Thursday, June 11, 2009

Listening for Poems

I've been re-reading a collection of essays on poetry edited by Daniel Tobin and Pimone Triplett titled Poet's Work, Poet's Play. In Eleanor Wilner's contribution ("The Closeness of Distance, or Narcissus as Seen by the Lake") is this assertion: "Anyone who has ever written a real poem knows that the surprise of its significant form seems to arise in an odd in-between state of deepened attention when the will--which is the hammer of the ego--is relinquished in favor of some other shaping faculty, a passionate mindfulness....In the act of imaginative remove, the intellect serves not the ego but the life it illuminates." Yes, I thought when I read that. I've often been aware of that state when listening to a "real poem" unfold. There's the sense of being there/not there, of sensing things from a different perspective than usual. I "wake up" an hour later and think, Where have I been, and where did this piece of writing come from?

This is obviously not a startlingly new idea--Frost expressed it with his metaphor of the poem as a piece of ice on a hot griddle, finding its own unpredictable way as it melts. But for me, when this state occurs it is almost transcendent, partly because it comes on unpredictably but more because I experience a melding of intense awareness and the sense of not being completely in control--it is more like listening, taking notes from some source that is partly inner and partly outer, than it's like "saying something" that I'd consciously been thinking about.

Here's a poem I wrote in response to an assignment at the last residency for the MFA I've recently finished.

Ecce Homo
--Gerard Douffet, Flemish, about 1623

Behold the man, his forehead running blood,
halo hovering, as if it might ascend
the way they say he did after three days.
The man looks tired. His eyes upturned, he leans
toward Pilate on his left, as if about
to offer him a deal. The painter's lit
his face so we can guess just what he feels,
the mortal suffering he knows is coming.

But does he know what's coming in his name,
the wars, the knives and retributions?
No matter. The Bible says it was all planned
for him, and for us. They'll nail him up.
He'll taste the taunts, the vinegar, the spear,
and then the bloody centuries begin.

The assignment was to visit the Speed Museum of Art in Louisville, then write a poem in response to some piece of art there. Without really thinking why at the time, I was drawn to Douffet's depiction of the scene when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd before the crucifixion. I took a few notes about the painting, then left the building, sat on a bench outside, and began work on the poem. Within half an hour I had the poem almost as it appears here, with only a couple of word changes.

While it might not be wise to try to analyze too rigorously how the poem came about in that way, I can say that my fascination with the sonnet form and the blank verse line provides an instinctive shape for me to fill when stepping into a poem. I've written a lot of poems that more or less take that shape, so I almost don't have to count lines, etc. as I go. But maybe more importantly, I think it's my long argument with Christianity that gave me the poem--not only drew me to that particular painting among the many in the museum, but provided the entry into the material, the way of "translating" the message of the painting into the language of my ambivalence.

Surely that too is a part of this almost magical process of listening for a poem--the idea that saving up, mulling over, images and ideas lets pressure build, so that when the "right" impetus appears, the poem is in some way already shaped, and that sensation of the ice on the stove top takes over. For a little while, the usual way of apprehending the world is sublimated or suspended, and that other, mysterious force, what Wilner calls "passionate mindfulness," puts the poem on the page.


  1. I love this post, Russ. (and your poem). I wish I could more easily get into that sliding ice state...sometimes I can, but more often my left brain sits on my right (write) so that the poem gets didactic (overly so I mean) instead of luminous. What I want is feel as though I'm not writing but taking dictation from the gods.

  2. Russ, It's wonderful to be able to read your poem, Ecce Homo, finally, having heard you read it in Lville. It's such a fine poem. And I very much enjoyed reading this post--your last thought, that part of the process of listening for a poem is the saving up and mulling over of images and ideas, articulates simply and intelligently why and how just one poem can take a lifetime to write. Thank you! Cathy Nickola