Poet Behind the Poetry, CKP’s special blog series in honor of National Poetry Month, looks behind the scenes of a writer’s creative life.
I know a poem is finished when…I wake up the next morning and the sky is blue, no clouds, and the sun is its unabashed, golden, heart-stopping, but exhilarating, utterly wise, utterly ignorant self. Then the nightlong, compulsive, discouraging battle between permission and distrust goes away and becomes improbable memory.
My goal is the thing of a poem. There are always social needs to be met, expectations to be teased and surprised, challenged, respected, marked by willingness to share the entangled struggle with experience and motive. Still I want the arbitrary, oddly un-summoned ectoplasm of poem to be something like Earth feels seen photographed from outer space, a tiny ball, a scoop of sweet dessert, restless, resolutely blue-green, ice white, and implicitly teeming, or conversely, an earnest version of the chaste, candlelit Moon, for when the poem speaks from its arrogated darkness, hangs imperiously or with haunted, alienated majesty, over our pathetic, trembling little tables, I want it to bring something to the table almost tangible, something that justifies its claim on our uncertain, defective attention, that breaks the seas and lakes frozen within us, or the mind-forged manacles and leg shackles with which we stumble and stagger day after day.
Many a promising dawn turns into celestial muck. One dinosaur battling with tar after another, over-excited monsters, predecessors of us poets, gets lost foraging for light and water, clarity and simplicity, life’s necessities, and that includes me. My lifelong notion regarding Maine’s crystal-bright atmosphere is that its light is magnified by salt precipitated by the sun from the sea into the air, that its clarity is bold and tangy because glistening with brine. But it’s restraint that makes the desire implicit in people dancing delicate and rewarding. My lifelong favorite poem is Neruda’s “Melancholy inside Families,” translated by James Wright and Robert Bly. It begins mysteriously, I keep a blue bottle./Inside it, an ear and a portrait. But there’s a terrible storm in a dining room which the poem again and again tries to make sense of, and it concludes, roughly, maybe conclusively,
and around us there are expanses,
sunken factories, pieces of timer,
which I alone know
because I am sad, and because I travel,
and I know the earth, and I am sad.
Perhaps our aptitude for sorrow is pervasive because of its evolutionary advantages, though dogs, cats, and probably all domestic animals, share our personal and human, imagined monopoly on sadness, and our desire to avoid death. Maybe asteroids crash into Earth from intolerable loneliness. I don’t know when a poem is finished. Only that Believe would be a brother full/Of love, believe would be a friend, and that sometimes the sky is blue, and the sun shines. Today I woke up wondering if Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods and long-suffering husband of Aphrodite, was lame because when young he had stumbled into one of his fires, seized with his bare hands a red-hot horseshoe intended for Pegasus, so his hooves were protected, so they could strike sparks and set off stars, but Hephaestus burned himself badly, withered a leg. Later I took a look at the CavanKerry blog, and noted with pleasure Wanda S. Praisner’s invocation of Thomas Hardy, that Hephaestus of English poets, likewise long-suffering, “that a poet takes heed of nothing he does no feel.” What courage that gave me! I can’t write anyone else’s poems, only what I alone think and feel.
April 3, 2013