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SIGNS OF LIFE

 Friday April 14, 2006
 4:41 am, and so on.

Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
 —Leonard Cohen

In days of yore, any poems I wrote generally unfolded from bus trips, cafés, plane-trips, depression/anxiety and relationship collapse. I still sometimes write poetry from those places.

But where once I thought the human condition was somehow curable, I eventually came to understand that occasional despair and misery is both temporary yet inevitable. How we understand it is the point.

From that realization, a lot of my poems started to come forth in a sort of free-form expression of devotion. Recently, I’ve tamed the free-form, and started working a little more with rhyme and metre.

Poetry has been good to me, and so I want to humbly dabble in why I think it might be good for you. This isn’t proselytizing, because one doesn’t convert to poetry. Poetry is within the human entity. And choosing not to exercise that truth doesn’t result in an eternal banishment to hell, just a temporary neglect of the soul.

I’m not talking about stuffy, indecipherable, serious poetry. In fact to call any of my poetry “serious” would be an insult to serious poets. This is fine, because no one should aspire to being a serious poet. Serious poets tend to kill themselves. A serious poet is akin to a carefree henchman or a pacifist boxer.

I’m saying just light up the lamp and write, because it will change you. Do whatever you have to do to get ink on a napkin, or graphite on a page, or a kiss on the cheek of your life.

BIG FAT LIAR

Here’s a quote from a massively rotund and unbelievably prolific Englishman, G.F. Chesterton, who wrote in his book Orthodoxy, the reason why poetry is so perfect for you:

“Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits…”

That’s well put. I wager poetry cannot only inspire the human “head into the heavens,” if only for a glimpse, but the heavens into our hearts. For what we really want is enough emotion, love and devotion to melt not only a gorgeous metaphor, but somehow dance with the daily mass of life’s weight.

So for a 294-pound turn-of-the-century Brit (Chesterton, not me) living in an empire that was still arrogantly and brutally making finite that infinite sea of other cultures, his observation is astute. Unfortunately, Chesterton also put out some less-than-infinite thoughts about certain cultures he believed would be better off outside his version of a Christian Europe.

Now poets must be careful stating simple-minded finite lines, because tyrants love finite ideas, and are known to co-opt them and use them to encourage the bludgeoning of those who…whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Before I (once again) get out of control and burst into an essay about empirical wrongdoings and Chesterton’s shortcomings, let me drift back again to poetry.

Yes, poetry. Now the infinite sea of…

No, wait a second. What is this human addiction to diatribe?

Maybe it’s more than just outrage at yet another wrongdoing. Perhaps, in the shallow, slightly polluted depths of my own reflection, I’m also feeling a little alone and powerless and envious of any writer who at least has the comfort of, say, a solid resting place in Bartlett’s Book of Quotations, as I’m sure Chesterton has.

Maybe I need to write a little more poetry to understand what I might be projecting. Wouldn’t that be interesting, projection-man?

I write this line with hopes to see
What on earth goes on inside of me

Because what does go on inside of me? Okay, the truth. I do know a little about the British Empire, perhaps enough to burst into a diatribe. In fact I just wrote and directed a documentary that featured some of the history of Uganda. Not pretty.

But G. F. Chesterton? I don’t know a thing about ol’ Chesty. Heck, I just went on-line minutes ago, liked what I read, and then stuck him in this piece to appear as if he’s one of the many auteurs I quote off the cuff at cocktail parties. I did it to appear cultured, witty, profound, learned, perhaps verging on gifted. Large-brained, even. Anything but the fella I am, lost in the mystery and ignorance like everybody else.

There, it’s out. So what?

I did it in hopes that if I convinced you of my brilliance, I could crack you open to believe in your your brilliance, your mystery, your poetry. Okay?

But I can’t control that. It’s up to you. It’s up to the gods.

And anyway, who the hell cares about fame, adulation, respect, big money and Bartlett’s Book Of Quotations when we are together, here, now, you and me, treading water upon the infinite sea, waiting for the cosmos to birth another poem?

Maybe it’ll be yours.

BIG FAT LOVER

Just stop and breathe and think for a minute about all the love you wish you could taste, give, believe in. All the love you’ve forgotten you have, and have been given. All the beauty you wish would last forever—you wish you could experience. And all those unfortunate souls who just can’t seem to see it. Now don’t you want to write a poem? For them. For you.

Come on, do it for the person sitting next to you in the café, on the bus, at the kitchen table. The stranger. The old person. The baby. Start handing them out. Start a cult.

A cult of poetry, where all we see becomes a poem. It won’t help the paycheck, but who needs that second car anyway? And with poetry, there’s no big responsibility. Take it from Salman Rushdie:

“A poet’s job is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

Okay, but he was a bad-ass poet. That mo’fo had a fatwa slapped on his head by militant Muslims who, I might add, are not known for their sense of humour—or their poetry. The point is, a poet can write whatever a poet wants. And if you don’t want to show your poems to anyone, you can take refuge in Philip Larkin’s keen observation:

“Poetry is nobody’s business but the poet’s, and everybody else can fuck off.”

Anyway, back to me. Some of my poems are literally written in three or four minutes—in the time it took to read that last paragraph. I did two or three a day like that for over a year. My beautiful friend Gisèle typed them all up—hundreds of pages—deciphering penmanship that resembled the marks left on a door by a rabid cat trying to get back into the house (it probably also resembled my desire to figure out not only who I am and what on earth is going on, but why when there’s so much beauty in the world, do we tend to make suffering the main ticket to godliness, virtue and a worthwhile life?).

I want joy! Don’t you want joy? Write a poem about it. I know you want to.

I did these free-form poems I told you about as part of what is called in India one’s sadhana (daily practice), which for me includes mantra and silent meditation (I know, there goes my credibility, as I now appear as mad as that rabid cat). Hey, Jack, I’m not here to get stuck in the vibration of the nightly news, okay? I want poetry. I want to sail on the infinite sea.

The practice of writing poetry helps to remind me of things far more important than myself and Bartlett’s Book Of Quotations, which is mostly for old, dead Brits anyway. Some very witty dead Brits, mind you.

But back to the poems you are soon going to birth. What technique to use? No technique is fine. Write some words down. Look at them. Add some more. Feel some more. In the last year, on a suggestion from a friend, I’ve used much more rhyme and metre to practice confining the form and then seeing where those constraints lead the creative outflow. Ironically, sometimes constraints give more freedom—like a vow or a discipline.

Anyway, for now I find form helps to make me define the subject and conclusion of the poem—say one I wrote recently called Money, or another called Gossip, or one (of many) last year called Wild Devotion. A well-defined poem can be deeply gratifying—it’s a secluded beach from which to watch the infinite sea, and gaze upon a changing sky. And that sky will change. When it does?

Write a poem.

A pulse shows your heart is ticking. A walk shows your body is still kicking. But a poem shows your soul is awakening. It’s freeing. It can be quick. It can be re-worked. That’s the thing about poetry. Writing books and films can be laborious. But poetry? Immediate gratification with limited energy loss. Tantra with a pen. A discovery without anyone getting hurt. A splash into the infinite sea.

Okay, I don’t know what poetry is. But whatever poetry is, I bow to it with endless gratitude. Poetry reminds me that life is in metaphor, in flux, an ongoing dance of random and non-random tensions, of temporary and eternal tensions. Granted, the partners who cut into the dance can often not be stopped or controlled—nor can their leaving. That’s where poetry comes in. The beauty of the poetry I manage to scribble in their presence defines who I am.

So do me a favour, before your life becomes co-opted by tyrants and television, try a little poetry. What are you afraid of? In an un-serious way I’m totally serious. You’re so beautiful! Let the paper know. Let your heart believe it. Just put one word in front of the other. Think of it as physiotherapy for the soul. Before long you’ve got a haiku. Then a sonnet. Then a rambling epic. Now cut the epic back to the haiku so people don’t keep their distance at parties.

Put that poem in your heart, write it on the highway at rush hour, put it on the tip of your tongue, sneak it into memos at the office, whisper it in your love-making—even in your love-making at the office. It soothes the hardened shell, it kicks at the edges of the finite sea, it dreams of non-beginnings that never end. Your poetry celebrates the mystery of the universe you are, the desire that is you.

So if you’re afraid of that, just step away from the paper and drop the pen on the floor. The world has you all boxed in, and the box is getting smaller. But if you’re not in the mood for somebody else’s box…? Write a poem about it. You’ll see what I mean.

I have never started a poem yet whose ending I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

—Robert Frost

 

Photo: Chris Wayatt

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack