And things like that
May look like nonsense
But there is
I know, I know… it’s not formal verse, but it’s one of my favourite pieces.
O man! Attend!
What does deep midnight’s voice contend?
‘I slept my sleep,
‘And now awake at dreaming’s end:
‘The world is deep,
‘And deeper than day can comprehend.
‘Deep is its woe,
‘Joy—deeper than heart’s agony:
‘Woe says: Fade! Go!
‘But all joy wants eternity,
‘Wants deep, deep, deep eternity!’
The above is the R.J. Hollingdale translation of Zarathustra’s Rundgesang from the German original of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
»Ich schlief, ich schlief—,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh—,
Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit—,
—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!«
Photo: “Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘Hoy no somos el mismo hombre de ayer y mañana volveremos a ser otro.’” by Antonio Marín Segovia is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
We dance for laughter,
we dance for tears,
we dance for madness,
we dance for fears,
we dance for hopes,
we dance for screams,
we are the dancers,
we create the dreams.
I can’t find anyone other than Einstein credited with this verse, but I also can’t find the source for it. Regardless, Einstein had an appropriate attitude for studying the universe: look at it and ourselves in the spirit of dance, learning, dreaming and creativity.
Which is the worst –
Is it the loss, or memory of loss,
Or loss of memory? Who gives a toss
When the brain’s banks have burst
And all we valued yesterday
Is washed away?
The above is a short poem, semi-formal (i.e. it’s in iambics, it rhymes, but it lacks formal structure) published in this month’s Snakeskin No. 298. I like semi-formal because it allows natural expression in a way that formal structure often prevents. Contrast these examples from Matthew Arnold of the formal (from The Scholar-Gipsy) and semi-formal (from A Summer Night):
Thee at the ferry Oxford riders blithe,
Returning home on summer-nights, have met
Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe,
Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet…
The inversions of adjectives and phrases were used to fit rhyme and metre to line length. Drop the line length requirements and, even retaining the “thee”s and “thou”s, the expression is more naturally conversational:
And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth will sail…
Poor Matthew Arnold! With his father a famous Headmaster and himself an Inspector of Schools, there is a sad irony in so much of his poetry being about escaping the tedium of regimented Victorian life.
Send me your ravens
I’ll feed them.
It is only appropriate to end this chapbook on summoning poems with gratitude that anything at all is achieved. We generate thoughts and ideas so constantly and easily that we don’t even wonder how we do it – just as we don’t think how it is that our legs are able to carry us forward when we decide to walk, let alone how our stomachs know whether to digest or reject the things we swallow. Thoughts and ideas come from somewhere and something, an internal process that is being constantly fed from the outside… but quite what that process involves we rarely consider.
This work is an attempt at describing the various stages of writing a poem: being aware of a creative mood, telling your subconscious that you want more ideas by making an effort to record and use the ideas you get, focusing your creativity by reading within the genre you want to write, developing your technical skills in the craft that that genre offers, and building your piece from author to audience with all necessary components and as much elegance as possible… and then recognising that it won’t always be successful, but that it is all a miracle that anything is achieved at all, and you can (and should) be grateful for that.
The opinions and their expression are of course personal and idiosyncratic. YMMV.
This series of poems was written and strung together over a few months in late 2016. I sent it to George Simmers, hoping for comments on such matters as whether the pieces were too disparate in style, whether the rudest of them was too offensive and so on – but his only response was that he would publish it as an e-chapbook, and so it appeared in Snakeskin 236 in January 2017. I’ve toned down the first four lines of Poem 10: ‘Inspiration 1’ for these posts, and I’ve continued to tinker with issues such as English vs American spelling, and whether or not every line should begin with a capital letter. Hopefully the Snakeskin Archive will be restored, and the original chapbook will be available again.
Thank you for reading this far. I hope you found some value in it? I welcome any comments you have.
But what if the poem’s not there?
Is just an idea?
A vague vapor?
What if there were only a few words, heard freshly?
Then write them down even (or rather, especially)
if you must get out of bed, find pen and paper.
By getting up and writing out
the poem letter by blind letter
you are showing by your doing
your devotion to your gods.
Writing verse invokes the Muses,
turns up fresh thoughts, more and better…
not for certain, but just writing
will of course increase the odds.
The hidden gods now bidden,
gods willing, by gods you’ll be ridden.
It’s not possible for everything to succeed every time. So what? As they say, Wisdom comes from learning; learning comes from experience; experience comes from mistakes. Failure is an inherent part of life and learning and achievement – but of course it is essential to learn from failures, not to simply repeat them. So even failures are a gift – be grateful!
Photo: “Failure – Try again” by Tatiana12, CC from OpenPress
We stand on two banks of the river that’s flowing between us.
I’ll bridge my new thoughts out to you with a verse.
First I form key ideas – they need clarity, cleanness –
The bridge forms an outline, takes shape in my head.
Now that bridge must be built,
Built regardless of canyons, or mud flats and silt.
The pillars are images placed first for more of the bridge to traverse,
With my strongest words buttressing them so they’re not washed away.
Their positions are set by the distance and shores,
While the force of the water, the shape of the bed,
And the landscape and soil on my side and yours,
The allowance for possible earthquake or storm,
The demands of the load that the bridge will convey…
These determine the structure, materials, form:
For the best bridge will meet site demands
With both strength and matched style.
So the poet needs meter and rhyme, every trick he commands,
Or the verses won’t carry their burden, will fail to beguile.
Though you see stone or steel in the bridge, for the most part it’s air,
Rhythmic arches of unspoken airy allusion, illusion,
Outlined in hard words and designed to be elegant, spare.
So this poem’s a book, that’s reduced to an essay, reduced more compactly
To two hundred lines, sacrificing precision
To memory’s need for concision, elision.
Two hundred exactly?
No, not exactly. (Exactly!)
From the sweep, pattern, length,
To its delicate strength,
Whether old Roman aqueduct, young Golden Gate,
Whether flowing with water or people and freight,
Its clean shape was constrained by the structural needs and efficiencies,
Driving its strength and position and duty.
All unstructured words in the river are wasted deficiencies.
Poems will last quite as long as an old Roman aqueduct,
Bridging the banks, bearing brightly in rhythms of beauty,
If all ostentation and ornamentation
Support the key functions in what you construct.
Raise your sights to the Space Elevator, that cable,
That modern-day Tower of Babel,
To not just bridge over
A strait or the Severn
But up! to bridge up! at the same time, to heaven.
Cloaked gods were invoked,
And the tiger broke cover,
Your poem connects river banks.
Now give thanks.
When I moved to Denmark in my early 20s I was intrigued to hear that engineering students at a local university began their studies, not with lectures on a variety of key subjects, but by being placed in teams and told to design a bridge that would meet the demands for specific use at a specified site. Materials, geology, weather, load, cost, elegance and everything else that goes into bridge design all had to be researched and included in the project. When students had completed a whole series of projects, they had earned their degree. It was a very different approach from the lecture-based university courses that I had dropped out of in the UK.
How does this relate to writing poetry? Well, it brings to mind Heinlein’s ‘first law of writing’: “You must write.” Also the old story of the would-be concert-goer lost in New York City, asking a man with a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall and being told “Practice, practice, practice.” There are a lot of factors involved in writing verse – some are common across all cultures and languages while others are language-specific. They all involve ideas (and their mysterious origin), images and their expression in words; but making those words so effective that they evoke an appropriate response in the reader or listener, so effective that they can be remembered and recited, requires the use of a whole range of language-specific factors that are mastered by doing.
By the way, the “two hundred lines” mentioned above refers to the length of the entire ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that this is part of. This chapbook is a single work, though constructed of various formal and semi-formal pieces.
That* for an idea, for an idea’s transmission.
But that isn’t poetry. Poetry’s mission
is memory – every quick trick of the tongue
to give ear-to-mouth memory,
words sung and strung
from an ear to an ear,
bearing clear repetition,
not just the idea,
but the idea’s expression,
silk wrapping the emery –
rhythm and rhyme,
form, pattern, compression,
feet, movements, beat, time,
iter-, reiter- and alliteration,
sense, nonsense and assonance, insinuation,
barbs and allusions,
hooks, jokes and confusions,
directions, inflections, creating connections…
So memory favours your chanting, reciting,
enchanting beyond all mere reading and writing –
and magicking into the mind of forever.
You’ve taken control of poetic endeavour.
*The first word, “That”, is referring back to the previous poem in the e-chapbook’s sequence, dealing with the process of obtaining the thoughts and ideas for a poem. This poem shifts the focus to the wordsmithing that makes a poem word-for-word memorable, memorisable, repeatable, recitable.
Consider the pieces of verse that are easiest for you, personally, to recite… nursery rhymes, passages of Shakespeare, bits of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, quatrains from FitzGerald’s ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, an Emily Dickinson or Edward Lear poem?
Then consider how many prose passages of similar length you can recite – perhaps a Bible passage or part of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address‘? There will be some, prose passages you have heard many, many times. But poetry is going to win out over prose by number of pieces, length of pieces, and accuracy, because poetry is deliberately uses a variety of tricks that make memorisation as easy as possible.
Poetry is not just the idea but also, essentially, the idea’s expression.
The poem enters your head as a litter of kittens
brought in by a cat from somewhere hidden,
place of birth unknown.
A word, image, rhyme,
an idea, a tone,
they are brought one at a time
In no order, no preference, no ruling or schooling,
they just need to come in, like refugees at the border.
And they have no order,
they crawl over each other, blind and mewling,
and here comes another, and then here comes another.
So the thoughts enter your head like kittens. Give thanks to the Mother.
Where do ideas come from? No idea. (An oxymoronic observation that is not so different from saying that all the Universe comes from nothing, or that there was no time before the beginning of time.) But simply having ideas is nothing in itself – you can have ideas and ignore them (and generally irritate the Muse that is offering you ideas), and so you will have nothing to show for them. Canadian poet Pino Coluccio recently pointed me at an old piece by British poet Philip Larkin, which begins:
“It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects or things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.”
So, 1) become obsessed; 2) construct a verbal device that captures the obsessiveness; 3) have it read by people who thereby experience your obsession.
This series of poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook focuses on how to be open to the internal wellspring of ideas, obsessions, emotions, words and images to reach Larkin’s first stage (these first 11 poems); and some thoughts about the construction of the “verbal device” of his second stage (the remaining four poems that are coming up). As for the third stage… well, if the poem is strong enough, it will resonate appropriately with those who read it; but how to get it read–that is a different problem entirely.