Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Poem & Process

Courtesy of Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics, an excerpt from "A Provisional Poetics" from Mark Weiss about the process of writing a poem that speaks directly to my own experience of writing poems:

I never set out to write a poem. I will jot things down in my notebook, sometimes ideational, sometimes not, sometimes from the environment, or misheard, or from a dream, and occasionally a phrase will have a rhythmic urgency that compels me to jot something further, and then I'm lost in process and have no idea where I or the poem is going. This is a liminal state fraught with both joy and terror, and it is processual. The process may extend over few or many lines and take a few moments or days and months. It lasts until one emerges at the other end, back into the everyday, arrival signaled by the loss of urgency.

And then one cleans up the mess of blind alleys, dishonesties and false starts. What’s left is the record of the process. in which the poet is reinvented and the poem discovered.

This is exactly how I "work" as a poet. Essays can be more planned, but some of my more poetic essays, such as the Spiral Dance series of essays, are written this way as well, and written at white heat.

This process orientation of writing, which leaves us with a poem that is the record of the process, accounts for why sometimes a poem sometimes emerges more or less complete, as a first draft. The finished poem, the "record of the process," is exactly how it feels to me, about some of my own poems, notably the vision-poems and poems whose topics are more visionary than mundane.

Speaking to Paul Valéry's dictum that "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," what Weiss refers to as the "loss of urgency" also comes into play. Sometimes I know a poem is finished simply because I am no longer emotionally invested in it; either in continuing to revise it, or invested in polishing it towards a particular outcome. If this means sometimes that some poems have unpolished, rougher edges—imperfect grammar, unusual syntax, dangling metaphors—so be it. it's possible to over-polish a poem to the point where you polish all the life out of it. I often feel that my own poems that retain a few rough edges are more alive, more perhaps true to life's actual chaotic and unruly experience. Sometimes it seems to me that poets who over-polish their poems have a psychological need to create certainty and perfection in an uncertain and imperfect world; this seems to be true for at least a few neo-formalist poets I've encountered.

But Weiss has more to say:

What I’m describing is a particular form of possession. I think of poor Yeats in “Among School Children,” realizing that, despite the watchful eyes of the nuns and his desperate desire to behave properly, he is falling into a sexual revery about a little girl. And suddenly he gives into the revery and finds himself transported to a brutal figuration of generativity and destructiveness, of the erotic refusing to be tamed to the appropriate. The life built by the public man can be torn apart in a second, and the whole world with it. It's Red Hanrahan, the hero of his early stories, being carried off by the fairies all over again, the victim of their purity of impulse. And where does that leave you?

I suspect that all poetry is a form of possession. There's the sense that no matter how we try to train ourselves we can become at best receptive—the poem seems to come when it wants to and to leave when it wants to, unless we try to constrain it to our preconceptions, in which case we certainly lose it. And it's no respecter of occasions, so that those who have the dubious fortune of being on the receiving end often find themselves less than well-fitted to the world of time-constraints.

For me, this speaks to the shamanic, prophetic, vatic aspect of poetry. It speaks to the oracular nature of poetic prophecy—such as the visions of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. It also speaks to the shamanic worldview, expressed by a Tungus shaman as "Everything that is, is alive."

"Possession" is a strong word to use here; yet in terms of depth psychology, in Jung's terms, possession occurs when our unconscious forces which we know little about take over our conscious waking life. People are possessed by their archetypes, and act out neuroses that exist in their shadows, those parts of themselves they are not consciously aware of. When possessed by something in one's own shadow, one cannot account for one's own behavior. Why did I overreact to that little thing, blowing it all out of proportion? Psychologically, we get triggered when someone pushes our buttons about a core issue; and then we are briefly possessed. Afterwards, it always seems a bit ridiculous how badly we over-reacted to a trigger; and indeed sometimes apologies are necessary.

I do not believe for an instant that art-making is a neurotic process. Hence my wariness of the word "possession" in the context of writing poetry.

However, the ancient Greeks spoke of the daimon, the other, darker self, that steps in and takes control in liminal moments in numinous spaces. It is through the mouth of the human oracle that the god speaks. The Greeks well comprehended how the erotic can refuse to be tamed to the socially appropriate. They accepted this, and accounted for it with the concept of the daimon, and of being "taken" by the gods. (In Voudoun, the trance-possessed celebrants are ridden as though horses by the loa, the spirits, the Horsemen.)

The relatively modern writer Rudyard Kipling believed strongly in the Greek concept of the daimon, and wrote of how his daimon was the source of his own creative work. I find this believable in Kipling's case, since his writing was so open and lucid and progressive at times, yet the man himself could be an incredible stick-in-the-mud as well as a social conservative.

Weiss: "the poem seems to come when it wants to and to leave when it wants to, unless we try to constrain it to our preconceptions, in which case we certainly lose it." This is exactly what I mean when I insist that poems written entirely from the head ultimately fail. The pre-planned poem is often dry and formal, not alive. When we try to constrain the poems, or when we try to force them to emerge, they balk. The daimon leaves us, high and dry.

I often have had the experience of the poem coming when it wants to, and leaving when it wants. This is why my practice as a writer is not to sit and write for two hours a day in a "disciplined" practice; but rather, to be ready at all times for when the poem comes. My discipline is to always be ready, and to keep the tools sharp and at hand. Experience tells you by some system of anticipation and internal radar, if you will, that something might be ready to happen. So you keep the journal and pen at hand, so if and when the flood appears, you'll be ready for it. I've had to pull over to the side of the road more than once, to get the poem down before it evaporates, before it leaves. And I'm willing to do so. That's a different kind of discipline: not the discipline of diligent craftsmanship, perhaps, but the discipline of preparedness. I may not write every day, but when a poem comes forward, I'm ready to receive it.

Weiss makes the important point that this sort of discipline is not passive:

I’m not talking about a loss of choice. For one thing, the field in which our possessed selves operates is the field we bring to the experience. And the momentary changes and impulses are directed by what comes before, but also by the changes in a bodily chemistry whose stability is always fragile. We learn, we enlarge the field, but it's still the field, and the physiology, we brought to the game.

Choice. It is an active choice to be ready for the poem to appear. It is receptive, but it is not a passive receptiveness. More importantly, what Weiss refers to here as choice means, I believe, that we bring all of our life's experience to the making of every poem. The art is not context-free, and it emerges through us, which means that Weiss and I would not write the same poem because we are different people with different biographies, experiences, and attitudes. So even though our writing processes might be almost identical, our poems will not be.

And everything I've learned, that I've experienced, every roadtrip I've taken into the mountains, every evening I've spent watching the light fade at dusk, everything I've ever loved, all of this feeds into each of my poems. Because all of that is part of me, all of it is in every creative act I engage in. Choice is then manifest in what elements of life and experience will fall into this poem, and not into these others.

Writing a haiku, for example, as a spontaneous response to a moment of luminous insight, contains all of the Universe in that particular moment. Even though the poem might be about Everything, everything be found by following what is particular in that individual poem out towards the rest of the Universe. I choose to write a haiku about something specific to my experience; but shared human experience allows others to find themselves in the poem, and complete it.

Making a poem, then, as Weiss continues later, is a choice to let go and trust the process:

It's the willful relinquishing of resistance to liminality. And it differs from the ritual practice of possession because, unlike the ritual, which, if done properly, always brings the participant out the other end (imagery of rebirth is inevitable here), it has no preordained pattern, no life-rope, no social structures surrounding it that announce when the participant has reached the new place and what place that is.

This may sound like the fugue state of psychosis, but in fact the crazy rarely will themselves to relinquish the inhibitions to behaviors seen as crazy and to the internal states that drive those behaviors. They really know that they may not be able to come back. I once asked a group of for-the-moment stable schizophrenics about a fantasy. They exchanged a few panicky glances and then assured me, one after the other, in the manner of well-behaved school-children, that they didn't have fantasies.

Again, to be clear, possession (by the daimon, if you will) in order to engage in the creative process is not the same as neurosis, or of losing one's sense of self. it is not madness. Although in our overly-rationalized, logicial-positivist cultural worldview of contemporary so-called-civilization, any letting go of the reins of ego-driven conscious control of any aspect of life is often perceived and labeled as madness. This is why the archetypal variants of the Dysfunctional Artist remain so popular in the general cultural mind: because making art is seen as a form of madness: non-conformist, outside the bounds of the social order, subversive, disreputable, disruptive, and so forth. Well, it's true that when the god takes you, you're no longer part of the social order. The difference between we moderns and the ancient Greeks, though, is that the ancient Greeks had a paradigm of acceptance for these disruptions of possession, and we do not.

Weiss concludes:

Somewhere the poet has the sense that there's an internal structure to escape to, and it's that faith that gives him the courage to dive in when he's able. Yeats, for instance, knows that he's not about to throw himself on that little girl, although he may allow himself to court the danger. The internalized self-definition as Poet, which contains within it the privilege to depart from the everyday to bring back news from the margins, is a part of that structure.

I agree entirely—although I no longer label myself as Poet or Writer. But Weiss' conclusion also applies to the self-definition as Artist, which I do accept for myself. An artist who occasionally writes poems. My experience is that the making of a poem, of an essay written at white heat, of a drawing, of a piece of music—all of these happen to me in the way that Weiss describes in his opening paragraphs. The process in each case does not feel different to me, no matter which medium I am working in. The feeling of pressure building, then the loss of urgency, feels the same, to me, regardless of whether the result is a poem, a drawing, or a composition. (The process of teaching-myself-to-draw is engaged in consciously, as a means of learning technique and craft, whereas the process of making-a-drawing is as Weiss describes. Technical craft practice is in the service of when the daimon comes.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I used to believe something like that, that, for the period in which I was writing I was possessed by some power – or some force had allowed me access to another level of myself, the one where poetry lives – and that I had to work quickly while the window of opportunity was open to me. I also never touched the poem after the first and only draft. Once it had cooled it was done.

To some extent I still work this way but I don’t dress it up and try to make it sound mysterious. I get an idea and I write it down there and then. Sometimes that’s all it takes. More often than not I’ll let it sit for a day or two, tweak a word or two and then I’m either happy with it or I realise that it wasn’t nearly as clever as I thought it was. I’ve learned that a bit of distance from a poem is not a bad thing. There have been many instances where I’ve looked at a poem I’ve recently thought was finished only to see that although the idea is still sound the word choice and structure is sloppy, the same word used three or four times in a poem of a dozen lines, for example.

Poetry is my natural form of expression. It comes at odd times and rarely when I want it to. All my other writing takes too long and so I’ve had to learn to work cold, to generate some warmth as I write rather than wait to be on fire. I graft in bits of inspiration over time, a line or two here or the odd paragraph. Everything I write begins with a good idea – what’s the point in writing about anything else? – but that doesn’t mean that I’m in an inspired state for the whole period of writing. As far as the novels go, which is why I find them so hard, it’s the chore of getting the words onto the page cold. Once that is done I graft in good ideas as they come to me and build up layers.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't think there's anything particularly mysterious about it: lots of writers have talked about working this way. (Although I recognize I'm in the minority in that I don't view "mysterious" or "mystical" as pejoratives.) Weiss does leave room for the revision process, after the listening process, which I also practice. Sometimes a first draft works, sometimes it needs revision; believing that any one way of working is fixed and permanent is just ideology. Setting aside to revise later is also part of the process that Weiss describes, or so I interpret, and also practice.

The point for me is that it's about LISTENING, and hearing what comes forward.

It's not at all about "getting an idea," which is a more purely mental process; although of course semantically we could discuss what "getting an idea" actually means.

I don't view poems as ideas, or rooted in ideas, or spawned from ideas; I view them as images, as recorded experiences, as words that represent those other things, and so forth. Sometimes you risk writing ABOUT rather than writing from WITHIN the experience, and never more obviously than when you focus on the poem as an idea, rather than as an experience.

The whole point of the process Weiss is describing is that poems are not simply ideas, they're the record of a process, and sometimes records of experience. Which rings exactly true to my own experience.

10:57 AM  

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