David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter I

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What paths will you follow into your unconscious self in order to begin to answer the questions about how to become a poet?

Every morning that the sun rises in the east is another morning that modernity’s interest in the poetic imagination has yet to reach its full flower. The pressures of everyday life seem intent on vaporizing the images and words of your dreams along with the terrors of your nightmares. The pressures of everyday life seem uninterested in your lusts and memories and all that makes up the deep reservoir of your creative mind, including the unconscious little dwellings of fantasy and insanity that lurk beneath your daily existence.

It’s as if just sustaining the tribulations — and, yes, the joys too — of domestic and family life or tending to your (even good) job or navigating all this (amazing) technology where the newest upgrade yet again promises an even better experience all conspire to drain the wells of your poetic imagination.

Given how your daily life can careen between needs and necessities, from nurturing your inner life or raising children to enjoying friendships, from shopping for lightbulbs to reheating dinner, from doing the laundry to saving for a trip — and even given the times when you find yourself caring seriously for the ill, elderly, or young in your life  — you know all too well that the rampaging exteriors of the modern world seem intent on smothering the inner life of your poetic self whenever and wherever it can.

Of course it can’t. Your inner life is inextinguishable.

So to become a poet in the modern world is to trust that a poem is one of the essential messages you send right back at modernity. A poem is a means to define modernity. And it’s your poems that remind us not only of our individuated ecstasies and trials but also of the shared and granular images and stories of human experience.

But a very curious battle does take place, no? An ancient and noble battle, yes? We all sense it.

For one thing, accessing your poetic imagination doesn’t require a password — and neither will there be an upgrade next year. For another thing, your inner life subverts the turbulences of modernity, and the open fields of your imagination will not be fenced in by the onslaught of day to day existence.

On the contrary, your poetic imagination represents a compassionate and cultivated defense against the brute forces of modern living. Because, as if on cue, as if also at war with modernity — as if in the very moments that daily life seems most successful at crushing you as a creative individual — some odd aroma will trick your true poet’s self to embrace the imaginary along with the inventive forms and auras of language, of rhythm, of literary echoes, and of patterns and orders of the words and images that comprise your poems.

It could be that what inspires your imagination to pull free from modernity’s buzz is but a glimpse of light on the horizon that suddenly reminds you, in the most raw ways you feel and know that existence exists, of a kind of sacred space elsewhere in your life and in the whirlwinds of your mind.

When you are vigilant and alert to accessing flashes of the imaginary mind, you are putting yourself into a position to quickly locate your poetic self even in the bustle of daily life.

That’s not all. It could be there comes along, suddenly, some unexpected scrap of language to pull you from the daily grind. Could be you make a quick turn of your head to lead your imagination, again suddenly, to become alert to the angle of a single blade of grass or to the warmth of fresh bread or to the feeling of, say, lovelornness that you detect in the slant of falling rain. You could be reminded of the suffering of others, the oddities of manners, the memory of a difficult or pleasurable conversation, the gait of an old friend. These, and so many other ways, if you remain alert, can inspire your poetic life and bring new breath to your imaginative heart. The same goes with ancient literature and history and contemporary street noise, with the sounds of ice clinking and the laughter of a child, with political debate and scientific discovery. Because, with little resistance, all of the experiences you have across the continuum of modernity ricochet into your poetic mind. With little resistance you are sent deeper into the familiar and yet also sometimes alien world of your unconscious self around which you strive to construct a dignified nimbus to protect your writing life from the ordinary scrums of living.

Modernity taketh, and modernity giveth, too.

That’s why, in the realm of the private you — the poetic you — are both desire and fear, no? In the realm of the private you— the poetic you — are both troubling and glorious discoveries of yourself. In the realm of the private you— the poetic you — are fresh perceptions of our shared human story.

“2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped / out in the middle of the plain,” begins Tomas Transtromer’s poem, “Tracks,” from his 1958 collection, Secrets on the Way.

In the context of the poet’s journey, you can read the poem as if Transtromer’s train represents modernity’s destruction of the promise and separateness of the spacious mind because modern life has, as I say, uneven or little interest in the poetic imagination.

With its replication of passing time, routine, connections of geography, and repeated patterns and cycles of motion, the train of modernity in Robin Fulton’s translation here is an emblem of banality, on the one hand, and a consequence of industrialism on the other.

2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when someone has gone into a dream so deep
he’ll never remember having been there
when he comes back to his room.

As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm.

When Transtromer’s train has “stopped,” it permits the imaginary mind suddenly to escape and to initiate a creative, inventive response inside the realm of poetic discovery. The mind flees deep into the essence of imagination under the safety of “bright moonlight” — which is one of the universal, reflected lights that human beings share across continents and time.

The poem concludes:

The train is standing quite still.
2 a.m.: bright moonlight, few stars.

This is a dangerous way to exist, is it not? It’s dangerous to attempt to live permanently in the poetic realm you carry inside your foundational being, dangerous to attempt to live permanently outside of the social fabric of the train of modernity, and also dangerous that you must wait for the sudden stoppage of the train in order to feel or observe or contemplate what it is you’re experiencing in the depth of your moonlit imagination.

But it’s a danger worth facing in the temporary sphere of time you use to feel, invent, reflect, and write.

FetusTranstromer’s images of sleep and illness are collusive, too. They are perverse sorts of invitations for the imaginary self to embrace solitude and to become inspired. They invite you to be alert to the compulsions, disturbances, and even stillnesses of your inner existence.

But always there’s the pain of returning to the modern world (“comes back to his room”) and recognizing the “swarm” of the delusions of everyday existence. Always there’s the pain, but also the necessity, of departing from the creative realm and reconnecting with the communities inside your daily experience.

Because, to be fair, you would not want everyday life to dissolve. Not that it could, I mean. “Fancy cannot cheat so well as she is fam’d to do / Deceiving elf,” John Keats cautions in “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Everyday existence then — from the cram of traffic to the pile of laundry — is present always even when you are entranced in the fantasy realm of your poetic self. Your everyday existence is always ready to start up again and to continue on the track to its next station stop.

But by slowing down your everyday “train,” by stopping it in its track at scheduled or unscheduled station stops, you create a beautiful transaction between the crisis of your imagination and the routines of daily life.

Therefore I’m willing to trust what Transtromer assures me, that there will be “bright moonlight” in the realm of the imaginary. There will be enough light to see by for a short time at least before I must return to living art of preparing my mind and imagination for the next station stop.

When you are preparing to write and when you are writing, you are developing this initiation to be and become a poet. You are stopping the worldly train in its track and being alert to what is present in your imaginary self. In this way your imaginary self can look both inward toward the complications of consciousness, memory, and fantasy, and outward toward the complications of living in a raging modern world.

Every time you stop the train you are, in both the act and the process of writing a poem, re-initiating this dream consciousness. Deepening into creative dream or deepening into the glorious illness of the creative urge reaffirms your ancient role as a poet.

You may need help, for sure. You may not be able to do it alone. It’s essential to look for a mentor wiser and more experienced than you. You may find guidance from poems composed before you understood your own calling to become a poet. You may find guidance from fellow poets or from individuals unrelated to the art of writing poems. You may find guidance from anywhere you please, especially where the images of life are understood to be shared.

In short, you would be wise to seek guidance from those who have gotten off the train and gotten back onto the train many times. These forms of assistance are continual and always available to you. Guidance is soulful. It can help you clarify the mysteries of your creative mind.

But do not ask, “Does every poem constitute an adventure away from modernity into the mind of your poetic imagination?” If you are writing about love, about mortality, about wounds, about normal life, and especially modern life, then yes, likely, the answer will be yes. Right? The enchanted realms of your poetic mind, what you share with all poets across the ages, has been trod before. That’s another reason that a companion or a guide can be essential, perhaps inevitable.

So when you can get the train of modernity to stop, do not despair. You needn’t be alone. When “Tracks” begins, Transtromer is alert only to the specific time of the night and to the shared light from the moon. But when the poem ends, the moonlight has brightened and new guidance, in the form of a “few stars,” has been located.

No matter what the subject of your poems, no matter what forms or style you fashion, this cycle of stopping the train of daily existence and normal life in order to access the forms of your inner existence is an initiation onto the path of becoming a poet.

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In the next Poetry Wire…

Passing the threshold from modern life into poetic imagination is an invitation to feel and look and think clearly, deeply, and directly about the patterns of your imaginative and conscious existence.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →