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?

I Will Very Soon Begin

Here lies a poet who would not write
His soul runs screaming through the night,
“Oh give me paper, give me pen
And I will very soon begin.”

Poor Soul, keep silent. In Death’s clime
There’s no pen, paper, notion–and no Time.

–“Here Lies” by Stevie Smith

 

“Very soon.” That is the key phrase. Even in tormented regret, it’s still “very soon” and not “right now.” 

I wonder what stands in the way of “right now” for that poor dead poet?

Does what stands in the way of “right now” for us make any more sense?

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?

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.

Without Ever Saying It

Several days ago, I read Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” from his longer work “Lessons of War.” “Naming of Parts” is, justly, the most famous excerpt of this work, and I cannot get it out of my head.

Take a look. It’s online. Maybe you can tell me why it touches me so. What I know is that it’s a poem that creates a mood and a feeling in an organic way; it brings you into it without ever saying anything about how it wants you to feel.

A lecture, outdoors, on a spring day, about how to assemble a rifle. Imagery of the beauty of flowers and the flight of bees, interspersed with instructions about the rifle parts.

Images of color, of stillness. Images that parody what will come later. But never obvious.

The poet never, even remotely, says, “How ironic that we are assembling instruments of death in a beautiful, living garden.”

The poet never writes, “This serene garden will soon be replaced by a bloody battlefield.”

The poet never says to us, “These young men, attending to these practical lessons, will die far away from this peaceful place, and that is sad.”

If you examine the poem in detail, you can draw the metaphors and parallels from each phrase, and admire the subtlety of the word choices. But, today, I am responding to the poem as a whole.

It did what I would like to get better at doing. It made me feel something and have no idea why; it carved a niche in my brain and made itself at home.

Logophilia

Scintilla

I admit it: I love words. Not with an elevated, academic love, but with a selfish, fetishistic, pleasure-seeking drive. I want to collect them, fawn over them and rub my face in them.

Daimon

I’ve been known to censor my vocabulary a bit, depending on where and with whom I am. I’m afraid of being seen as snobbish, or full of myself, or an out-of-touch egghead. Or I’m afraid of making others feel bad in some way.

Hierophany

Or, as has happened more than once, I’ll be accused of “intellectualizing” when I’m supposed to be accessing my more primitive feelings. Sometimes it’s true–but sometimes, I’m frustrated that they won’t believe I can be feeling something genuine and express that in passionate and articulate language because it’s what works for me.

Pulchritude

There are times for me to craft my choice of words and consider whether they are reaching people clearly, but I think I do it too much. I need to let go of that fear, and come out as the word geek I am.

Seraphic

Some eras of poetic history were very heavy on what we, today, would consider big or obscure words. I like them. I like old, archaic, plush words. I own a beat-up Thesaurus that was published in the 1930s, and it is one of my favorite books–you would not believe some of the stuff in there, and how many of the words are almost gone now.

Recreant

My poetry isn’t as full of ten-dollar words as some of the old greats. I’m a product of my time and I tend to want my poems to tell a story of some kind to all readers, including people who don’t generally read poetry.

Puissance

But still…I love words. It’s probably why I enjoy reading Hillman or Jung when my mind is up to it, because I’m guaranteed to encounter words I don’t know. I love the old poets who write in lush, sprawling vocabularies acquired in a type of liberal arts education common to certain groups in bygone eras.

Tenterhooks

So here’s to owning my fetish! Who’s with me? Do you have a favorite obscure word today?