So Let it Be Written

What’s the deal with me hand-copying poems from books, anyway? Why am I doing it, and what do I get out of it?

It’s become a pattern lately: I go to the library. I walk immediately to the poetry section, find an anthology of twentieth century poetry (because I am working on modern poets) and take it to a table. I scan, being a lazy reader and waiting for poems to catch my attention. When one does, I read it thoroughly. Then, perhaps, I read it again. If, after I’ve moved on, a phrase is stuck in my head, I return to the poem: it just might have made the cut. I think about it; about how it makes me feel–and if I feel that way about it, I get out my pen and paper.

I have favorite paper, and favorite pens. Copying a poem is a sensual experience as much as an intellectual one. I have a notebook where I place the written copies, handy for later rereading. I fantasize that one day it might be useful to my daughter to know what poems spoke to her mom.

I write in cursive; less legible but it feels right. In writing each line of the poem I have to hear it in my head. Because I fear getting a word wrong, I have to look back at the phrases and repeat them. By the time I’m done, I know the poem far better.

That’s the obvious benefit, but it’s more than that. It’s a ritual; a process of making something more real to me. The phrase “it is written” used to imply destiny or fate–by choosing to write this author’s words down with my own hand, I take them into my world and my fate.

Today’s poem: “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford.

(Don’t) Tell Me You Love Me

Love: one of the most universal subjects for a poem. A poet can expound, at great length, upon the reasons the beloved is loved. Metaphor and simile are showered upon the admired object.

But my favorite love poems are those that never mention love.

They might not even seem to like the person they’re talking about; or they might come across as ambivalent.

Yet I am left with an impression of love; love that is felt and not described.

A few days ago, I “discovered” the work of Billy Collins in an anthology. His poem “Litany” spoke to me this way, so strongly that I added it to my handcopied collection. He begins a series of metaphors describing his subject:

You are the bread and the knife, 
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are…

But then he changes gears and starts with:

However, you are not… and writes some of these;

…and you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

He also writes some I am metaphors in contrast; but ends with

…But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife…

I was astonished to find that not everyone feels the love soaking this poem. Look it up; read it; what do you think? Can you see love in a poem that is not full of compliments; that points out what the object of love is not?

Welcome, Sister

Last week, Anne Sexton showed up and informed me that she is part of my family now.

Some educated readers may be saying “How can you not have read Anne Sexton before?”

But remember, I am new to the more avid pursuit of poetry. I have had no courses, no structure; no homework to guide me. I don’t read poetry to educate myself, although I want and need to learn more about the art of poetry. Educating myself is not a strong enough yearning to keep me reading when intense depression makes learning feel pointless.

I read it because it brings people like Anne Sexton into my life in a way that time, death, or dysfunction cannot take away.

Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and took her own life in 1974. She had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and credited the practice of poetry with extending her life by many years. She wrote about everything you might imagine, with occasional emphases on themes such as fairy tales and God. She was a confessional poet, shocking people at the time, and an important force in feminist psychology.

I don’t like everything of hers that I’ve read so far. As with many poets, it’s a case of little gems popping up here and there.

But she is one of my circle now; her words belong to me and live in the house of my imagination. She joins all of my sisters and brothers, created by words and shaped into my council of meaning.

T.S. Eliot is pouring her a cup of tea. Sharon Olds hangs up her wet raincoat and offers her a towel. John Donne bows and kisses her hand as Emily Dickinson moves over to make space on the sofa.

Welcome, Anne, and thanks for coming.

Surgery Scheduled

I’ve made a resolution to go through with a procedure I’ve been putting off–and given myself a deadline: June 1.

The procedure involves opening my skin, removing a piece of what I keep buried in there and mailing it to a stranger.

The glistening piece of tissue will sit, in an envelope, stacked in some editorial person’s office. Perhaps, in time, the envelope will be opened and discerning eyes will gaze upon the raw flesh.

Perhaps he or she will find something in its cellular structure or colors intriguing. But it is more likely, given the realities of this field, that the biopsy I cringed to share will be thrown out hastily lest it begin to stink.

But I am determined to go through with it, if for no other reason than to treasure the fact that I did. To push through my perfectionism: which journal to submit to? Which poems?

To push through my second-guessing: I should wait until I’ve been able to look at them more in a real workshop setting. (No money for this, and there isn’t going to be for a long time.)

To get that first time out of the way. To just pick a publication, choose a submission according to its guidelines, do a little polishing revision and send it on its way.

Now all I need to do is buy a frame for my very first rejection letter. I’m truly excited about that. I’m not just saying it–a rejection letter will mean I met my goal.

What We Think About That

On the topic of what’s poetry and what’s just therapy or self-expression–in the library today, I found myself sensitive to how many poems do in fact tell stories about the poet’s childhood, or relationships, or an incident (unusual or mundane) in their lives.

I found a thick tome claiming to be a collection of Pushcart Prize-winning poems and flipped through it (it’s one of my guilty secrets, that I’ll flip through an anthology and only finish reading the poems that catch my eye quickly.) Among those few that caught me today were two that most definitely tell personal stories.

“Penumbra” by Betty Adcock creates an image of a six-year-old girl out on a backyard swing the day of her mother’s funeral. “Sequence” by Marilyn Nelson is a series of ten slices of a woman’s life, ranging from childhood through relationships and back again. One person’s story, in each case, but they had phrases that speak to me.

Yes, we overcomplicate the idea of subjects for poetry. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams describes a fictional most-beloved-poet:

He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

Here’s a Poem, Now Sleep With Me

Romantic poetry is–well–romantic. But some of it stands out to me as a more blatant bid not only for a partner’s affections but for very specific acts. These poems often reflect the times and culture of the poet, especially when they are a plea by a male poet for the female object of his affections to “come across.”

John Donne’s “The Flea” is one of the examples I remember strongly. In it, Donne argues with a female companion who is resistant to getting physical. He uses the image of a flea that’s just bitten both of them to claim that their blood is now mingled in this creature and that wasn’t a sin, so what does it matter what their bodies do? “Thou know’st that this cannot be said
a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead…”

Another commonly taught example is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In this one, the male character uses time and mortality as an argument, spinning images of history and eternity to convince the object of his desire that it’s folly to waste time on this whole getting-to-know-you business. He warns that if she is obstinate time will snatch away all chance of joy:
“then worms shall try
that long-preserved virginity,
and your quaint honour turn to dust,
and into ashes all my lust.”

When I look at poems like this, I remember the cultures these women lived in. Sex is complicated in my current culture, but the stakes were higher back then. Sometimes I feel anger on behalf of a woman like this, being cajoled into a decision that involved far more risk for her than for the man. An irrevocable decision, one that, according to current beliefs, imperiled not only her future prospects but her immortal soul. Hey, Donne, flea or not there’ll be plenty of shame for that girl if she’s found out. Hey, Marvell, notions of honour aren’t “quaint.”

Well, I suppose poetry is a more ethical weapon than alcohol or drugs for a would-be Casanova. Seduction poetry can be amazing, too; I just prefer it a bit more subtle. I like it to be sensual and evocative–but not directive. Make me have interesting thoughts–but don’t tell me what to do, and why I should do it! I can make my own decisions.

Poetry or Therapy?

I’ve been holding back on rough drafts. I’ve been overanalyzing whether an idea should even be allowed to get to the rough draft stage or not.

I’ve been obsessing over some commentary I read from a poet who runs workshops, one who stressed that aspiring poets who apply for her workshops should be very sure that their work is “poetry, not therapy.”

I’ve been turning that lens on my poems, asking myself sternly whether a poem has any kind of larger impact or is simply a novel way to express my feelings.

I have no problem with a poem being both art and healing–but how do I make sure it’s not only the latter? I tell myself I should simply apply my normal standards: Is there attention to word, to sound, to image? Does someone besides me find it moving in some way? Do bits of it stick in someone’s head?

Nevertheless, I’m struggling with a drive to censor any would-be draft that is inspired by anything to do with my personal experience, especially experiences from childhood or youth. I’m struggling with a voice that tells me I should only write about universal, non-personal themes.

After all, no famous poets ever write about their own experience or internal world *coughbullshitcough*

I pushed through some of this to complete one draft last week; a draft for which the notes have languished in my folder for months. Is it something that would pass muster as more-than-therapy? I don’t know. Do I care? Yes, but not enough to keep from being glad it exists as a draft now.