Thursday, March 24, 2005

What Inspires My Poetry

Recently I have been reading a book about poetry by Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. In one section, he writes about what inspires poets to write and what inspires the content of their poetry. He gives several examples, including particular seasons, everyday conversation, certain kinds of words, and the innovations of other poets. I too have noticed that certain specific things inspire me repeatedly, so I thought I would make a list.

  • The poetry of the following poets: Rumi as reinterpreted by Coleman Barks, T.S. Eliot, Carolyn Forche’, Thomas Kinsella, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, Rodney Jones, Walt Whitman, Marilyn Hacker, Carol Anne Duffy, and others.

  • Crisis in my life or in the lives of my friends. (Not that I’m wishing ill on anyone else or myself!)

  • Literal stormy weather and heavy rain.

  • The passion and advice of my professors: Bob Waugh, Carley Bogarad, Jan Z. Schmidt, H.R. Stoneback, and Edward Brunner.

  • Lyrics by particular rock and progressive rock artists: Marillion, Fish, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, U2, and others.

  • Discussions about writing with friends who are passionate about writing: John Langan, Dawn Pendergast, Mildred Greear, Tracey Gagne, David Oates, Steven Shields, Bonnie Rude, John Bush, Jim Gilchriest . . . to name a few. (If I neglected to mention someone, I’m very, very sorry! You are all so important to me!)

  • Bible stories and biblical imagery.

  • My audience, that small group of people who are sincerely interested in anything I might write: my Mom, Christi, Mildred, Sally, Maria, David, Todd and Laura, and a few others. (Let me know if you are one of these! I can always use more on this list.)

  • Oceanic and aquatic creatures.

  • Pop culture icons: I Love Lucy, Warner Brothers & Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters, Kiss, superheroes, and many others.

  • The women to whom I‘ve been attracted. (There’s no denying it!)

  • Remembered daydreams of writing poetry and novels while I was an undergraduate student at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz. Sometimes I try to put myself in a “New Paltz state of mind”. It was there that I first formed my ideas about what a poem IS. Part of that formation came from listening to other poets read their work aloud at the President’s Guest House readings: Chad Roche, John Burdick, John Langan, Lauren Athanas, Gail Vorbach, Bob Singleton, Bob Waugh, Arthur Josephs, Pey Pey Oh, Kevan Stoffel, Tim Healy, Danny Rzetelny, and others. (Again deep apologies to anyone I forgot to list!)

Friday, March 11, 2005

Thursday, March 10, 2005

My father, Me, and Christi

My father, Me, and Christi Posted by Hello

Breakneck Pursuit of Heightened Language

To be honest and accurate, I am much more a fan and practitioner of “heightened language” than of “poetry.” Poetry certainly utilizes and exemplifies heightened language more so than your average narrative, but they are far from being equivalents. It’s important for me to be aware of this, because it informs what kind of poet am and what my poetry aspires to do. Put simply: I write poetry because I want to create experiences of heightened language and poetry is the form where that heightened language emerges naturally for me.

What is heightened language? Well, it is more exciting than typical conversation, more image-filled than your average journalism, certainly more daring in its length and breadth, and generally veers toward a manic abuse of words and syntax.

The first example that always comes to my mind is the voice of the narrator, Jack Burden, in the novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. While Jack does not speak in heightened language for every sentence of the novel, there is a large proportion of heightened language between the covers of this classic. It took me only about four minutes to zero in on this passage as I flipped the pages for my example:

He took us to a night club where they rolled out a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of “Nordic Nymphs” in silver gee-strings and silver brassieres came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassieres vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trailing and floating and whipping in the air. (140 Warren)

Here we have a run-on sentence that imitates whirl and twirl of the figures in the scene. The event being described was designed to create shock and awe, so as Jack reacts to it, the shock and awe (if even short lived) adds fuel to the language.

The word “and” appears a dozen times as Jack attempts to recreate all that he saw. The effect is something like “I saw this . . . and this . . . and this . . . and this . . . “ The same style might be used to emulate free-associative thoughts as they flash through someone’s mind. The sense the reader gets is one of overflow, overabundance, and overload.

Some of the most intense experiences in life can seem that way--overloaded, almost too much to handle. In our busy lives, images zip past us with insane speed. Regretfully sometimes those blurs are our own families and friends. While the realities of speed can be costly, the emulation of that speed in language gives me pleasure. It recreates the experience of that speed through the music of language. It surprises me with its effectiveness.

Note also the repetitions of words and sounds in the Warren passage: the word “flashing” and the “-ing” sound. The repeated sounds create a rhythm that pluses through the passage, emulating the rapid heartbeat of those attending the described event.

These effects excite me as a reader. They get my own blood flowing in tune with the blood flow of the narrator. I aspire to write heightened language like Warren’s much more so than to write the perfect sonnet. I get many more thrills and chills from a kick-ass run-on sentence than I do from a traditional form handled with poise. I think it is only fair to myself as a writer and poet to be aware of this and to allow that awareness to inform my process.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Discovering a Purpose

Not everything begins with a clearly defined purpose. Such is the case with this journal/column/blog, whatever you want to call it. All I know is that I am setting out to write for a very limited audience, even though it is being published in the most public area there is. The potential for a huge audience is there, but extremely unlikely and perhaps even unwanted.

In writing this entry I have no expectation of readership or response. Maybe more than anything this is an exercise for myself in regular writing. I hope to jot down some record of my daily responses and reactions to what I encounter.

I hope that at least I can maintain my own interest level in this endeavor. If I don’t enjoy the process and some of the results, how could I ever inflict this stuff on anyone else, even it be the limited audience of my closest friends, family members, and church family.

My title “There Goes the Top of My Head” is a reference to Emily Dickenson’s wonderful criteria for recognizing the experience of encountering a true poem.

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever 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 ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

I know of no better description of the intense response to a successful poem. I would argue the same description can be applied to a successful sermon, a successful song, or a successful essay or novel. An intense reaction to stimuli always indicates that there is something surprising and true in that stimuli. So what I am hoping will happen as I write this (whatever-you-want-to-call-it) is that I will be able to share with you my intense response to stimuli. I hope that the way in which I share will entice you to investigate and encounter that stimuli yourself.

The anticipation is that I will write about poems, music, movies, sermons, Christian literature, and books in general. This does not exclude anything else that might make an impression me.

All I can say is that the intention is somewhat clearer to me now after having written today’s entry. Writing can help much to clarify your thoughts. Only by writing does one fully discover what it is one has to say.