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Hearing Voices . . .

A day or two after our meeting to discuss her manuscript, a client sent me an email, part of which I excerpt (with permission) below:

“I read some Mordecai Richler this morning . . . (He is) masterful at creating scene and character. I promptly decided to put my pen away – forever.”

I understand the frustration. There have been times when, after reading Neruda or Hemingway, Garcia Marquez or Morrison, Oliver or Auden — the list is endless — I’ve wondered, What am I doing? Who the heck do I think I am to think I can write? I am a fraud! 

But the truth is, reading the work of good writers, listening to their rich, melodic voices, can be a source of inspiration. They sing to us. Soothe us. Provoke us. Ignite us.

The more you pore over their exquisitely sculpted sentences and stanzas, the more you listen to their commanding voices, the more you’ll begin to recognize and appreciate the way good writers create surprising and provocative combinations of words. How they break convention in effective, engaging ways. You take it all in and allow it to ferment, to work mysteriously in the deepest, quietest recesses of your unconscious mind. In doing so, you create an environment conducive to developing your own writing style.

It’s an inexplicable process — the way our singular voice emerges from the choir of the masters. A kind of magic, really. Not to say this alchemical transformation occurs without effort. You’ve got to read — a lot. You’ve got to write — a lot.  You’ve got to sit at the desk pounding out paragraphs and poems. In time, you’ll find your own way to caress the language. Bend it to your will. You’ll begin to hear your own voice with greater clarity and confidence. Confidence that you, too, have an inspiring song to offer the world.

* * *

Speaking of voices . . .  

Mary Oliver died last week. She was 83. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, she was a highly-acclaimed and dearly beloved American poet. Perhaps the country’s best-selling poet of the twentieth century. Her voice, which certainly inspired me over the years, was and will forever remain clear and authentic.

Nature was her muse. And it is perhaps because of her insistence on writing clear, straightforward poetry steeped in the beauty and simplicity of the natural world, that she was sometimes ridiculed by the critics. Not enough edge to her poems, some said. A poetry lacking in the abstruse requirements of the self-anointed intellectual class, perhaps.

It is easy to understand how a poetry infused with the metaphor of Nature rings hollow in today’s intensely urbanized world. A world that seemingly grows ever more tone deaf to the rhythms and rhymes of the earth. We once considered going into the mountains and forests as a sort of homecoming. A returning to the source. We found solitude, and sometimes solace there. We could experience a genuine spiritual renewal in the midst of the grasses and trees and sweet-watered streams flowing under a cobalt sky. It is from this realm that Mary Oliver’s poetry derives its strength, its wisdom, its empathy for the human condition.

But our culture’s current relationship with nature has less to do with the spiritual and more to do with the material. Nature has now become little more than another Instagram opportunity, a stage for adrenaline seekers and social media influencers whose principal aim in relating to Nature is to monetize her. It is little wonder then that a voice like Oliver’s no longer seems relevant to modern conversation. Instead, critics of her work disparagingly classify it as overly sentimental. Simplistic. Banal.

To those of us who still regard Nature as a place to both seek and often find spiritual significance in life, Mary Oliver’s poetry, her sublime voice, will always provide an intelligence and compassionate insight that could only come from her profound connection to the woodlands and rivers she called home.            

Mary Oliver, a voice worth getting to know. A voice worth hearing — over and over again.

On Poetry . . .”Getting it.”

This week’s post was intended to include a few more thoughts on the writing process. However, yesterday I had the good fortune to engage in conversation with an aspiring young writer that resulted in my deciding to reflect on something else.

“I don’t really like poetry.”
“Yeah, poetry . . . I just don’t get it.”

I’ve often heard these sentiments expressed by friends of mine, some of them accomplished writers. Writers of prose. It’s a familiar knock on the genre. It’s the notion that the poet’s meaning is unintelligible, so steeped in difficult metaphor as to be inaccessible to anyone but the most studied, highly-evolved individuals.

And in truth, accessibility is often an issue. I sometimes wonder if there is a conspiracy among certain academic poets to create an exclusive club, membership in which is granted only to those who freight their poems with unnecessary complexity and overwrought metaphor. Poetry need not be written that way. And, thankfully, most of it isn’t.

Still, you can get wrapped up in the academic analysis of poetry. You can attempt to dissect the more esoteric and arcane aspects of the prosody in order to “get it” on an intellectual level. But, ultimately, it’s not about “getting it” in that way.

It’s really more to do with “feeling it.” It’s about relaxing into the imagery; allowing the words to massage the soul. Does the poem make you feel? How does it make you feel? Does it make you think? Does it transport you, if only for a moment or two, to a place of calm abiding? Does it invite you to engage in the present moment, or reflect on something in your past? If so, then you really do get it. And the good news is you don’t need to hold an MFA in Creative Writing or be a specialized critic of poetry to experience the revelation.

Poetry is hard enough to write. So, those of us who work in that realm might as well endeavor to make it understandable. Or perhaps more accurately, relatable. A healthy dose of metaphorical challenge is fine, desirable even. But in the process of writing a poem I endeavor to create both meaning and space. Space in which the reader is free — encouraged, even — to bring their own life experience to the moment. I strive to write poems that express the human condition. It’s a way of connecting with people in a nurturing way. That is what we writers, working in any genre, ought to always keep in the forefront of our minds: how best to make an authentic, heartfelt connection with our readers.

Thoughts on Process . . .

When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s “recipe for writing” suggests that when we’re in a funk, when our writing is somehow blocked, we need to quit trying to force it. Instead, he advises we let go of the process for a bit. Let the mind wander. Exercise a quiet, steady patience. And then act when the muse (the Daemon) returns.

This letting go can take many forms. It is, I suspect, unique to each individual writer. And it isn’t necessarily as pleasant a process as we might envision.

For many, like me, the practice of drifting, waiting and obeying is often ugly. Oh sure, I have — rarely — experienced that blissful experience of sitting at my desk for much of the day gazing out the window, marveling at the way the morning’s sparkling hoarfrost clings to strands of barbed wire. Watching the low arc of the sun traverse the pale winter sky, stretching the forest’s blue-black shadows across the freshly drifted snow.  My mind drifting through the silence. Waiting patiently for inspiration. And then it comes.  A poem is born. (Or at least a draft.)

More often, the process unfolds — unravels, actually — like this: I sit down at the desk to begin a new poem. I scribble down a line or two on the blank page and then pause. Nothing more comes. I stare out the window for a while. Nothing. So, I go outside to split wood, then return after an hour or so to jot down another line or two. More staring out the window. More nothing. Then it’s back outside to wield the axe. Or perhaps walk to town to check my PO box. Upon returning to my desk I review what little I’ve written and promptly tear up the page. Before I know it, the day is gone with nothing to show. My wife comes home from her work and asks how my day went. I say it was a total waste. And I rant and rave about the fact that I’m kidding myself. My writing sucks. I’m a fraud. Blah. Blah. Blah. She calmly looks at me (maybe rolls her eyes) and says, “Yes dear.” And then I storm back outside — angrier now because she wouldn’t buy into my riff — to split more wood, all the while feeling sorry for myself. Hating the world. Telling myself nothing matters.

And then the next day, I wake up and, without understanding the why and how of it, write a decent line. And then another. Eventually a poem. And the world seems right again.

“Drift, wait, obey.”

Worth considering when the writing just won’t come.

Worth considering, too, before that next tweet is sent winging into an already fraught world.

Why Write Poetry?

I employ the structure of poetry because it helps in the distillation process. So much of my writing is about coming to terms with something — a complex event, an unsettled state of being, or asking a question for which I have no answer. It can be hard to get to the essence of thoughts, feelings, doubts. But, somehow I can get there — or at least get closer — by creating a boundary of sorts, a vessel to help contain the energy lest it dissipate or overwhelm. That’s the value of utilizing specific poetic forms, like a sonnet, a haiku, and so on. Strange as it may sound, that requisite discipline can be liberating. Working within a rigid structure often helps me accept and even celebrate the insecurity arising from uncertainty, and the equivocal nature of everything.

— From an interview with Linda Collison. Click here to read the entire interview.