When Truth Doesn’t Matter

“Wait a minute,” I can hear readers thinking. “This author’s all about self-disclosure and authenticity and all that jazz. Truth has to be important to them.”

You’re right. Truth, in general, is of paramount importance. But I’ve recently been given food for thought about one particular circumstance in which truth may be a bit irrelevant.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been very popular for a while, and is helpful for many people. A central principle of CBT is to question your negative thoughts and assumptions, learn to recognize illogical thinking, and use various techniques to decrease the number and severity of negative thoughts you have.

In other words: get into the habit of believing, and trying to prove, that your negative thoughts about yourself or your life are not true (or at least vastly exaggerated.)

Although I find many of the techniques useful, I have encountered two issues with this. First, since the goal is to change my thinking, I feel like I’ve failed when negative thoughts are still such a big part of my consciousness. Second, the content of some of my negative thoughts is true and trying to argue with it doesn’t help at all.

My planet really is in trouble. I really do regret not writing for decades. Relatives really are going to get harder to deal with as they age. I really did irreversibly fuck up my body in some ways. The odds of my book getting published really are low.

Anyway, I just finished a book called “The Happiness Trap” that was recommended to me. I tend to avoid self-help books, as a rule, but I decided to give it a try. It advocates that we don’t try to argue with our negative thoughts, or control how often we have them, but rather work on coexisting with them and using mindfulness techniques to be less affected by them.

It suggests that when I’m aware of a negative thought I’m having or story I’m telling myself, I don’t ask myself whether it’s true or not–only whether, at this moment, it is helpful.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

Sudden Ease

Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.

“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town

If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”

I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.

Think Small

“Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself.”
Richard Hugo

The above quote comes from my latest acquisition in the “poets writing about being a poet” genre. It’s called The Triggering Town: Lectures and essays on poets and writing. I recommend it highly; there are some sections that caused me to get out my highlighter because yes, that phrase, I want to remember that one. I could write a post about each of those phrases, and I might.

So what does he mean when he writes “think small?” He’s talking about how some of the best poems come from a small triggering subject as opposed to tackling a huge, monolithic  one. A small, finite experience or image is used as a starting point, and the mind expands from there.

It makes sense to me. What scenario sounds as it if will lead to a better poem? A poet sitting down saying “I’m going to write a poem about Death now” or a poet musing about the birdsong that distracted them during their grandfather’s burial?

The advice to “think small” is helping me in other ways right now. I’ve been to several poetry readings and open mics lately, following up that first experience, and it’s having a Pandora’s-box-like effect on my feelings about poetry and my generation of new poem ideas. It is very easy for me to get overwhelmed, especially since I now realize there is more going on in my local poetry scene than I could ever have the time or strength to attend.

Think small. What event am I going to next (and for God’s sake, don’t overcommit yourself!) What am I going to read there? Is it ready?

There Are Spiders

“There…there are spiders.”
“Enormous spiders, yes. The size of houses, they tell me.”
“And they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of spiders come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
“…A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”

–from “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Something about this makes me smile every time I recall it. Maybe it’s the idea of poets as a unique food; desired by spiders the way virgins were legendarily desired by dragons. Maybe it’s the image of forcing a hapless prisoner to become just enough of a poet to be appetizing to an arachnid.

Are poets really different from other people? Of course not…or if we are, it varies from poet to poet as it does with all humans. However, any differences are more marked in societies that don’t see poetry as a part of mainstream life. The book above takes place in a world inspired by certain Chinese dynasties; a world in which poetry was the province of every educated man…the knowledge, analysis, and even writing of various styles of poetry a part of the civil service exams.

The society I live in is far removed from this. My sense of identity seems to have been altered by beginning to think of myself as a poet…is this evolution, or just a delusion catering to one’s natural desire to feel like a special snowflake of some kind?

Does it feed my ego to think of myself as especially delicious Spider Chow?

Hurt You Into Poetry

Lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” keep going through my head, after referencing it the other day. Here’s the verse that is resounding the most:

…Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Hurt you into poetry. Something hurts us into poetry. I’ve written about the role of pain in art, and the different kinds of pain that carry power, but this phrase is talking to me. It’s pushing an image at me, an image of our lives pressing and pressing on us until we start to bleed words.

I once read somewhere that a writer writes when they’re forced to admit they are useless at anything else. I thought it was a vast and inaccurate oversimplification at the time, and I still do. However, I can see the spirit behind the comment. Certainly, many of us have tried to live lives for which the contents of our psyche make us less than suitable–and we hurt, floundered and failed ourselves into writing.

We flee into the valley of its making, where executives would never want to tamper.

Follow, Poet

Sometimes I wish I had what it takes to be the kind of poet who serves as a voice of our times. Oh, I occasionally write things in response to a current cause for passion, but they don’t come quickly and I don’t have the emotional and spiritual fortitude–or the consistent functionality–to narrate with poetry a real-time cry against the things happening to us.

Indonesia burns, children go hungry, black lives end in travesties of justice, masked gunmen open fire…does poetic language not come to my mind when I feel about these things? Of course it does. If I were a stronger person, with more time and energy, perhaps I could make of myself a poet who responds to the news. In one browser window, I’d gather information about every cause for distress. On a notebook in my lap, I’d scribble responses and mutate them, then type the results into another browser window and post it.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody could keep up. But there’s another reason my poetry isn’t going in that direction more consistently. I will tell you a secret: poems I write are often influenced by the news, but the link isn’t obvious. By the time my response makes it through my subconscious and out the other side, it may be unrecognizable. This makes them less useful for purposes of consciousness raising.

Must it be this way? For me, as I am now, it would appear so. Maybe W.H. Auden said it best:

…Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

–From “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

I’m not strong enough, not resistant enough to despair, to get a poem out until I’ve somehow “made a vineyard of the curse.” I can’t just paint the darkness until I can somehow make it shine. It’s selfish, in the short term. But it’s what I am, and I need to accept it in order to unlock the abilities I do have.

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.

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.

Poe-etry

It belonged to my husband’s paternal great-grandfather, I think. There are several inscriptions, all with the same surname, inside the cover. A thin book, number 199 of the Riverside Literature Series, it proclaims itself to hold “The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Poems and Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.”

It was published in 1897, forty-eight years after Poe’s death. Forty-eight years is a long time, but there must have been people still alive who remembered Poe the man, or learned from those who did. The introduction discusses Poe’s life in far greater detail than I have usually seen, and the tone is more personal. Poe is portrayed as a figure of great controversy, rather than the staple of literature he now seems more to be.

He had his admirers and his detractors; he made friends and enemies. His life was punctuated by brilliant successes inevitably followed by excesses or derelictions that brought things tumbling down. He tried again, and again, painting the familiar tapestry of an addict’s struggles as he danced with alcohol and opium throughout the years. Today, doctors would probably also have pegged him as having bipolar qualities.

I’ve written about seeing and judging the poet in the poem. Here, in this fragile old booklet, I see how much it happens. The editor, himself, seemed to think of this when he wrote:

“…it is perhaps equally idle at present to try to bridge over the chasm that separates his lovers from his detractors. Men will long continue to dispute about his life, and they will not cease to assert or to deny his greatness…but it is equally true that it is of the essence of sound criticism that, as the years go by, we should be able to judge more and more dispassionately the men and works of the past; and we may at least hope that our grandsons will be more agreed as to Poe’s merits and demerits than we are.”

Wisely written. But I wonder if he would have predicted the development of Poe’s place in the world of literature? Would he be surprised to see him in school textbooks, or to know that “Annabel Lee” may be the first love poem many of us ever learned?

Poe was only forty when he died from the effects of his addictions. Those of us who read him now may know that he was a troubled person, or even have studied biographies, but the thousand small failures and offenses are blurred by time. His poems stand more on their own, ready for us to project meaning onto them.

“Who am I to write poems?” we might think. Well, who was Poe to do so?

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.