Sunday, July 12, 2015


Romanesque arches,
Cathedral and Basilica of St Francis,
Santa Fe, New Mexico

“From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” 

--Wallace Stevens

 I heard this on a lecture while driving today.  The source of poetry (and all creative activity) seen in the disjunction between us and our location (in time and space, in history, in society) and ourselves.  We do not own the place in which we live; indeed, what do we own at all?  We are located within it and we are faced with the task of deciding how to relate to it.  We must create meaning in the context where we find ourselves.

How do we read "and, much more, not ourselves?"  What governs that syntactically?  Do we not live in ourselves?  Or do we not own ourselves? [Please do not take this in tangents about how we need to resist those who would presume to own us or tell us what to do with out bodies or our lives. I feel certain Stevens is writing about our relationship to ourselves.]

However we construe the poet's words, it should not be difficult to posit with him that we are somehow out of joint, out of place, not at home in our world (however broadly or narrowly defined) or in our own skin.  This is our basic human dilemma and "hard it is."  From this the poem springs.

Poiesis, the act of making or creating, is a Greek term from which we derive poem/poetry.  A huge chunk of what makes us human is the self-reflective ability to create.  We not only create tools but also complex language systems for communication.  We create physical structures and social customs.  At the core is our attempt to create meaning.

I suspect Stevens has this in mind.  We write poetry (and create narratives) to bring meaning from that which seems random, unconnected, and perhaps meaningless.  We witness a scene and instinctively build a story about it.  We crave beginnings, developments, and conclusions.

My poem, my creation, my invented narrative, my story is my attempt to make sense of the context of my life, how I relate to my place, this place I do not own.  I develop a sequential tale that tells me who I am and how I am related.  Together we develop collective narratives, the mythoi of our families, our clans, our neighborhoods, our schools, our circles of friends, our towns and nations.  And those collective constructs take on a life of their own and form another sort of place we do not own and we struggle to know how we relate, or do not, in those contexts.

Since I was in junior high school I have used poetry to explore my feelings.  No poem, however well crafted its meter and rhyme or however innovative its free form, can capture me or my feelings, but when I put words on paper I have a tool to approximate what I think is going on and I can look at it, react to it,  and take advantage of its framework to see what was unspoken or spoken amiss.

I have also written short stories and novels.  I love the characters in my novels and keep discovering things about them.  They all arise from within me more, I think, than they do from outer observation.  I see and hear people and their behaviors and some get written into the text but I have to own these figures as parts of myself.  Brave and noble parts, twisted and evil parts, broken and yearning parts, inspired and transcendent parts.  Perhaps as time goes by I will understand better how the novels make meaning out of life.  So far, I know they do and catch snippets of it.

A chuckle just arose.  In my early books I mention characters or situations that are left open-ended, but are actually spinning out threads for potential exploration in future books.  Remember how I mentioned above that we like a beginning, middle, and end?  It is hard to leave something unresolved.  Very hard.  We struggle with ambiguity and even more with not knowing.

My patio this evening during a thundershower

Here, for the moment, is my physical place and also my emotional place.  What meaning do I create?  What poem am I writing?  How do I tell the story of my journey to this moment?  This is fascinating because that narrative changes as my perspective alters.  My evaluation of past episodes can shift from "that was pleasant or positive" to "that, now that I think about it, was deadly."  And vice versa, as we recognize the gifts we received from difficult moments and persons.

Blessings on y'all as you compose the poems of your lives.

--the BB

1 comment:

Phil Freyder said...

You and Wallace Stevens are spot on, I think.

Another relevant issue is the nature of language, a set of arbitrary conventions; gender systems, for example: "desk" has no gender,"mesa" is feminine, "Schreibtisch" masculine; is the object named essentially feminine or masculine? Neither.

Inevitably, languages break up the reality they are used to describe into chunks; their creators and developers invent structures and lexis to reflect their experience of things and the value they attach to them. Japanese has 50 words to describe rain; "studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland, conclude that the languages have anywhere from 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow, tracks in snow, and conditions of the use of snow." English has just a few. If you live north of the Arctic Circle, your very survival may depend at times on a complex appreciation of varieties of snow. In an agrarian society (during the centuries before Japan became an industrial society), a complex knowledge of varieties of rain helps ensure good crop production.

Language helps us understand reality; it also fragments reality in ways that make it difficult, even impossible at times, to understand it in its essence, in its entirety. Stevens understood that.