours with a handful or crayons and a ream of paper, scribbling line after line. Whenever anyone asked what I was doing, I proclaimed, "I'm writing!" This might be one of those stories that mean a great deal more to me now, in hindsight, than it did at the time. Regardless, I like to think that writing is in my blood and bones, somehow. While my parents both worked full-time and I attended a daycare in the city, my "nanny," Miss Iris, taught me to read and write in Spanish, and every once in a while, rummaging through scrapbooks and old boxes, I'll come across a poem I wrote when I was four or five that, as an adult, I can't even read. This blows me away, quite honestly, and only affirms for me my on-going but strange love affair with language.

As I got older and began going to elementary school, I started writing short stories--mostly very bizarre fantasy stories about little girls who were secretly princesses or skilled warrior faeries or ninjas (yes, I think there were a few ninja stories in there). These weren't the only stories I wrote, though. I remember my first "real story," written in first grade, about the day a few friends and I had been playing by a creek in the park, tossing stones, when we hit a baby duckling and watched its slow lop-sided struggle until it finally drowned. I also remember going to my first confession as a little Catholic girl preparing for her first communion, and confessing to the priest that I had committed the sin of jealousy, because another girl named Megan in my class had written a story about giraffes and everyone liked her story better than mine, even though it was easy to love giraffes because they're so strange and unique, and it was much harder to love a true story about children killing a duckling by accident. I can't imagine what the priest must have thought.

I mention this because, even though for a long time I wanted to be a "writer" of the traditional kinds of books that I was reading as a young girl, I think I've always had a penchant for what lends itself to poetry--the moment of bizarreness or tragedy or grace in the midst of the ordinary. The small details that belie a more difficult reality, where children can be both killers and innocents, where sentiment for cute, endangered animals takes a back seat to the paradox of the here-now.

When I finally began to explore poetry more seriously my freshman year of high school (thanks to a passionate teacher who lent me a book of "Immortal Poems" by the great Romantics, among others), it seemed to suit me. I attended a summer young-writers workshop and truly fell in love with a poem for the first time--Mark Strand's "Keeping Things Whole," which begins,

In a field
I am the absence of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

and which I can still recite from memory. (It still gives me chills--that distinct understanding of absence, and the loneliness and love of the final lines: "We all have reasons/for moving./I move/to keep things whole.")

So when I say that I've always wanted to be a poet, I am speaking as someone who has never been more fulfilled or more driven than when I am writing a poem. It is not a choice to work in a particular medium, but more just how things seem to have worked out, almost by chance.

That said, Jeff makes an interesting point about medium and message. I do not think they are as distinct as they first seem. A while back, responding to a blog post of his about the role of faith in Druidism, I commented:

Giving myself up to the “Divine muse” (or Awen, as my new Druid vocab gets it), I didn’t lose myself or abandon my seriousness about writing as a craft. Similarly, plunging into the particulars of concrete detail and vivid imagery through poetry didn’t pull me away from a sense of unity and ineffableness about the world, but opened up that union even more so…"

Of course, great storytelling also immerses itself in concrete detail and vivid imagery--but poetry in particular seems to be an ideal medium for this work. Every once in a while, I'm struck by my intense ability to focus on detail, to imagine juxtapositions and tensions into being, and to navigate these tensions as one might rock from rope to rope strung across an abyss. I think my passion for the poetic art has, in some ways, honed what were already natural tendencies towards Mystery and paradox manifest in a complex and interwoven world.

The other day, for instance, the restaurant where I work sponsored a free day at the zoo, so I hopped a bus and spent the day wandering among the animals. Being alone, I felt free to go at my own pace, and I soon realized that my attention was expansive (too expansive, perhaps, to be tolerated by a friend if one had been tagging along). In the small aquarium within the zoo, I spent a good half hour watching a small tank of giant clams--which, let me tell you, don't move very much--just waiting for a fish to brush by so that I could watch this impossibly responsive creature pull into itself. Eventually, when a fish swam just a bit too close, I watched a clam larger than my head suddenly snap shut. This sounds amazingly boring, and to most people I'm sure it would have been. But for me, it was a moment of poetry--a moment in which something we so often overlook as dull and unresponsive as rock suddenly reveals a thriving lifeforce within it--a moment that was only possible because of the surrounding stillness and my willingness to wait.

For me, this is the "message" that poetry is uniquely apt at delivering. The structure of the text, its stanzas and line breaks, and the elevation of every word, every breath or pause between sound and the each sound itself--expresses this type of attention to tension, to the universal expressed unexpectedly within the concrete--that movement of sudden life within the surrounding stillness, and the echo of that movement in the core of our own being. So what is my message?

To pay attention. To recognize the ridiculous sacred lurking in every corner of the everyday. To clear a space of stillness--to break up the stream of chatter and obligation--and allow the emptiness, whether it is on the page or in the world, to bring moments of poetry into focus.


  1. I love your confession story. Do you still have the story that you wrote about stoning the baby duckling?

    Zoos and aquaria are there just for people like us who like to watch wild things.

  2. There is some truth in Marshall McLuhan's now-clichéd comment "The medium is the message" - I can express the exact same feeling, impression or experience in prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction - but each instance will evoke a very different response.

    old pond . . .
    a frog leaps in
    water’s sound
    (Bashô Matsuo, tx. by W. J. Higginson)

    As I walked in the deep woods, I came upon an old pond. I stopped to meditate, the stillness of the water and the quiet of the forest my only company as I settled in to find my own inner stillness. A frog jumped into the water; the sound, coming unexpectedly in the deep silence, jarred me into sudden awareness, or satori.

    Very different!

  3. Oh wow.

    It's abundantly clear to me that I have never understood Western poetry before. Finally, after 34 years of life, you have explained it to me. Good heavens! It's like suddenly realizing I've been trying to read poetry with the book held upside down.

    My own thoughts are less than coherent right now, but -- I know this thing. Isn't this focusing on the breath, with special attention to the space between breaths? Isn't this vivid imagery, and isn't this also emptiness? Isn't this the sudden sharp shock, in the midst of everyday life, that brings enlightenment? Isn't this holding the blazing emotion of a moment in your hand, peeling yourself away from it, letting it be there in its glory, while You are elsewhere? Isn't this the question with no answer but a knock upside the head?

    Thank you, Ali. I never expected to meet my old friend, the Lord Buddha, on this road.

  4. I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to respond to your comments until now, guys. I've had... stuff... going on. As my most recent entries probably hint at. O well--that's the beauty of blogging, right? A real time map of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey (what the Greeks called a "hyponemata," I think). Anyway, I'm glad what I wrote was a bit illuminating (especially for you, Jeff--I think you are exactly right about the relationship between poetry, as I understand it, and Buddhist philosophy).