I Think I Know…. (One Good Paragraph #6)

I’m rereading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I’m getting more out of it this time around. I’m working on being more intentional about my writing, and I dig Rilke’s direction and guidance. Reading his letters is like talking with an older and wiser friend. The other day this paragraph jumped out at me:

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge. [emphasis original]

I like this. It makes sense. I tend to want to be a serious person, and this feels fitting — like if something matters that much to me, I should make sure to build my life around it. Really, when I think about it, I’m already most of the way there to an answer. I always have a notebook (or two, or three…) with me at all times. I love words, I love language, and I know that’s where my gifts lie. I’m just now getting back to that, when I used to engage in it more often when I was younger. It’s been years since I wrote a story — at least since high school — but I realize that I’ve always written, in one way or another. Maybe now I’m not going to deny myself or put myself off anymore. Some things are too important to leave to the experts or the professionals, after all.

But what if I ask myself and I find out I don’t want to write?, someone might wonder. Rilke answers that too, later in the same letter:

It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive — that I wish for you more than I can say.

So there you have it. Ask yourself the question: Must I write — or paint, or sing, or whatever your art form is? Does this matter to me more than my life? Then go after it with everything you’ve got — and if not, keep looking until you find that one thing that lights your fire.

As for me, I’m fairly certain what the answer would be even before I ask the question — which in itself is the answer.


Hot and cold at the same time

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

— Emily Dickinson

Ladies and gentlemen, now I know what Emily Dickinson means here. It had been a theoretical sensation up to this point, merely abstract, something that I thought I might feel someday — but now I have felt it, and I know exactly what she’s talking about.

I’ve been working at reading poetry in a (somewhat) more dedicated fashion for the past few months, and I finally found a poet who took my head off: Sappho. Her writing has the clarity and jolt of the best moonshine, eloquence aplenty, and a direct emotional connection. She just might be my new favorite poet. I immediately inter-library-loaned a volume of her work, and will devour it when it arrives. This is poetry the way people always talk about it. Even in the modern world, there’s still a place for “the best words in the best order” — for universal human experiences distilled into unforgettable verse that changes you. Sappho knew what that feeling was like, too, and even though she was very different than I am — female vs. male, (apparently) not entirely straight vs. definitely straight, ancient Greek vs. modern American — I can still appreciate her poetry and the effects it has. And they may have found more of her stuff! Sappho, this one’s for you…and us:

Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and

laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,

but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.

And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.

(from “Greek Lyrics”, p.25, trans. Richmond Lattimore, 1955, U. of Chicago.)

Violence, savagery, and great beauty: One good paragraph #5

I’ve been reading the Iliad lately. I started it a while ago, then got distracted by other things, and only recently picked it back up again. It’s good stuff. There’s no better way to start your day than by reading about Greek and Trojan warriors slaughtering each other. (Just kidding, but it does make for a change from the daily routine, if nothing else.) Reading about heroism, honor, courage can inspire one in daily life, even if your life isn’t as dramatic as theirs was. One can very definitely tell that the Iliad came from an earlier time in human history — one far less complicated, surface-obsessed, yet still treacherous and amoral. We have perhaps sunk farther down than they, who organized their lives around duty and honor. I know that the Iliad is an epic poem and not real life, but one cannot shake the feeling that people in former times knew more about living — really living — than we do now.

From an artistic standpoint, the Iliad is absolutely necessary reading. Homer is a master of comparison, simile, and metaphor, and the pictures he paints with his words make one stop and just sit and admire at times. His assured mastery of his form is noteworthy, too. He knows just how to get the effect he wants within the conventions of his form. Once you become used to the stylized, conventionalized phrasing he employs, that (to us) unnatural way of speaking fades from attention, and all that’s left is the gripping artistry, the cinematic sweep of the story, the stately grief and grand rage of the combatants and those left behind, and the riveting, gratuitous violence.

The Iliad of course has more than one good paragraph; the whole thing is good! That’s why it’s a stone-cold classic still. This is one of numerous quotes from the Iliad that I keep returning to, but it stands out for me because of the combinations and elaboration of the imagery. This comes from Book 16, lines 455-465 in Robert Fagles’ superlative translation. Enjoy:

And all in an onrush dark as autumn days

when the whole earth flattens black beneath a gale,

when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains –

up in arms, furious, storming against those men

who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgments,

men who throw all rights to the wind with no regard

for the vengeful eyes of the gods – so all their rivers

crest into flooded spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops

off into lonely islands, the roaring flood tide rolling down

to the storm-tossed sea, headlong down from the foothills

washes away the good plowed work of men –

Rampaging so,

the gasping Trojan war-teams hurtled on.


Once I started writing poetry because I wanted to put the words together right. This was a few years ago (almost ten, in fact…time flies faster than we think it does, or we move slower than time), but I left off doing it and I shouldn’t have. I showed a few of my poems to someone I trusted, and the response was underwhelming, let’s just say, not what I expected or perhaps wanted, and so I stopped. It’s not her fault — that’s just the way she is, and she couldn’t possibly have guessed what I felt was the right response in that situation. I still love her very dearly, and she supports me in a myriad of other ways.

Rather, the fault was mine in quitting out too soon. I let it lie and went on to other things. I wrote in my journal, I wrote other things in which my personality shone through (albeit weakly, obliquely, like late winter sunlight through dirty windows), but not poetry. Just recently I took it up again. I figured, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly, and if I want to write poetry, why not just write poetry? What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll produce some bad poetry? Heaven knows there’s been enough of that in the world, and if I add to its store, there will not be an end of it after I’m gone. And if I produce something good? Then it will have been worth it. Even if I don’t produce anything anyone wants to read, I’ll still have learned and grown as a person, as a writer, as a mover and shaper of words. I’ll have grown my powers of expression and gained clarity and insight into myself and the world around me. So why not?

So here and now, I give notice that I won’t quit. I’ll keep at it, labor over it, learn some craft and some art, put some sweat and some elbow grease into it; invest time, thought, heart, and desire, make something that I’m proud to call my own, something that someone might want to read. I will continue to collect words, to focus, to draw together my scattered heedlessly flung thoughts and hone them into slivers and shards of poetic genius; hammer and saw and cut and nail, again and again, until the structure takes shape and solid form; take dead aim and draw the bow and release, again and again — until I start to get it right. Even if it’s for no one else, this is for me, so I can become part of what I want to be — a poet, someone genuinely recognized for the quality of his words. I won’t make the mistake of waiting too long on another’s opinion again. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve lost so much time already.

Happy birthday, Robert Graves

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets, Robert Graves. He was born in London in 1895. His passion was poetry, but he wrote novels to support himself and said: “Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.” He wrote historical novels such as I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934). (I was introduced to these by Doc Ziebell, my superlative high school history teacher.) He also penned a memoir about WWI, Goodbye to All That (1929), in addition to a lot of other good stuff.

One of the most inspiring things I remember reading that Robert Graves ever said — I think it was in Goodbye to All That — was when he was describing his life as a father with young children. He says that he took care of them quite often, but that even with the demands on his time and attention that small children (deservedly) bring, he still found time to write. He would rise before they were awake in the mornings, and write poetry then, before the day’s work began. “If it matters to you, you find time for it,” he said simply — and that has stuck with me ever since. That statement of Graves’ has motivated me to find proper time for my devotional life, for exercise, and for my family. That idea has guided me and made me a better person. I don’t think I would have accomplished nearly as much as I have, were it not for that (and the help of my wife, as chief among others, but that’s another topic for another time.)

“If it matters to you, you find time for it.” His poetry helped me focus on what really matters to me, and it helped me trust myself and my own instincts. He gave me permission to entertain doubts and “what-ifs”, and by doing so their power over me dissolved. I owe him a debt for that. That’s the power of poetry — it lives on long after we do, and who knows who will be affected by it one day. So go on; pick up your pen; add something to the wide river of words that is all poetry. You never who you’ll help or turn around.

(ht:writer’s almanac)

Poetry on the Wing — One Good Paragraph #4

I just finished reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Listen! The Wind. It’s a pretty good book. I get the feeling that it’s been sadly overlooked since it was published in 1939. Sometimes just the passage of time buries books or authors, the sands of the hourglass piling up and obscuring them forever — until they’re unearthed. This book deserves to be read, as many obscure books do. It might make a good book for young people. It centers around one leg of one of her trips with her husband Charles, the world-famous aviator. As you read, it’s apparent that Anne was a poet — the way she hangs her sentences together, the way her words flow, is something to admire. My favorite parts of the book were when she describes hunching over listening to the radio as hard as she can, trying to hear distant stations as they cross the Atlantic, as here:

No answer in the earphones, only those stars clashing in the distance, those moons cart-wheeling through space. For you seem to hear distance and space on the radio. Sounds puncture the silence, like stars the dark, giving you a sense of perspective.

But I was beginning to hear something else beside the cosmic crashes, faint squeaks against the welter of noise, precise scratchings upon the blurred surface of sound. So dim and faint, they were no more than a twig’s tapping on a window-pane during a storm; no more than a crab’s track on sand, partly erased by a wave; or a dead leaf’s tracing on new-fallen snow. They were living, however; they were human, I was sure. They were dot-dash, Morse-code letters, words, messages of a human being.


Everything Comes Together

Every so often I like to read something really technical, something not from my field. My conversation is more interesting, and I know more, if I push myself to read widely, not just a lot in the things I gravitate to without thinking. Lately my technical reading has been Hypnagogia, by Andreas Mavromatis. The book’s subtitle explains what hypnagogia is: “The Unique State of Consciousness between Wakefulness and Sleep.” You’ve experienced it, you more than likely just didn’t know that’s what it was called, or what exactly it was that you were experiencing.

The book is quite a quick read, actually. I’m making progress much more quickly than I thought I’d be. I started the book prepared for it to be a slog, but it’s not. It’s still somewhat technical, although not so technical as to render it unintelligible.

One of the neat things about reading as much as I try to, and as widely as I try to, is that after a while things start to coalesce and line up without my trying. Perhaps because I like things that are most alike under the surface, or through extraordinary coincidences — maybe I’m seeing through the surface to commonalities that I might have sensed but couldn’t explain — but lately my reading has started all to tie together.

For example: Not too long ago I read the “Loveless” volume in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. (Bloody brilliant series, if you’re a music lover…you should check it out.) In it the author made a passing reference to hypnagogia — which, if you’ve ever heard My Bloody Valentine’s music, makes perfect sense. I thought, That sounds interesting, and noted it on one of my reading lists. (I have at least three…sometimes curating my reading lists threatens to consume all my time. Then I remind myself that the purpose of the list is to help me read more or more interesting books…not keep a list.) I got it through inter-library loan (my best friend where I live), and dove in.

As I read, some of the descriptions of focusing attention during hypnagogia, or learning how to direct one’s attention, reminded me very strongly of other things I’ve read recently. As a renewal of an older interest, I’ve been doing more reading on lectio divina, which is essentially an ancient Christian method for praying the Scriptures. It involves contemplation, directing one’s attention in a very focused way, yet different than we usually do every day, and focusing in on the words of Scripture. I’m into it, and I try and practice it for myself. Throw in some references to meditation or mysticism which crop up, and which I’m also interested in, and the web draws tighter. It was fascinating to me to see how things I’m interested in, things themselves very different and disparate, coalesce and come together, all on their own.

Here’s the particular quote that especially reminded me of lectio divina. I share it with you because it may be of wider interest:

“In his experimental studies on meditation, Deikman, adapting a procedure from Patanjali’s Yoga, instructed his subjects to adopt an attitude of ‘passive abandonment’ as they concentrated on a blue vase. His instructions ran: “By concentration I do not mean analyzing the different parts of the vase, or thinking a series of thoughts about the vase, or associating ideas to the vase; but rather, trying to see the vase as it exists in itself, without any connections to other things. Exclude all other thoughts or feelings or sounds or bodily sensations. Do not let them distract you, but keep them out so that you can concentrate all your attention, all your awareness on the vase itself. Let the perception of the vase fill your entire mind.” Again, these instructions can be recognized as directions for psychophysical withdrawal and diffuse and absorbed attention which, as we saw earlier, are marks of hypnagogia. The instructions to attention and concentration can be seen as directions for the deliberate induction of a state of fascination that presents itself spontaneously in hypnagogia, and can be further prolonged and deepened in the latter by attending to and concentrating on the imagery. The relationship between hypnagogia and meditation becomes even closer when the object of concentration is an internal image. In the latter case, instead of the subject becoming fascinated by emerging hypnagogic imagery, as is the case with hypnagogia, the procedure is reversed and an image is visualized and used to fascinate the subject. As Deikman points out, “the active phase of contemplative meditation is a preliminary to the stage of full contemplation, in which the subject is caught up and absorbed in a process he initiated but which now seems autonomous, requiring no effort. Instead, passivity — self-surrender — is called for, an open receptivity.”” (Hypnagogia, Mavromatis, pp.112-113) (emphasis not in original)