Thursday, March 29, 2012

Unequal Still

     ~ in memoriam Adrienne Rich (1929 - 2012)

Since the beginning of time,
no matter what socio-political clime,
it has ever been man’s pleasure
to count women among his treasure.

Rendered thus into objects apart,
women, who continue to balance art
with work and home, still yearn
for rights men took but did not earn.

Modern mores tend to deceive
about equities the sexes receive;
women still bear brunt of labor,
and at home have little time to savor
any “accomplishment” of “equal rights;”
men still demand that women’s sights
remain unpaid at hearth and home,
when women might prefer to roam
beyond the care of men and babies,
beyond battered promises and maybes.

The few gals granted a turn at the helm
work for less than men who underwhelm,
while men control the gates and are better paid,
perhaps even smiling at small tokens made.

From this first great division of class
come all the others perceived en masse;
as long as the lie of “equality” makes so little noise,
we will mind and mine the gaps of social inequipoise.

©  2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Though times have changed, situations have not. While things may be better in the United States than in other countries, equality is something that is little more than a dream for women, people of any ethnic group that is not the dominant one in the region, for people of different faith traditions and people whose sexual orientation differs in anyway from heterosexuality. In the United States, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, even if women perform the same job and outperform their male counterparts.

Two stories from my local newspaper attest to the challenges that still face women:

How women, girls are faring in education, jobs in state (CA)

IBM CEO is a woman; will she be able to wear the Masters Tournament Green Jacket?

If the double standard continues in the area of gender, how can we ever truly address the double standards elsewhere in the social spectrum?

The truth is clear = each individual is unique, but as a whole humanity, we are equal. Human thinking and acting needs to evolve in a way that this truth of our equality is apparent in every life.

Please feel free to comment. Discourse is the only avenue through which change is possible. Silence supports the status quo

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 8: What To Do In The Desert While You Await Inspiration

SO, here you are and the river is dry, now. You had tons of great material flow out onto the pages, and now there is nothing. Arrrgh! This is frustrating and unavoidable.

What does one do, in this situation? (You realize, of course, that this is the single most-asked question with regard to creative endeavor…) Well, I have a short, one-word answer that I can expand upon:


Ha, ha, cute joke, say you, what should we really do?

(sigh) So, I guess the expansion is required, and I had better supply one.

Even when you feel like nothing decent is extant in your brain, you should try to write something every day. Don’t kill yourself if you don’t like what you see. You might even pull out those poems that you haven’t been able to finish, for one reason or another, and rework those. If reworking gets irritating, stop and move on to other things, such as:

attending concerts
having coffee or tea with friends
discuss current events with someone

One should fully engage in all the commonplace activities of life. This, after all, is the seed bed for all of life’s inspiring moments. Engaging in activities fully and wholeheartedly is about as inspired as it gets, as any zen practitioner would say.

I alluded to the word practice just now, and also in the last entry in this series. All of your writing is a practice, of sorts. Your creative energy and outpouring is all done in a specific medium, with a specific sort of way that you go about doing the activity, but this is an exercise of the mind, just as physical activity exercises the body, chants, prayers, songs or other devotions exercise the spirit. Each and everything that you do and experience, feel, see or hear is part of your existential databank. I cannot think of any better practice than expanding your horizons with ever more experiences.  Listening is a good part of such practice.

It is always good to take a break, to treat yourself to a change of scene. Any activity that feeds your senses is bound to open you to new channels of thought.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Music in the Margins

Lost in the margins
of my own story
and among the symbols
from your divine eye,
what shall become of me?

Seemingly between worlds,
by halves and sevens,
guided by feathers and stones,
sands from time’s shores
and infinite music,
this is where I breathe.

The music calls me,
beckoning me to hear,
then to follow the traces
of your flowing presence,
the song of my soul.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 7: Flow, Wherein the words flow onto the page

There are times when words flow onto the page. There is no doubt about it; inspiration frequently comes as a storm, even a flash flood. I mean by that, of course, that such storms do not last, but pass through you.

Those rare occasions when you are primed and ready, when you have pen and paper or keyboard to hand and the words start flowing like a waterfall onto your page, such occasions are absolutely amazing! Often, what flows out onto the paper started as a tiny idea and ended up as a torrent of unexpected text.

I cannot explain how this happens—or why—but it does happen. This started happening to me when I was about 12 years old. I would be awakened in the middle of the night with words on my mind; I was unable to go back to sleep until I wrote down what was on my mind.

To this day, much of my writing comes from these late night nudges.

Do such nudges “come from somewhere”? That is a question I cannot answer. Unconscious, subconscious, dream-work, lucid dreaming—these are all terms that may have validity in such discussions about creative work, and you can explore these on your own. Wherever the words “come from,” what ever hits the page is real and valid.

Is there a “muse” or “guide” that is “helping” you with your work? Here again, I cannot answer such a question for you.

I do tend to feel as though there is a muse involved with my own creative process. Is that silly? Perhaps. However, I believe that there is a revelatory aspect to the creative process. There are times when I read through the material that has “flowed” onto the page and I think to myself, “wow!” The “wow” can mean “I didn’t expect that train of thought to go there,” or it can mean “I can’t believe I wrote that,” or it can even mean “gee, I need to look at that more closely and think about it in order to figure it out.” The work that flows is a gift that leads to more thought and more work. It can often be a “note to self” about your life.

Is there anything you can do to make creative flow happen? NO. Absolutely not. If nothing is happening, don’t beat your head against a wall; the time is not right and the ideas are not ripe. Better to go for a walk, or listen to music, or read.

Creative flow is a marvelous experience, but I don’t think that absolutely everything that comes from such experience is necessarily complete or good. The work can often take turns that you do not intend, and it is up to you as to whether you want to retain digressions or cut them from work you intend to complete. Digressions can be useful to retain for further development.

Creative flow does not replace editing, revising or reworking material. Yes, there are rare times when the flow hits the page and you feel like it is done. Though you can’t expect this to happen often, you can treasure it when it does.

I am a strong advocate of saving work process in the form of handwritten notebooks. I sometimes work directly into the computer, but not often.

Whether you have a “muse” or work by means of  “automatic writing” or not, the experience of flow with regard to your writing can be thrilling, the resulting work is a passionate example of what is most authentically you. Savor such times!! They do not come frequently.

Could more be said? Of course, but this is enough to get you thinking about it all, in relation to your own practice.


Next time: What To Do In The Desert While You Await Inspiration

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Il Pleut

Like a sanctification,
it rains, sending all inward
to the physical and psychic centers.

Veins of flowing water merge,
becoming tiny ribbons and rivulets,
streaming, flowing and cleansing,
outlining paths of reconciliation
we might take, once sun returns.

There is a world of hurt out there,
being bathed and healed in holy tears;
the birds are already rejoicing.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Friday, March 23, 2012

What Nyx Told The Philosopher

AWAKE, mortal! By wild horses drawn in teams,
you have come here on the waves of your dreams;
you to me my daughters duly have conveyed
and will return thee after what I have said.

KNOW that what can be observed is and must be,
whether or not you can think it or see
it shining brightly in the glinting sun,
have felt it or some other experience done.

But know also that what you have not seen,
felt or heard is, being beyond your mean
and feeble awareness and thought,
apart from the observable and the taught,

Any such is just as true and as real
as that by which you set your seal;
Reality is not as small as your mind,
but large enough to fit all and every kind.

Even both reason and opinion cannot, alone,
conjecture truth so complete and prone
to be fully fathomed by the human eye,
but, alas, these are the tools you have to ply.

Nature, unaltered pool of Being, is One;
from it all things rise and fall, ever redone,
as need and season call, or wit and wile
contrive through vision, putting craft to trial.

What seems static moves slowly to your eye,
but nevertheless has life, and then will die
to be reborn in a different form, visible,
or even, wonder of wonders, wholly invisible.

As much as you crave a truth absolute,
justice is found when the pure of repute,
mitigate the starkly formulaic with art,
arriving at an equity whose best part

Satisfies all sides to a harmonious end,
beyond which none further shall contend,
for all affected, touched and involved
shall truly believe the matter resolved.

So vital art is to nature, I converse
with you in this clear yet simple verse,
that you may completely comprehend,
remember, then impart to all and any friend.

And now, Parmenides, my speech being done,
I return you to the arms of Day, having won
knowledge of nature so noble and rare
that you must carry it forward and share.

And then, Nyx turned aside, with a sigh
and a smile, soft and kindly, yet wry,
while the hapless Parmenides was flung
into the chariot by which he was brung,
whereupon the daughters of the moon
whipped her mares over the cloudy dune,
finally dropping their guest in his cot,
violently waking him to think on his lot
and on all that Nyx had spoken
by way of her unusual token.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Adventures in Paralysis

inability to choose a lesser evil,
owing to there being none least;
find suitable work two hours away or
continue the local treadmill of austerity;
pay the universe to pursue art and beauty,
at the mirrored risks of overwork or idleness.

a legal way to empty the pockets of the poor
into the pockets of those who need no more;
there is money for denial, for cheating, for robbing,
but none to uphold the dignity of life for those living;
leave no tree standing, no stone unturned,
toil and boil ‘til you spoil the water and the soil.

the list is longer than the hours for doing,
but a divided self cannot think or walk or do;
the band plays on and on in my head,
so that I cannot achieve deep sleep;
when I do slumber, I dream there is no coffee,
yet whilst I am awake, I brew too much.

to convert an object hierarchy into a byte stream,
thereby serializing, marshalling or flattening, or to remain firm;
to pluck cucumbers from their vines and shove them in brine,
or to serve them as a lovely salad with tomatoes, greens and beans;
kosher dill or gherkin, bread and butter, sweet or onion,
to serve them warm or cold, in sandwich or clear libation?

Ping Pong,
Ding Dong,
Sing Song,
Fling, Flang--Flung!

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 6: Trial and Error, Blank Pages and Failures

So, now, we get on to the writing.

To the writing.


And there is all this yawning space on the blank page or screen.

Waiting for you to write.

To write.


And that, in a nutshell, is all there is to it! (She says, with a false breeziness.)


To write.

What that means is that you have to take what has been on your mind, in your mind, over your heart and between your ears, and the silent music that is there must form words that become a music that can be transcribed from your mind to the silence of the page or the screen—for what we are talking about is silent music that moves mysteriously into different silent venues before taking flight as sound. What you may be doing is a kind of translation from the music of your mind into the speech that you have been trained to use and understand.



Here is an example of an idea I had that has never quite made it to completion. This past November, I got an idea. The idea was the title (this happens from time to time), and the development was supposed clarify my idea artfully. HA!

--* White Out *--

That was the idea. I was clear about what I was trying to achieve. The problem was, all I had was the title. The rest of the words were not finding a pathway onto the page.

I had, I suppose, a certain expectation that now that I had the idea and the clarity, the words would pour out. But they didn’t.

[I will digress for a moment to talk about the revelatory experience that can be an aspect of writing. This is an aspect that cannot be taken for granted. It is an aspect that cannot be overlooked. If you believe in something we will call, for the sake of discussion, “Divine Creation” and that life is somehow an integral weaving of communicative energies, then it can only seem natural that, if nothing else, your writing is a “note to self” of a sort.

I have done some work that I felt sure I had conceived and crafted, only to read it later be astonished at what bounced off the page at me. What I am saying is that the messages that bounce off the page can frequently be other than what you thought you were meticulously crafted. Be prepared for this. Be prepared to be amazed.

On the other hand, be prepared for this to be an unusual circumstance.]

So, the words weren’t pouring out, and I thought, gee, I guess I should make the words happen. So, I began…

“White Out” – Draft Notes

white flakes, snow moon
purify widening circles
like waves, rings
cause the negative cast
to surrender shadow to void
wideness of truth

“White Out” – Draft 1

If light is as easy as breath,
and liquid as the sea of stars
shining over the south seas,
then I can believe light wills
its journey to  fill the darkness
to white out and thus
cause each negative cast
surrender its shadowy mantle
for the wider array of truth.

If light is as easy as breath,
wrapped in the mantle of light
we shall be blind  to differences,
keener to our similar roles,
being, as we would, all of us,
points of light, pointing to one light

Light reaches out from a sea of stars…


No, this was not flowing. It was not feeling good. When you feel like what you are doing isn’t working, it is best to move on and come back to it.


So, I came back to it several days later. This time, I was armed with an epigraph that I thought might be helpful in channeling the proper words onto the page.

“White Out” – Draft 2 Notes

Epigraph: John 1:51

And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending…”

“White Out” – Draft 2

One star,
one light;
one night
gives flight
to possibility.

Sparks fly,
moons sigh,
singing tales
of probable fails.

Positives shout:
white out
of differences
to abiligility.  [yes, this is a neologism…]

Star lighting,
fly sighing,
shout outing
among any snowy shores…



No. It was just not happening, so I abandoned that draft.

I came back later.

“White Out” – Draft 3 Notes

What if an angel came in answer to a prayer? – refigure the piece as a question.

“White Out” – Draft 3

Moonlight frames her
as she scans the field.
Her visibility perturbs her not
[and then I remember a similar line in a Wilfred Owen poem,
            which disturbs me, but I keep going…]
--shameless self-promotion
is neither desired nor needed needed nor desired;
she is well-known,
if little understood—
outstanding in her field…


I now realize that I am writing about an owl. I ended up writing two poems called Night and Day from that material.

[So here is where I mention, casually, that everything you put down could actually end up being used and part of a completed poem someday, with patience and perseverance. So don’t tear the sheets of paper up and ball them up. Nothing need go to waste.]

I set “White Out” aside for a number of weeks.

In the meanwhile, my notebook records meeting minutes, grocery lists, calendar items and drafts of other poems that are now complete.

I return to my “White Out” – Draft 3 Notes,  thinking I can begin again.

(What if an angel came in answer to a prayer? – refigure the piece as a question.)

“White Out” – Draft 4

Complete white out
is what we need.

Answer our prayer,
if you dare,
Dear Angel,
do this deed;
prove wrong
the naysayer,
and all who clutch at doubt.

I feel you heed
by warmth of music,
and then you fall—
a daystar into the sea.

Your ribbon of flame
freezes the waters to ice,
reflection which blinds
as surely as viewing the sun
or sighting burning bush.

In white out,

no. No. NO!  That’s not it.


Have I finished “White Out”? No. I have hopes.

Meanwhile, I have written a number of essays and other poems, have premiered a new piece of music, as wells as published some short interviews and a chapbook.  And I keep observing and reading and thinking.

You do what you do and the branches of the tree eventually bear fruit. Some of the fruit is easier to bring forth, but that is only normal.

Keep on writing!


Next time: Flow, Wherein the words flow onto the page

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 5: Practice and Meditation, continued—10 Poems That Have Changed Your Life

I spotted this book at a garage sale: 10 Poems That Will Change Your Life. The title was both intriguing and audacious. I disagreed with the premise implied by the title, but I had to read it—the price was right, and I needed to see what the choices were and how the anthologist asserted each poem’s significance as a “life changer”.

Let me start by saying that I completely agree with the idea that interacting with poetry can be a life altering, perspective changing enterprise. I firmly believe this. Czeslew Milosz’s poem “Dedication” positively aches with these lines:

What poetry does not
save  a nation
 or a people?

I believe in the uplifting and healing power of poetry. Poetry is, for one thing, a compendium of human history, of humanity’s struggle, resilience and survival, if not also of transcendence.

I am suspicious, however, of a programmatic approach—to me this smacks of didacticism, rather than a sincere attempt at guiding others toward portals and new ways of thinking. This, incidentally, is why I tend to read books of literary criticism with a skeptical eye.

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are among the most beautiful poetic testaments ever crafted, but if you know that Eliot was an elite member of the intelligentsia of his time, and that he was writing with an eye toward programming others of his rank to work in support of the prevailing Tory, oligarchic “power elite”, this rather colors one’s reading of the work, doesn’t it?

I will not write an apologia for Eliot; he was a class-conscious bigot who used his position in the publishing world to promote philosophies for the uncommon man, and that these philosophies were conveniently conformative and acceptable to what the ruling class wanted the public to think. There is no doubt that he placed himself in a position of authority among the intelligentsia, and allowed his work to be used as a political tool. While I find it repugnant that he used his undeniable talent and vision to promulgate a sociopolitical cultural agenda, I cannot deny that the Four Quartets are a brilliantly crafted collection of works. These poems are utterly beautiful, and the messages they convey (if you don’t follow up on all the references; these would require several volumes of annotation and particular readings of American and British history) are ultimately transformative.

What I suggest is that if you encounter this body of work by Eliot without benefit (or detriment) of the foreknowledge of Eliot’s cultural agenda, you are likely to have a much different, more uplifting and transcendent reading of the pieces than after you have read a biography of Eliot, literary criticism of his work by other authors and one or two of his plays, which positively ooze with disdain for the common man. It is too bad that Eliot set himself apart to be an arbiter and that his intended audience was so small and narrow. It is also too bad that one must have read so much beforehand to really understand what Eliot meant by all of what he wrote in those four final poetic writings of his career.

The work stands on its own and transcends the purpose its author made for it. I treasure these works because of their unintended message to me.

Returning to my thoughts on 10 Poems That Will Change Your Life, the well-intentioned author of this small anthology spends much of the space in the book telling us how the ten selections were life altering for him. If you remove that commentary, the biographies of the authors of the poems and the suggested further reading, then this book really offers very little for its retail price of $14.00 plus applicable sales tax. You and I could spend that much money on a much larger anthology or on the collected works of a single author, then to mull over the work on our own, without being told what to think about it.

I considered the selection of poems offered, and wondered at it. Yes, there are some interesting selections. Whitman’s Song of Myself makes total sense. Mary Oliver’s The Journey is also a powerful statement. But out of all the 27,000 lines of poetry by Rumi, why select Zero Circle?  And, if you are presenting one poem by a Persian poet, why then take a selection from another Persian poet? Why not represent a Chinese or Japanese zen poet?

The small sampling in this thin volume is a highly subjective one, and while the dust jacket claims they are “astonishing poems” that “can inspire you to live what you always knew in your bones, but never had the words for”, I wonder. In fact, I think the book failed to do that for the original owner, which is why I found it at the garage sale. Ultimately, the book failed to do that for me, as well. Why should I care about how the anthologist experienced these poems?

I long ago came to the conclusion that individuals cannot (although they try to do so) buy or sell personal experience. The people who try to sell their own experience to others are false prophets; the people who try to buy someone else’s experience are abdicating their own. The publishing industry should heed this, if it wants to survive.

To his credit, the anthologist does acknowledge his small sampling to be a starting point, but I think he missed something by not proposing a next step, which I will do now: to create a practice around the poetry that inspires you.

How would such a practice work? You could start with a short list of poems that have inspired you. Copy them into a notebook and think about them. Recognizing that such exercises are naturally subjective, write what you think about the poems, cite reasons why you love them and why they inspire you. Use this as springboard to your own thinking, thought process, analysis and writing.

A friend of mine told me that she had shown her work to a mentor who offered the criticism that too much of her life was reflected in the writing!!! Well, for heaven’s sake, your writing is a subjective experience, and it should be—it is your experience!

When asked by someone “What should I write?” the author advised, “Write what you know.”



Next time: Trial and Error, Blank Pages and Failures

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 4: Peak Experiences, the Abyss and Everything Between; Writing as Meditation Practice

Last time, we talked about experience and awareness, as well as how the poetic mind engages with experience in reflection.

This time I want to make it crystal clear that every kind of experience is fair game for the poet. When everything is not “coming up roses”, that may be as good a time as any to think and write about what is happening in your life. Peak experiences are fabulous, if short lived in the scheme of things and infrequent; one peak experience may have to do for a lifetime. We may experience many more moments of pain, sorrow, horror or otherwise abysmal moments; writing about these can help us through crisis and toward healing.

Rumi is the best selling dead poet ever! The ecstasy of his revelatory conversational relationship with Shams, and the agony of Shams’ departure were the food that fueled, during the next twenty or more years of Rumi’s life, no less that 27,000 lines of poetic text and additional prose, recorded by amanuenses.

Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian nobleman of the late Renaissance period, is known today for two things: he was a murderer, and he wrote some of the most tortured chromatic music for choirs to sing. Those pieces that were secular undoubtedly settings of texts he wrote. Here is an example of one from Volume IV of Gesualdo’s collected madrigals for five voices:

Io tacerò

Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio,

La lagrime i sospiri, 

Diranno i miei martiri. 

Ma s’avverrà ch’io mora, 

Griderà poi per me la morte ancora.

(I will keep quiet, yet in my silence, 

My tears and sighs, 

Shall tell of my pain. 

And if I should die,

Death shall cry out for me once again.)

In van dunque, o crudele, 

Vuoi che’l mio duol e’l tuo rigor si cele. 

Poi che mia cruda sorte 

Da la voce al silenzio ed a la morate.

(Thus in vain, oh cruel one, 

Yearn you for my pain and your harshness to be hidden. 

Since my cruel fate 

Gives voice to silence and to death.)1

I get the feeling Gesualdo wasn’t a fun guy to be around.

Emily Dickinson could write of pain:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain

Its past, enlightened to perceive

New periods of pain.

But she also of  an envisioned joy:

Me! Come! My dazzled face
In such a shining place!

Me! Hear! My foreign ear
The sounds of welcome near!

The saints shall meet
Our bashful feet.

My holiday shall be
That they remember me;

My paradise, the fame
That they pronounce my name.

The point I make is that life’s joys and pains can most assuredly be commemorated in your writing, from among an infinite combination of words. All that is needed is the courage to explore the landscape of your dreams and feelings and experiences. And it does take courage.

After tragedy, some people find they cannot express themselves. I know I have difficulty; the writing that results can seem stilted or desultory, unfocused. This may be due to depression or a feeling of numbness. The Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler said, bluntly,

Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing: it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustrations that it creates.

Maxwell Perkins, who was editor for Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, put it this way:

You have to throw yourself away when you write.

There is truth to this; while you write, you are committing bits of yourself to paper or to a digital screen. There is an element of self-emptying to writing that may ultimately be medicinal, but it could be difficult to arrive at that point. I cannot cite any document or study that will prove what I say; all I can tell you is that I have experienced this for myself.

How do we process our joys, tragedies and terrors through writing? Well, it cannot be too obvious that we need to write. You need to write something everyday in order to see results and completions over time. Author Ann Lamott puts it this way, in her wonderful book Bird By Bird:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

Elsewhere, she also said:

If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

The hardest part of writing is letting go (or committing) so that you can “throw yourself away,” as Perkins suggested, even if what you are letting go of is what you love the most or has given you the greatest pain.

Writing must be practiced just as any other skill is practiced. How do I do it? Well, to start with, the size of my purse is dictated by whether it will hold a simple composition notebook; I tend to haul one around with me all the time. It has a pencil stuck inside it. I write everything in the notebook: dreams, meeting minutes, ideas, shopping lists, ideas for poems and actual poem drafts. This is my practice, anytime, anywhere. You never know what will happen; every place can offer inspiration, and anything you write down could be further developed later.

Simply put, writing and refining what you write is the practice—and the meditation. Whether you end up with anything you would want to publish is not the point.


1 English translation by Matthew Smyth


Next time:  Practice and Meditation, continued—10 Poems That Have Changed Your Life

Monday, March 5, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 3: Thought, Word and Deed; Metaphor and Imagination

“What you seek is like music. It sweeps you aloft so that you are moving in glory among the stars. Take time to find the unseen.”

--from A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Last time, we explored the question of what sort of person might be a poet. Now, let’s turn our attention to the poetic existence. Such existence is all about mental attention and where you turn yours.

There are certain mental activities that take place within both hemispheres of the brain; music and poetry are among these activities. Engagement with what is through the lens of possibility might also be a way to describe this. (Flights of your fancy pass through landscapes of dream and imagination; where do they lead you?)

I am sure these are bold statements to make, without recourse to scientific data, neurological comparisons or a degree in biochemistry, but my intuition tells me this is so.

We go about our daily activities, some reflexively or by rote, some by thought and plan. Throughout our days, we may follow a daily routine that seems tedious, and yet each day is different—there is always something irregular punctuating the regular activities. We think, we speak, we act and we witness; later our minds review these actions and happenings, categorizing, analyzing and judging. This is the activity of the left hemisphere of the brain, the center of language, logic and order.

Meanwhile, the right hemisphere of the brain may engage with the remembrance of these activities in a completely different manner than the left hemisphere. This other hemisphere processes experience as imagery, symbolism, impression; reflections tend to be of the big picture variety, leaping from idea to idea in a more random manner. Shades, shadows, colors, sounds, shapes and silence that may have been among the daily experiences run through this entirely different filtering process.

Left hemisphere and right hemisphere register experience differently, and to that I say “vive la difference”! The right hemisphere has a natural tendency to lavish attention on much smaller details (moments of surprise, apprehension of beauty, tiny joys, slights, hurtful words from someone, seeing someone act in a mean or careless way and other seemingly useless bits of awareness that flow through our days). When the mind is engaged in this way, the person, embedded or immersed in experience, is likely to be completely sincere and guileless—and free.

Gaston Bachelard, a French mathematician and chemist who turned his attention to poetics (joining science, aesthetics and psychoanalysis) had this to say about the way our experience, embedded in the memory as imagery, transcends the original experience:

From the standpoint of its will to shape experience, the literary image is a physical reality that has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is polyphonic because it is poly-semantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall to word-play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. 1

A very fancy and beautiful way to talk about a poet’s main exercise with regard to the images derived from experience: metaphor.

It may be unnecessary for me to offer this explanation, but etymologically, metaphor comes from meta, which means “transcendent”, and pherein, which means “carry”. The word metaphor means to “carry beyond”.  Aristotle assigned the sense of meaning for metaphor that we have today:
“The converted use of a word (metaphor) as the application of one word to signify another, where the former is usually used to mean something else.” 2

Why? Why is metaphor the poet’s main exercise?

We experience mostly in part, and even that part we cannot claim to truly understand or own. Our experience of something is not the thing itself. Metaphor points the way to a kind of definition—even revelation—that might make an impression on someone else, or perhaps offer an apprehension of the experience.

Even so, as beautiful as an apprehension may be, it continues to elude being the thing itself. One cannot buy or trade experience (although you wouldn’t know that by looking at self-help and spirituality sections of any bookstore or library). Your experience is your own, period. The prophet Isaiah sums this up rather well (Isaiah 55: 8-9 NIV):

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is so for everyone. If you want to try to make someone understand your experience, you have to communicated by using metaphors or analogies the other person might understand.

We’ve talked about the role of experience and the role of metaphor; what we haven’t touched on is why we would waste our time engaging in poetic streams of thought. Many people have addressed this in books about writing, literary criticism and psychology.

Ultimately, I think that we can boil all this down to a few essential reasons. Firstly, it is mental stimulus that is a byproduct of awareness; everyone needs to exercise the brain cells. Secondly, writing is therapeutic in the sense that the kernel you start with is a happening that captivates your attention and the exercise of writing helps you to work through that captivation (whether it is a positive or negative one). 

Thirdly, I think of writing as a meditation practice. I set aside time to do this (granted, sometimes I actually have to shove aside other obligations in order to make time for writing), and I allow my right brain hemisphere to explore, as uninhibited by the left hemisphere as possible. How I do this is an experience I can describe, but not impart in a way that would be useful for anyone trying to “learn” how to do it. Personal discovery of how to “get in the zone” is likely an integral part of the practice.

It may be a matter of, as the epigraph above suggests, taking the time to pay attention to “the unseen”.


1 Bachelard, Gaston. L’Air et les songes (Librarie José Corti, 1962). pp 286-288
2 Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher (London: Macmillan and Co., 1902), 77-79.


Next time: Peak Experiences, the Abyss and Everything in Between,
Writing as Meditation Practice

… Meanwhile, when something catches your attention, write it down and keep thinking about it!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Mild And Breezy Afternoon

Between two shores,
sun shimmering on water,
birds, in flight, in rest, at play
in the musical waves.

Soft voices murmur
from one shore to another;
softer steps in the quiet sands,
also musical waves.

One shore opposes the other,
joined by living water;
a counterpoint of
muted musical waves.

Opposites need not be extreme,
opposites need not find attraction,
but may freely join in conversation,
making musical waves

Of a mild and breezy afternoon.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen