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