I don't often blog. Plenty of people out there who can do it far better than I. But lately, cruising around myriad poet's web-pages and reading their work, I've been getting curious about where people are coming from, what drives the whole need to write, as well as what resources we draw on, consciously and unconsciously, to express our thoughts. There are big obvious answers to these questions, and others that defy my attempts to pin them down. Do we write for ourselves, for someone in particular, or for reasons hidden even from ourselves in places we're attempting to access with words? If these types of ideas also occassionally puzzle or intrigue you, I'd be interested in hearing from you here. I'd also like to know which poets people actually read, whose words come into their minds at odd moments, which poem first made them think---'" I wish I'd written that."
I'm not big on self-analysis, but I'll try to answer my own questions first for encouragement. My answer is pretty much 'all of the above.' I think we write for ourselves because we're compelled to but also write always to the ideal imaginary listener, the one who will understand us, complete the cycle of tale to teller. Also because we have to try to access the things we're writing about to disarm them, put them in some sort of usable form. And I don't think we have much choice in the matter, except in how we pick our tools.
In one of my November, 2010 Off the Shelf Archive posts, I said that Wallace Steven's Farewell to Florida was one of three poems I felt had most influenced my worldview. This work is probably the most intellectually coherent and respectable of my influences. I first read it in my late twenties, at a time when I was experiencing a very similar event, and attempting myself to articulate it. I know I try for his stylistic, fluent and cerebro-sensual imagery often in my work still.
Now to embarrass myself totally, risk exposing myself as fundamentally unserious,
and give up the other two.
and give up the other two.
I came across the very first poem I wish I'd written, Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, in a volume of a kid's encyclopedia called Childcraft, in the one devoted to tales, poems and stories. It had a florid illustration of "Bess the landlord's daughter/ the landlord's black-eyed daughter/ plaiting a dark red loveknot into her long black hair..." I was enthralled with the story, the character of the enigmatic Highwayman, the slimy ostler Tim, the relentless evil of the Redcoats,--and totally identified with Bess, her heaving bosoms bound to the bedpost, her finger crawling toward the trigger strapped below her breast which embodied her death and the only hope of life for her flamboyant, feckless lover. There's some excuse for this; the imagery, the archetypal quality of the ballad-ish form, the fact that I was eight years old...and rereading it now, some vestigial small girl within still gets a bit of a shiver, "Look for me by moonlight/I'll come to thee by moonlight/though hell should bar the way..." even now after all the countless recorded renditions and performances of wildly varying quality it still has that tease of something more glimpsed out of the corner of the mind's eye, something unexplainable, wild and eternal hidden within the everyday. Who is it I'm waiting for, willing to die for?
I still say it's a damn fine poem in its way, despite the chronic overuse of exclamation points.
"Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere—"
Ulalume, by Edgar Allen Poe, is the third of my three seminal poems. I read it in high school English class, and to the high school me it had everything: drama, verbal excess of the most attractive purple kind interspersed with totally stunning interludes of pure description of the landscape of the imagination. Not to mention mystery, and the obligatory obsession with death teenagers for some reason always revel in, as well as some of the most haunting rhymes ever devised by man or woman, sober or otherwise. I can still recite it line by line from memory, and memory is not exactly my most reliable quality these days. "It was night in the lonesome October/of my most imemmorial year/It was hard by the dim lake of Auber/ in the misty mid-region of Weir.../In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir..." The man could set a stage, I'm tellin ya. And bring down the curtain: "Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her/ and...conquered her scruples and gloom/ and we passed to the end of the vista/but were stopped by the door of a tomb.../ I said what is written sweet sister/ on the door of this legended tomb// she replied..." ..well go figure. As a poem re-read now in the cold light of adulthood, it has all Poe's flaws as well as his virtues, but I know I use this style of building tension through repetition and rhythmic progression all the time unconsciously.
If you take these poems in sequence, you can probably get at 90% of what I'm always working towards when I feel compelled to write, and the melodramatic urges I'm cursed with trying to discipline, as well as the tools I use to try to get there, but...
There's more to it, of course. There always is.
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Image: Ulalume, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain or Public domain], via wikimedia commons.