Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is Spring Poetry?

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Psalm 8: 3-4
It is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for poetry than the abundant and colorful landscapes that come to mind at the mere mention of this season. As everything else is in bloom, so too is the imagination of the poet. The challenge, of course, for a spring poet is to find a way to expand beyond a season that does quite enough singing of its own praise, to take nature and romance and this feeling of connectedness and bottle it all up in lines that say more, that push past cliché. A glance at some of the old psalms reminds us that sometimes it doesn't take much, just an eye of wonder and a willingness to ask eternal questions. Seems simple enough.

Sometimes a poet will simply report on nature - catalog a moment of beauty (i.e. Whitman's "The Dalliance of the Eagles" or James Wright's "A Blessing"), and often that is enough (again, nature has a way of "doing all the work" for a poet). However, other times poets see nature from a different angle and they have to pass on the image and the feeling, they have to find the perfect metaphor to carry it, use just the right line breaks and patterns. Notice how William Carlos Williams introduces into the plant a moment of sensuality, images of body and hands and blemishes; he elevates the "reporting" (as Whitman and Wright do, too) into a shared experience with the reader. The reader is no longer experiencing nature from afar, but she is part of nature, she is the delicate cluster of flowers, vulnerable and giving way to a "white desire." 
Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth - nor 
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand's span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a 
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower, 
a pious wish to whiteness gone over -
or nothing.
Think about the natural settings that inspire you. Oceans. Deserts. Red Wood forests. Think of a specific moment in that setting, perhaps on a camping trip or a long drive, and try to glean out every last piece of the image. Once you have all of this, remind yourself, "This is just the beginning."
Take a look at how Emily Dickinson (who is every bit as much a Spring Poet as she is a Winter Poet) uses personification here in "The Black Berry -wears a Thorn in his side -" (poem 548 from the Franklin edition):
The Black Berry - wears a Thorn in his side -
But no Man heard him cry -
He offers His Berry, just the same
To Partridge - and to Boy -

He sometimes holds upon the fence -
Or struggles to a Tree -
Or clasps a Rock, with both His Hands -
Bot not for sympathy -

We - tell a Hurt - to cool it -
This Mourner - to the Sky
A little further reaches - instead -
Brave Black Berry
Notice, like Williams, Dickinson is offering the reader a moment to not only observe the Black Berry, but to participate in the "struggle" and "clasping" of the berry, to muse over those eternal questions of Who do we look to for sympathy? Who is worthy of our fruit? What does it mean to be brave? This is what a poet does - she puts the piece of nature under the microscope and describes more than the workings of the cells; she describes what is beneath all of that, what is universal and ineffable.

Where do you go next? How can you take the image beyond a "report"?
Is there a metaphor you've been thinking about? Maybe you need just one solid image, like Williams' image of the body of a woman.
What do you really want the reader to get out of that moment? What did you get? Joy? Connection with God or the universe?

It is no surprise that the poets who deal in spiritual themes - everyone from Rumi to the Metaphysical Poets to Mary Oliver - can be found in the Spring Poets. In a way, the spirituality goes hand and hand with the Nature, but there is more. The poems of spirituality offer the reader a reflection inward to the landscapes that only the reader is aware of, the landscapes of the self . I realize the phrase "the landscapes of the self" sounds very cheesy, but remember that being a poet is sometimes about giving in to the less guarded side of ourselves. This is what the poems of spirituality do best - they give in and offer the reader a pure and unguarded moment (or a moment that seems pure and unguarded). Allen Ginsberg brings the reader into a holy moment in "Sunflower Sutra" as he quips:
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower! 
There are also those poets who present spiritual themes in a more stolid fashion - a fashion that reminds us of the traditions and dogmas of organized religions. These, too, are moments worth accounting for, moments when the poet wants us to understand what drives those traditions, why people adhere to these things. See how Emily Brontë takes her cue from David's Psalms here:
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears 
Also, see how (Matsuo) Basho seems to simply chronicle a moment in "On Buddha's deathday," but, in doing so, he also shares a ruggedness about those who continue to pray and, as we imagine, continue to believe:
On Buddha's deathday,
wrinkled tough hands pray - 
the prayer beads' sound
When we write spiritual poems, we needn't be literal. That is, we do not have to write about religion or religious experiences per se. But think of how we find what is holy in each day and moment. 
How can we tell a reader about the spiritual connection we might feel with our old high school campus or how religious we might feel about a kiss (like Romeo and Juliet)?
We are continually "in touch" with the spiritual, so it is the job of the poet to find language to bring the spiritual into the real. Sometimes we can use the tropes of the spiritual and religious world, borrow heavily from religious imagery and mythology. Other times we must work harder by using our own unique experiences and extracting something holy out of those moments - follow Jack Kerouac's advice to "Believe in the holy contour of life." 
One sure fire way to get your mind into "the spiritual" is to just start thinking about the big questions. Ask yourself "why am I here" or "what is the meaning of life" or "what is my hope" or "how do I feel when I am alone."

The poetry of this season is often infused with a forward-reaching movement, like a green stalk turning to the sun. The snow - or the bad relationship or the war or the melancholy - has melted away and it is time to give birth to new life, in every way possible. These are poems about rebuilding and blooming into something new. Here are lines about rejuvenation and a turning away from the troubled moment to something new and hopeful. These are poems of half-full rather than half empty (see the Autumn Poets for those). These lines from Walt Whitman's "This Compost" are a good example of what I mean by the theme of renewal:
Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
We can write about renewal, again, by moving away from the literal. Think about what we actually rebuild from every day - broken relationships, lost jobs, devastating deaths, or, on a smaller scale, moments when we become embarrassed, moments when we lose our cool or lose the trust of a friend. 
One of the most often used renewal tropes is the imagery of Christ's resurrection. It is a worthwhile story to know because it is filled with familiar moments for most Western readers. Of course, there are many, many similar tales about renewal - think of redemption and resurrection (or even do a Google search for these) and use these familiar moments to create poems about renewal. This is called allusion and to work more with allusion, check out the exercise "Allusion."

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - what is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

It is probably true that all poetry, in some way, is about connection, but here I mean a very specific kind that reaches across generations and time periods. The poet is set on accomplishing immortality through his verse (as Shakespeare suggests in Sonnets 15, 64, and 123) or passing on wisdom as Kipling does in the much-anthologized "If -" above. Kipling's poem, at first, seems like it is only about advice, but when we consider the motivation behind creating a poem which is really a string of platitudes we have to peel back the layers. On the surface, Kipling is a father giving advice to a son, but if we peel back another layer we consider Kipling as a poet writing for his audience, for the reader. What can we infer from this realization? What kind of connection is Kipling trying to make? Kipling is not only telling the son of the poem how to be a man, but he is telling the men around him, perhaps those he could never talk to on a bus or on the street, he is telling them how to be men, as well. He notices that something is lacking and he points it out.

How do we do this with our own poetry? What is the real connection we want to make with our reader? Perhaps we are seeking their obedience in one poem and, in another, we are seeking their approval. When we are conscious of the type of connection we are trying to make with our readers, we are better able to stick to imagery and language that reinforces that particular connection. To work more with connection, try the exercise "Modeling Robert Frost."

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are 
What is great about Alberto Rios' poem here is that it presents the reader with a love poem that chronicles the moments of a love. The boring detail of "all the cars we have driven" gets elevated to the language we associate with rose petals, kisses, and other over-used images. The poem is not only about "love" but it is about romance - about everything that surrounds love. The before and after. Love itself is incredibly hard to convey and harder to agree upon - but every reader can remember driving with someone they love, every reader can relate to a city always being populated by someone we love. 
Romantic poetry is perhaps the most dangerous kind of poetry to write because it can go so bad so fast by leaning into cliché. We want so badly to say "I would give you the moon" (like George in It's a Wonderful Life), but the phrase is empty. Our instinct says, "You mean everything to me" but the word everything is like death, it is vacuous. Take a look at how Li-Young Lee writes these big ideas by using a small moment in the poem "Trading for Heaven":
Do you see the space between our bodies?
Barely a hand, hardly a breath,

it is the space mountains and rivers are made of.
It is the beginning of oceans, the space

between either and or, both and neither,
the happiness of forgetting

our names and the happiness of hearing them
for the first time.
Lee uses very specific moments, just like Rios, to show just how much love is in that moment. The small details, the things that we take for granted like "space between bodies" (we are probably more concentrated on the bodies themselves), the words we didn't choose (like either, or, neither), or the joy of hearing someone else say our name.
Love has to be boiled down and dissected, put under the microscope. It is almost always better to speak in the narrow rather than the broad when it comes to romantic poetry; as Irena Praitis puts it, "individual details (going more and more into particulars) paradoxically offers broader appeal." And, perhaps most importantly, do yourself the favor of reading lots and lots of love poems by Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Burns so you know that what you probably want to write has almost certainly already been done... you're gonna have to dig a little deeper.