Reading Octavio Paz’s poems challenges me. He goes deep and wide, mythic and intense. His work silences and moves me, but if I keep him close I will perhaps learn to write with courage. His female figures are stunning, earthy and unabashedly eternal. As I read though, I cannot find my own words. I close the book. I put the phone on the charger, wrap a holiday gift, peel the price tag from a new notebook, small things to distract me. Again he dares me to write bigger, deeper.
Instead I go out for coffee, chat with friends. I’m intimidated by his huge body of work. I’ve used up too much time and ink and achieved little. Then I recall a line from the Tao te Ching: “Do your work, then step back.” I splatter enthusiasm onto the page, decide that I am a link, not a destination. I’ve tripped over awe and envy, and now I acknowledge a little sourness on my tongue. Then again I feel comforted having the work of a master to teach me. Promise to try, as Frost said, to get a few poems to stick, and know that to do so, I must write them. And finish the novel that too often I call the damned novel, because it too makes me aware of the limits to my skill. I dare not call it talent. I struggle with this knot, pick up one thread only to lose another, roll around like the dog scratching its back on the rug.
There’s benefit in admitting one’s ambition toward perfection, an impossible goal, but the carrot that pulls me forward. I’m not sorry about this turmoil. I’m better for having put it on the page and finding the energy in it. Tension holds me up like the tendons in my joints, steady and fluid. I feel better now. #OctavioPaz #poetry
Binge reading Edward Hirsch’s books about poetry, in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, I found the origin of his introduction to poetry. As a boy he was, on a rainy day, looking for something to read and found in one of his grandfather’s books a poem, handwritten and unattributed. Seems his granddad habitually copied poems that he liked into the blank pages of his books. Edward, at eight years old, was captivated by the evocative rhythms of the poem and caught a severe case of poetry. The poem—Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound.” An apt title.
I was, by comparison, late to the party. As a teenager, I clipped John Lennon’s poems from a magazine and taped them to the wall in my dorm room. But that was more a part of the Beatle Mania that infected millions of girls our age. Later, much later, in the process of continuing my nursing education, I took an elective course in literature, the source of contagion. And I read Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” OMG! I remember being alone in my living room and wanting to jump up and run around the room, to show someone this amazing poem. I still revere Uncle Walt. Then there was another elective course in creative writing, and then Intro to Lit, and my first attempts to join the tribe of scribblers.
My education did lead to a BS in Health Science, but it was almost derailed by my fascination with literature. I fell so in love with the written word, that I strayed, promiscuously, into a graduate program in English, and taught comp and lit. And, reader, I wrote poems. Way went on to way and I earned an MFA in Poetry.
So here I sit, in a hotel in Denver, one of the 150 or so poets who will devote the next four days to poetry. It’s a chronic condition and I so hope there is no cure.
One of the many writing groups I attend is a bunch of free-writing fools, as we often call ourselves, though I don’t know that we have ever formally accepted that label. A lot of what we do is happy or not-so happy foolishness, freedom to let the words splatter onto the page and know that the others in the room will accept them unconditionally. Play therapy? Maybe, but once in a while a tiny miracle occurs and we accept that too unconditionally. We meet in Kit Hedman’s art studio a couple of times a month, sometimes we are four, sometimes we are eight in number, although those figures might also refer to our mental ages.
At a session about a month ago, we used some of Kit’s art work as a prompt. He has a framed series of ink blots that lend themselves to interpretation. Whether or not he had intended that, he accepts the urge of writers to recognize the definable out of the ethereal. One in particular impressed me and became in eight minutes the prose poem posted below. Kit asked for a copy and specified that I not revise, but leave it as it emerged full-bodied on the page. So, a little gift. Happy Saturday.
The giant walks and walks. His feet and legs are muddy and with each step he flings his arms and clots of dirt fly and those clots become planets and he admires them, so he walks faster and laughs to see the worlds that fling themselves through space. The giant wishes he could tell someone about this creation but he’s the only one in sight and tears mix in with the young planets that fly off his fingertips. He’s crying and laughing and walking across fields of white space, making his mark. When the planets and moons scatter, he stands still, watching them spread and sees it all and feels that these things need names, so he makes sounds that become language and he tells himself that some day soon he will find another being to talk to, but for now his galaxy will have to do.
Every week I shop the new-book shelf at the library, almost always finding half a dozen books that interest me. Occasionally, I make myself branch out from my preferred mystery-as-escape selections. I start at the biography section and I check to see if there is new poetry. This week I found a biography of Sylvia Plath, American Isis, which a friend had recommended, so that went into the bag, along with a memoir by Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds, his insider account of the luxury hotel business. Add a memoir by a Kenyan writer, a book about water shortage and misuse, a Sidney Sheldon novel that proved to be too gory for my taste, and a delicious history of cooking utensils by Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork. Just for to avoid an ugly withdrawal, a mystery, Marjorie Eccles’ After Clare.
My random selections most often run about 60/40 worth reading to DNF (did not finish). I like the surprise of discovering a new read. But, ah–you knew there was a but, eh–after reading about Plath’s very purposeful reading habits, I feet a little guilty. Sure, she went to Smith and I didn’t. She did her graduate work at Cambridge and I didn’t. (Of course, she also committed suicide and I . . . well, obviously.) I have known about the books mentioned in that bio, and I now regret my promiscuous reading habits. Then I skimmed materials I’m gathering for teaching a fall semester course on the techniques of contemporary poetry. There, like a jury of my peers, I faced the accusation of having been dissolute in my reading. It’s a long list of poets to master. If I start at the beginning with Caedmon (c. 1000) and read through the English language poets I’ll be brain dead before I finish. Then there are those to read in translation, Akhmatova to Tsvetaeva. Too much, too much, I have to go lie down. With a good book. Or ten.