Fire and Blood of Poetry
KEEPING THE FIRE ALIVE...
Mediocribus esse poetis
“Neither men, nor gods, nor booksellers allow
So declared Horace in his Ars Poetica. Keeping this charge from one of the fathers of poetry in mind, how do we breathe life and fire into our work to make it shine brighter, sing more sweetly, and move with greater rhythm? How do we keep our work vital, energetic, and original? How do we write poems that shimmer and dance seductively?
We can begin by deciding to live more fully from our hearts. To live from our hearts is to live from our centers, where our true life is, the home of our real voice, and the source of our fire. If we commit fully to be in the experience of living it will be a commitment to our art, connecting us more deeply to the people and world around us. This passion in us will, in turn, emerge organically in our work. Mary Oliver who possesses a burning ardor for living and for the natural world infuses her poetry with this intense passion:
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
and they open
and all day
the flowers bend their bright bodies...
Do you love this world?
Oliver, wholly enchanted by the wonder and beauty around her, creates a kind of magic in her poem that allows us to rediscover the world. She looks at nature with such freshness and a sense of awe that we almost feel innocent again. The “terror beneath” however, is a sharp reminder of the ever-present paradox in lifethat life’s fragility is tied tremulously to its beauty.
As poets we have to dare to be original, to be innovative. Being too immersed in the culture will make our work conformist. So we need to step back, take a long, hard look at the way we are in the world, and pay respect to our individuality. From that place we may be able to write something surprising.
Incorporating the element of surprise into our poems can have a powerful effect on our readers. The following poem proceeds quietly with great clarity, simplicity, and seeming predictability . . .
Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed
Wan Chu, my adoring husband,
With direct, simple language Jones builds word and image so that the shift at the end leaves the reader slightly off balance.
All the universal themes in life have been written about so much that it’s risky to handle a well-worn subject. It takes guts to step into the arena and deliver work with a new twist. Guts are needed to drop the old perspective and to step confidently into a new attitude. Poets have to do this in their own lives though in order to do it in their workshed their habitual skin and be willing to inhabit new clothing.
The approach to love and sex in poetry has often been one-dimensional. Love is frequently portrayed romantically and sex often pruriently or with a Hollywood sense of fantasy. In her poem, “First Sex”, though, Sharon Olds writes with such honesty and detail about her first sexual encounter that the overall effect is the opposite of pornographic. She creates, instead, a picture of passionate innocence and physical pleasure, untainted by guilt or sexual exploitation. She stays in the moment so deliberately and unflinchingly that the poem’s power emerges as we enter its real humanness.
I knew little, and what I knew
Ultimately all poems celebrate life, whether they contain negative emotions or are inspired by awe. So if poets live more deeply, more vulnerably, more responsively to the individual moments in life then their poems stand a good chance of dazzling and awakening the reader to the underlying mystery and miracle of ordinary life. If we are in the flow of life we will be able to recognize and celebrate these moments of beauty and affirmation. The following poem is an example of how one poet’s ordinary day was suddenly transformed into something truly exquisite:
Maybe it’s Ian. Maybe walking with him
Finally, fostering curiosity in and for the things of the physical world as well as delving into the larger metaphysical concerns will serve to fan the flames of poetic creativity. Poets who ask questions in their poems keep a dialogue with their readers alive. In “Sunday Morning” Wallace Stevens openly queries the value of traditionally held religious beliefs and invites his readers to listen to other possibilities:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
So, if we have the guts to ask questions from our hearts, honor our individual voice, and add a little dab of defiance to our lives we will burn and sparkle and our work will embody that same intensity. We may wake the reader from sleep to the actual world of the moment and remind all of us that: “Everything comes and goes. Only strong art is eternal.” (Theophile Gautier, “L’Art”)