Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

The Moon, Not the Finger May 4, 2016

Every so often a book lands in your hands just when you need it.

I happened upon The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, by Donald Revell, the other day. I had started it at some point because it was underlined for several pages, but in the daily onslaught I had somehow lost track of it. But here it was and I had the time to read it, so I started again.

But before I get to what I found so sustaining in this little book, a bit of backstory: I have had a horrible winter/spring, and have found the desire to write anything has simply evaporated. My chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia flared, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of pain and panic again. It isn’t my first rodeo, so I should know how to handle these flare-ups, but there have been too many too close together for too long. I’ve lost my equilibrium.

Feeling unmoored in all ways, I’ve felt more so in my writing. What is this drivel? I think, looking at pathetic lines on the page. More importantly, why the effort when everything takes so much effort?  I have joined a lovely group of poets that meet monthly, and suddenly I am aware of what good poems are. And I want to write them. But the more I try, the more stilted my efforts. It is as if I’ve lost my innocence, my native language. What is a poem, anyway?

A poem, according to Revell, “is a plain record of one’s entire presence….the poetry of attention is acceptance….the poetry of attention proposes a heroic unoriginality whose entire faith rests in the tireless originality of the real.”  Something in me accedes—yes! I like in particular the word “plain” in contrast to “entire presence.” Plain is serviceable, every day, yet entire presence is all that we have, it is everything.

I think of some of my favorite poets, and notice the plainness of their language. Here is an excerpt of Denise Levertov’s poem, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”.

Pale, then enkindled,

light

advancing,

emblazoning

summits of palm and pine,

 

the dew

lingering,

scripture of

scintillas.

 

Soon the roar

of mowers

cropping the already short

grass of lawns…..

 

miner’s lettuce,

tender, untasted,

and other grass, unmown,

luxuriant,

no green more brilliant.

 

Fragile paradise.

 

At day’s end the whole sky,

vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent

mauve,

tint of wisteria,

cloudless

over the malls, the industrial parks,

the homes with the lights going on,

the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . .

Who can utter

the poignance of all that is constantly

threatened, invaded, expended

 

and constantly

nevertheless

persists in beauty,

 

tranquil as this young moon

just risen and slowly

drinking light

from the vanished sun.

 

Who can utter

the praise of such generosity

or the shame?

“In California” By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive

This is plain language, unversifying verse. Notice how she transforms a normal ordinary day, seeing in it both tragedy and exquisite beauty. “As you see, so at length shall you say,” Revell says, and here the eye takes in with absolute accuracy what it sees, what it finds. The poem, Revell tells us, is found material, “The key to the poetry of attention is acceptance.”  Levertov’s eye takes in all, the humble, the homeless, the mauve light. All that she sees cumulates in the final section, with the first and final stanzas’s beginning with the line “Who can utter….?” This line, repeated, indicates the poet’s recognition of her own limitations, the limitations of words to convey the magnitude of what the eye takes in. This humility, this kenosis, Revell says, is also imperative in the poetry of attention. It allows the poet to empty herself, to accept a limited role. This paradoxically frees her.

Which reminds me of the Buddhist story of the finger pointing to the moon:

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Writers don’t have to be the moon, or create it. We just have to point to it.   Fugai-Hotei-Pointing-to-the-Moon2

 

 

 

Reverie and Engagment August 20, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.

I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign.  I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out.  It was a Monday morning, and I was restless.  The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.

Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.

Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.

For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie:  Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:

reverie-1919 (1)Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

                    Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work.  However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.

I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.

John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.”  If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”

It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so.  It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.

I’ll leave you with this:

Matins
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth

John O’Donohue

 

 
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