Saturday, April 26, 2008

Returning to the Unnamed

Awhile ago, I wrote a contemplation of George Herbert's poem The Collar. In passing I mentioned that I'd written one or two older poems, not my best poems, that come from a similar place. I was sorting through old papers tonight, sorting through many boxes of old papers, putting most of them out for recycling, including many old posters of concerts I'd done, and old copies of older poems. (Nothing is lost: these are multiples and duplicates, and all my poems exist as multiply backed-up word-processor files. I went digital when I got my first Apple Mac Plus, back in 1989.) Among the papers I found a print copy of one of these poems. I find I've still been thinking about the topic a lot lately, so here is the poem:

the unnamed

i give up, great christ!,
i give in.
if you still want me, i am yours.
i have spent so many years
beating my way out of your church
of bones, only to find myself
again at your altar of blood.
i would turn this way and that,
fighting my way to an exit,
and, bloodied, succeed.
and then the door would open
only into your own cathedral.
now, i grow tired,
unwilling to battle on;
if you still want me, take me,
hard master, or discard me,
or chastise me, or fill me.
it is all the same, i know,
i know.

I don't write at all like this anymore. I find the lowercase "i" to be an affectation, now; although back then it was an early attempt at reducing the ego-personality in my poetry, something I continue to try to do, if by new and different tactics. (And which I've written about most recently here.)

Who is the poem addressing? Who do you think? I can interpret this poem better now than I could back when I wrote it, some 20 years ago.

"God" is a complicated word with a lot of baggage attached to it, so it's a word I avoid. I prefer larger terms for that Immanence that can be felt in the world, particularly at certain times, in certain ways. I often use the word Mystery; that label is a good marker for what cannot be named ("The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.") and what can never be fully understood (we are all much bigger than we think we are). I sometimes use the word Spirit; but I mean it is a verb, not a noun, and I often fill out the line as Spirit That Moves In All Things.

The god addressed here is the Christ, certainly; but maybe not Jesus. The Christ is an office, not a particular person who once held that office. ("Christ" is not a last name: it's a title.) There have been others, and there will be again. But the god addressed here is also the Aztec god of the land of the dead (Mictlan), who has the form of a skeleton with a necklace of eyeballs and robes of paper strips (in Aztec myth, skeletons are a sign of fertility and renewal): Mictlantecuhtli. And also Xipe Totec, the flayed one. The Corn God. The Sacrifice. The Hanged One. All of these are images of both death and rebirth, of the Yearwheel turning around in its endless cycle, the passing of the soul between different realms.

I think of this as my Collar poem. It's not a great poem. But I rarely rewrite older poems; I let them stand or die on their own merits. (And I have been criticized for that practice, by poets who one might think would know better.) Sometimes there's a line in an old poem that might inspire a new one. But they were the best I could make at the time—just as what I write now is the best I can do, right now—and as such, deserve to survive or fail on whatever merit they retain. Sometimes it's good to review one's past art, to see where one has gone from there, and how one has evolved. And interestingly enough, some folks like some of my older poems, even when I feel that I can do better now. The artist needs to keep on going, but there's nothing wrong with someone liking an earlier body of work.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I struggled with the concept of spirituality for a very long time and it's something that doesn't interest me any more. I try and not let other people's spiritual quests annoy me but I really am done with all of that so you'll forgive me if I skip getting into the poem. As for rewriting old poems, it's something I never do. I have all my adult poems in a single huge folder which sits beside me as I write and I'll often flick back the pages an look over what I was writing ten or twenty years ago. I always take note of the fact that poems I remember being so chuffed about at the time I now am far less fond of. The collection really is the nearest thing to a diary that I've ever produced. But I never think about reworking a piece. In all those poems I've changed one word and deleted one word. Punctuation I'm not so fussed about. What I will do every now and then is pick up an old notebook and see if there's a line or two that moves me and I have managed to resurrect a few bits and pieces that way but not for a good while.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Spirituality, or lack thereof, is a personal, private thing. It's nobody's business but their own. And like fiction, anyone who is so foolish as to believe that everything an author writes in a poem is purely autobiographical, or some kind of personal statement or creed, should think again.

On rewriting poems: I do rewrite. Sometimes I revise extensively. But I do it when the poem's hot, or when there's been enough time for me to see it objectively; a process of weeks or months. Sometimes a poem will get several revisions; in my case, that often consists of trimming and compressing, much more rarely of adding new material. But once I've done everything I can do, and it's as polished as I can get it, I set it aside and declare it done. As Paul Valery famously stated, and which is a quote that applies to me own process, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." What I rarely do is come back years later, to an old body of work, and revise it. Once it's been "abandoned," I almost never revise it again.

The diary function of looking at one's old work is also a good experience, I think. It reminds you of where you were, and what you cared about, back then. A peek into one's older self, one's younger mind, that can be a very valuable periodic check-in.

10:35 AM  

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