Friday, October 23, 2009

So...what are your sources?

"What is really demanded, what readers truly hunger for, is engagement with the full contemplative power of the poet’s mind and heart."

Lately, I’ve taken a real interest in the history and theory of both metrical and “open form” poetry. I recognize this is not every one's cup of tea. Perhaps it's just a tick of mine left over from my foray into academe. Because like most people my real learning derives from my experience of poems themselves, read by myself at home, often aloud to my wife, or by poets themselves at readings. That, most of us agree, is how it should be.

The underlying assumption here is that good writing, or good reading for that matter, is not a purely technical or theoretical matter, but relational: whatever a poet’s technical mastery of metaphor and line or the reader's capacity for metaphysics, what is really demanded, what readers truly hunger for, is engagement with the full contemplative power of the poet’s mind and heart.

That presupposes, of course, delivery of same by the poet. It also introduces a conundrum about human nature revealed over a century and a half ago by the great American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Men," he said (I'm guessing when Margaret Fuller was out of the room), "imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” The same, it seems to me, might be said about the writing of poetry. As a poet, your mind and heart will be discovered in spite of whatever else you may intend or wish to reveal, and that in as much as the practice of writing poems is thought to confer an aura of sophistication upon the writers of poems, true character, thought and feeling – or lack of same - will out.

Still, we are not pawns even to ourselves. To use a term I acknowledge has been somewhat overused lately, poets, like most people, have the capacity for “mindfulness”, for creating something above their patterns and habitual ways of creating, i.e. increasing consciousness of what they’re doing, thinking and feeling as poets, and then seizing control. It can't be an easy task, undoing ways of thinking and working that have become essential to our being. Still, if it could be done and the results found to be exciting for both the poet and the reader, then it might be worth incorporating into the poet's method.

These things, it seems to me, are not simply a function of talent or even of personality, but of education, philosophical direction and commitment.

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