In the Bone
Back a few years ago, when I was involved in poetry workshopping with others, I was asked to craft an exercise, present a writing prompt, however you want to put it. I wrote an introduction and essay on stream of consciousness writing in poetry, and then presented an exercise about one way to do it, and how to mine it for ideas.
One only has to murmur the phrase "stream of consciousness" and many poets look up in alarm. We have come to think of this style of writing as: diary fodder, illegible nonsense, meat for a poem but not yet itself a poem, awful drivel, teenage journal-rambling, and worse. But we perhaps miss the fact it can be done extremely well, if it's done with concentration and attention. More to the point, it's a valuable tool in any poet's briefcase: even if your poem only starts in that vivid stream, it's a fine place to fish. A poem can be made from the mush. The free flow of words doesn't have to edited till later. Revision as visioning. You can be a completely metrically-minded formalist poet and still mine poems from this exercise. You don't have to mine anything but the mood, maybe an image, you're not required to recycle any of the language. Maybe all that happens is that a door opens to possibility.
A lot of contemporary poetry is too intellectual, too planned, too verbal in origin (as opposed to imagistic, or somatic), too left-brain. The list goes on. With this workshop prompt, I was hoping to get some good responses, to shake some people out of their writing habits, and I did, if only temporarily. The poets who participated presented first their raw passages, then the poem they had extracted from the flow. It was fascinating to observe. A real lesson in how consciousness works, and how the editing mind pulls out of the random flow something that has a shape and form. I heard comments from participants along the lines that this had stretched them out of their usual ways of writing; I heard comments that this had produced unexpected results, atypical poems, different sorts of writing. The project was declared a success, and pretty much everybody went back to doing their writing the usually do. Habits weren't really changed. A door was briefly opened. People made their own choices as to whether to go through it.
But I realized for myself, those years ago, how important writing in the flow was for my own process. I already knew this, but this exercise helped crystallize my self-awareness. I articulated it clearly to myself as a method, perhaps for the first time.
(I later rewrote this workshop exercise as an essay, which can be read here. And the poem I myself contributed to the process, seen below, was published, as mentioned here.)
Here, in the theme of Halloween, Samhain, October light, the Day of the Dead, the boneyard piling up with fresh bones, is what I myself wrote for this workshop exercise. I leave it more or less unedited, to show how the exercise worked: first you write in the flow, not pausing to "fix" the language or make it pretty; then you pull a poem out of what you're written.
stream-of-consciousness flow writing exercise:
that time of year: the cold dripping rain outside tonight getting into everything bones heart lungs and cheer; taking the trash outside before bedtime, 2am, stopped raining, ground still wet; I'm the only one awake in the neighborhood; trees move in the wind, shipping streetlight shadows across grass and driveway and cold pooling water, gutter choked with leaves; smell of burning, somewhere distant; memory of candles being snuffed, whiff of matchblack and quenched wick, waxtouch and watery shiver; the walls getting thin: the walls between worlds; easier to hear those voices, inner and other, this time of year; walls between worlds thinning till All Hallow's, they break through, and all over Latin America children play with their dead ancestors in cemeteries decorated for afterlife birthdays; raucous and wild, the spinning fireworks, sparklers on a wheel;
coal black eyes in the trees; roosting wild turkeys beaks tucked underwing; sleep of prey and predator alike, the game resuming in cold dawn; roost high, roost lightly; drone of tires on the highway past the river, past the fields and woods; find in the centre something like a nutshell, cracked, opening, black light within; what the right hand says to what's left; palmlight glow both hands burning with ornage fire; every year, this time, scrying; i rememebr the boy that was, blood luck dripping from both hands, standing crucified before the iron doors of a schoolyard in the cold wind and rain; wanting to be loved, wanting to not go in, knowing what would happen: fright, what is unknown and different scares us; trying for years to fit in, be like everyone else, incapable of pulling it off, incapable of effective masks; crippled at last by self telling self to hide pretend to powerlessness; and the blue electric explodes shimmering pop of fire falling from the skypole onto the snow, hands punching through drywall and stem unbruised, unbloodied, capable beyond capability; I become the thing we fear the most; I become capability;
candles in a circle of silver; Buddhalight; litter of otters spilling across my grandma's secretary desk; leave pull and fall all around; orange leaves, gold yellow red green amber, all together, scatter under tree, stillfall leaffall notyetfall; all one tree, all reflections of that One Tree; what do you tell people who can't see the archetypes directly like you can; what do you tell as a lie to make them love you, to pretend to be less than you can see; parlor tricks and seances, masks to cover the truth of experience; when you open wide, things get in, not all of them friendly; shunt attention and pain to a dot four feet in front your eyes, pain fades, goes away, jawache subsides to root and readiness;
dark brown wood of memory and longing; masterful emulation of something real, without being anything more than hashmarks on blank white page; superstition of the printing press; turbulent anticipation of the doors between worlds opening, and the dead stepping out from between the trees, watching benignly and wanting to tell you their stories, all their stories told silent and austere and with mouths filled with bees and leafrustle and mold; the dead open their hands: their hands are filled with light; the dead move easily between trees, gathering dreams and memories like fuel for an invisible fire; signal fires on the hills; bonfires leapt by naked young men and women, sparks rising into the clouds that reflect fireglow from the high peaks; castoff and dionysiac, emblems of blinded third eye remnant pressure behind the forehead exploding out into the night, you see, you see, you cannot help but see;
poem made from the writing exercise:
come see: how quietly they move through the stones.
parchment fingers rustling their leaf tambourines.
the dew is on the grass. their feet, in all their wanderings, do not touch.
they float above the earth, or dissolve near to it, into it.
their compass rose is of the greater earth: these leaves fall through them.
we rise up out of the very fields we tilled: these cemeteries, plowed anew.
every year, the miracle of wheat. sweep the garden for next year’s roses.
snow falls around us, whitens our scalps: no summer’s day outruns us.
shake the leaves off the headstone: a million butterflies take wing.
the ash tree whispers: home; we’ve come home.