Monday, December 13, 2010

Being a Poet

[image:  Zendo at dawn]

I used to be able to do something I can't do now, or not yet, or not today. 

This was, say, ten years ago.  I'd get Tom off to work with his lunch, and go upstairs to my study.  This study had a lot not going for it:  it was the second story on a Cape Cod, the kind of room that has slanted walls and not much insulation between it and the roof.  And the heat and air-conditioning didn't reach it very well.  I don't remember having a problem with being cold - you can always dress warmly and run up and down stairs for more coffee - but in summer it got so hot up there!  Then I used a big floor fan, carefully placed so I wasn't in a draft, drafts make me ache, and later in the day stripped down to what I felt was essential clothing. But at 6:30 in the morning, the room was okay, even in high summer.

Sherlock would be up there with me, his chin laid on the keyboard, edging in aggressively, the way male cats can do, until I would find a line like this speeding across the page -
and nudge him back.

At this time my computer table was at the eastern window.  Moving it there was an inspiration that came to me after I finished my dissertation, which I wrote sentence by sentence in blood, facing the north wall.  Now, I was done with all that, and sat and watched the sun rise over Joyce's house every morning.  I miss that quite often now - why aren't houses always designed for the view?  As it grew light, and Joyce's willow tree became defined, a green mist in spring, neighbors would appear, walking their dogs.  I just sat there and - well, did nothing.  Waited to see what my mind brought forth, not understanding that this was a form of contemplation, a practice as important as meditation.  In this circumstance, my opened mind sometimes did my favorite thing, and let a poem step out.

Maybe, as the music critic Lester Bangs said,  "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."  Maybe, but I didn't feel that way then.  I felt that at its best poetry touched down on truth.  I believed that writing it was a serious calling, and moreover, the essence of my true self, and my gift.  This was before the internet raised its constant distractions, before it revealed how many hundreds, thousands, of serious poets there are, before the MFA industry really swung into gear, churning out year by year more thousands of people who wanted to earn their living teaching other people to write poetry; before I got to moving in local poetic circles, taking part in readings where I met a great many people who wrote to express themselves.

What happened to that person I was?  I could conjecture, but won't.  What I want to think about is how I gave myself during those years the gift of empty time, open time, every day.  My interest in Chinese medicine began back then.  I read now that -
[U]sing the time before dawn for spiritual practices . . . has been done in spiritual traditions around the globe. This is when Lung qi, the energy of inspiration, physical and spiritual, is strongest. This quiet and dark time of day (yin) is ideal for contemplation before the work of the day begins.
Lynn Maloney
It felt that way.

Looking back, I am amazed at the luxury of time and energy I had then, before both Tom and I were struck by progressive illness.  I felt compelled to take for myself these early-morning hours of uninterrupted time in which I studied poetry and did exercises and was often blessed by the emergence of a poem.  During these hours, my extensive lists of things to do around the house, for church, for the Buddhist groups, did not apply. 

This fall, when I went to Grailville for the annual Amasamy retreat, I experienced it again - that open space. It still existed below all this.  It is so easy to forget.

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