Excerpt from the Introduction to Living Poems, Writing Lives:
Every one of us knows the bittersweet moment that defines our having figured out or been told what needs to be done in a given situation, juxtaposed with our realization that doing it well will require some work and commitment. Our poet spills his deepest feelings onto the page, captures the essence of what may some day be a good poem, only to remember that craft requires more than mere spillage, more than pure emotion gushing forth. He then must choose between abandonment and embrace. Having allowed that within to escape and manifest in writing, does he walk away from the page, or do the work that craft demands: diction, metaphor, music, line, point of view, imagery, form, texture and always, always, revision? Re-vision, see again where the poem wants to go. Yikes. This is a lot of work. Is he committed enough to see it through?
As our poet may abandon or embrace this work, so our self must address the work that life presents. Given miracles of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit, does she abandon or embrace her opportunities for ongoing growth and transformation? When will she be satisfied—from what perspective does she view the world, and to what level of consciousness, if any, does she aspire? Having glimpsed the body, does matter still matter? Does the body still entice once she embraces the mind? Where the mind falls short, dare she explore Soul, gasp—and, gulp, Spirit? Is she willing to embrace interiors and exteriors through an evolving awareness of her awareness? This is a lot of work! How committed is she to living fully—to her True Self?
Living Poems, Writing Lives explores these questions and some prospective answers for both our poet and our self. Each chapter begins with a basic introduction to/review of a poetic device or concept: point of view, structure, line, image, metaphor/simile, drama, diction, punctuation, rhythm, revision, theme, texture, and completion. Readers who would like to explore any of these more deeply might choose from among the following titles, all of which, among others, are annotated in the bibliography: Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand; Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau’s Writing Poems; Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance; Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion; Robin Behn and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry; Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days; Mary Kinzie’s A Poets’ Guide to Poetry; and Michael Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry. Each of these is unique; all of them have something of value to offer.
The second part of each chapter moves from the realm of the poet to the realm of the self, and explores the device’s or concept’s role in helping her live a conscious life. To what extent is she aware of who she truly is: when she expresses her point of view, who is behind her first- person pronoun? How does she structure her life around time, money, vocation, relationship and other areas? As the line is the basic building block for the poet, what are the basic building blocks of her life? Does imagery affect her day-to-day living, and if so, how? Has she chosen her life metaphors, or is her perception of life as a journey, a gift, or a war simply borrowed unconsciously from others? How much of the drama in her life arises from conflict that is beyond her control, and how much from conflict that she can influence or even eliminate? Is she at all aware of her diction—her means of expression beyond simple word choice? Does she live life punctuated by periods, commas, question marks, colons, exclamation points, or some combination thereof? To what extent is she aware of and does she attempt to influence the rhythms of her life? Does our self believe there is some underlying meaning, dominant idea or theme to her life story, and how does this belief affect her living? Given the interrelationships among these devices and concepts, can she recognize the overall texture of her life, and to what extent is she able to see her life anew—to revise her interpretations of events when such revision serves her? Finally, has she ever reflected upon her life’s completion? How conscious of and prepared for death is our self?
Each chapter ends with written exercises and a brief discussion of some aspect of meditation. The exercises address both poetry writing and self-exploration; the meditation section provides simple “getting started” instructions for several approaches as well as suggestions for further reading and/or experience, all of which are annotated in the bibliography.
A Basic Premise
That writing can be an effective tool for learning about and understanding the self is a given, our point of departure here, a point perhaps best supported by the work of James W. Pennebaker, (most recently, Expressive Writing: Words That Heal). Among others, Ira Progoff’s classic At a Journal Workshop, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold, John Fox’s Poetic Medicine, all establish writing’s role as an exploratory, therapeutic, and healing process. Although these authors, among others, approach the process from different angles and with various levels of intensity and structure, and whether one feels drawn to Pennebaker’s research-based programs, Progoff’s intensive journaling, Cameron’s morning pages, or Fox’s poetry (a gross reduction of each of them) they respectively engage the writing process as a method “to access the power of the unconscious and evoke creative ability”; as “a spiritual path to higher creativity”; and as “the healing art of poem-making.” Living Poems, Writing Lives, in one sense, travels a road both well paved and well traveled by these and others who have come before. In another sense, it also introduces a new mode of transportation.
An Even More Basic Premise
People develop. More accurately, perhaps, people can develop in many different ways, and people can pretty much stay “the same” (in a manner of speaking). Given reasonably safe, loving and stable circumstances, some physical, emotional and mental development is for the most part “automatic” in childhood and early teen years; given any circumstances at all, once we’re in our twenties or thereabouts, further development is optional—coming about through consciously chosen practices or in response to external circumstances (usually difficult or traumatic). Underlying the second half of each chapter, that which deals with “our self,” is an approach to using poetry and poetic “devices” as tools to help us with both our consciously chosen practices and our responses to those often challenging external circumstances.
When the second half of each chapter commandeers the poetic device for use as a potentially transformative tool, “our self” is called to look carefully into the question, “Who am I, really?” Such looking requires a turning inward in order to explore both individual worldview and cultural influences, a caring, honest look outward that provides insight into our experiences, behaviors, and environment(s), and an ongoing recognition that worldview interprets experience, which, in turn, influences worldview. Our inquiry will consider the universal or absolute, as well as the more personal or relative realms—the latter very often the primary, or even the only realm of which we’re aware (and through which we filter any knowing we come across—whether we know it or not). Our self’s inquiry further includes a variety of intelligences or developmental lines, as well as various states and types of consciousness.
Universal Rights of Pronouns Statement
Readers may have noticed by now that references to “our poet” above have been masculine, while references to “our self” have been feminine. A literal reading might suggest that poets are male and selves are female, which is obviously not the case. Throughout this book, when those pesky, lovable third-person-singular pronouns are appropriate, they will be masculine in the Our Poet sections, and feminine in the Our Self sections. These particular gender assignments are completely arbitrary and have not been evaluated by the FDA, NOW, the ACLU or the FCC (thank God), and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any obsession, including, but not limited to, misogyny, misandry, and political correctness.
Readers so (or otherwise) obsessed should feel free to strike out offending pronouns wherever they occur, and replace them with their pronouns of choice. In fact, the more readers who do this, the better (but only if you own the book—don’t deface library copies).
Copyright © 2004, 2010 by Reggie Marra
All rights reserved.