Sunday, June 24, 2007

Conscious Craft or Dictation? 3

The question is asked:

When you set out to write a poem, do you have an idea of how it will end? Or do you start down a new path to see where it takes you?

It comes to mind that this is the perennial issue addressed by Robert Frost in one of his most famous poems, The Road Not Taken. The opening stanza raises the issue:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;


My own answer to the question would be: Stay with the uncertainty. It will be most rewarding in the long run, if perhaps more uncomfortable in the short run.

I had the experience recently, while driving home after grocery shopping, and idly thinking about poetry, when a whole image sprung into my mind's eye, laid holographically across my vision like a heads-up-display in a stealth helicopter, of a complete new poetic form. It felt as if it was "given." I knew I had to write in this form immediately, and did so as soon as I got home and put away the groceries. (We'll see where it goes. It's not the first form I've "invented.") I had no idea what I was going to write about, or what the words inside the form were going to be: but I could see it there. I even knew which typeface it should be set in, eventually (Baskerville, or Zusanna Licko's modern version of Baskerville with all the extra ligatures, Mrs. Eaves.)

So, in this instance, I very much knew exactly what I wanted to do, where the poem would go in terms of form, and how it would look like when finished. My job was to fit my writing into the new form, which I did. The topic ended up being something I hadn't expected, though, but which evolved. That came out the way it usually comes out: start writing, follow the images and tones where they want to go, and see where you end up: "follow the brush." I've learned to not force a poem, ever, to do what I think it wants to do, versus what it wants to do. If a topic veers off, I follow it, and go where it leads.

I like to leave the door open, in all my art, for uncertainty, indeterminacy, evolutionary or organic growth, and chance.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have no idea where I'm going to end up. Starting down a new path to see where it takes me is much more typical of my writing practice in general. I almost always don't even know what form the poem is going to take, until it tells me—i.e. becomes clear during the writing process itself. I've invented a couple of other forms by doing just that: following the brush to see where it leads, then later knowing I had invented a form only when other poems seemed to want to shape themselves into that same form. A nice pattern and style evolved into a habit which evolved into a form. (The fractal form of the Books evolved in a similar way.)

Most of the time I have no clue what's going to happen, and I've learned to let it happen without trying to guide or interfere in the process. I usually just let it go wherever it wants. It can feel like dictation at times. My job most of the time is to be ready and willing to listen, and follow. In fact, most of the time, I don't even set down to write a poem. Fairly often, I think I'm sitting down to read my email, or write an essay, or update my Road Journal, and a poem starts whispering in the back of my mind, wanting to get out. I've learned to let that happen, too.

It's all in the Whispering. (Ask your cats about the Whispering. They'll deny everything, of course.)

Conversely, most poems that I feel the need to write—for example, if I'm thinking about something important, and I feel the need to sit down and write about it, to express myself, or whatever—well, most of the time, those writings suck. Mostly, they're useless, and get put in the "Do Not Share" folder. Sometimes I'll pull them out, save a few nice fragments, trash the rest, and see what the good bits want to have happen. But the truth is, for me: writing for "self expression," as in the contemporary confessional lyric, or out of some ego-need to express myself, almost always yields bad writing. Therapy-poems, journal poems, pedantic lecturing, whatever, it sucks. I don't willingly inflict that crap on the rest of the world. (Whole pages in past journals are nothing but venting and yelling, and I don't care to share that stuff, either.)

This writing process is actually not as passive a process as it sounds, in this description. It requires a high level of engagement and discipline, to be ready, and to be receptive. (Go ahead, try to still your mind enough to listen, right now! Not as easy as it seems, is it?) I have found that 20-plus years of regular meditation, dream-journaling, and general writing practice (without necessarily having poetry in mind), have contributed to making the process easier, and especially in making it much easier for me to quiet my own mind so that I can hear that inner whispering.

As Frost concludes in his poem:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


As I said: Stay with the uncertainty. Leave the door open. Let the Mysteries be the mysteries.

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