David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey Chapter 2

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Passing the threshold from modern life into poetic imagination.

Poetry ceremonializes the shared primitive impulses of human experience by ritualizing the purposes of living, existing as a metaphor for crossing the threshold from lived agency to inventive agency, by identifying and altering the patterns of your inner life, by permitting the figurative passages of living to be revealed to yourself and to others, and by initiating both the poet and a reader into clarities of heart and mind.

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As with the application of a balm, a calling up of an enchantment, and a sending forth of a shock of the new, poetry embodies the ceremonies of becoming and becoming a poet.

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Just as we are born into the living world, a poem invites us to be reborn into the shared spaces of the human imaginary mind.

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One story of what it means to become a poet, then, is that when you write a poem you are dramatizing the passages of how the inner and the outer existences must, in the end, co-habitate. Question is, how might you discover and make use of these passages?

I believe the answer lies in the acts of writing poetry itself. I mean, doesn’t writing poems supply you with the narratives of feeling to discover the important routes and roots of human experience? Doesn’t mastering those narratives lead you as a poet to carry the human drama into the future?

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Whether your poems are formal or informal, traditional or avant, they are always reenactments of what you understand to be the patterns and images of human existence. They are always embodiments of the imaginary and, therefore, vessels of new meaning and new life.

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James Wright’s daring poem, “A Blessing,” ritualizes this notion of a poem as an initiation from birth to rebirth. The poem opens with an incident during the passage of twilight:

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

As an essential daily moment dividing day from night in the living world, dusk is a sacred space. It’s shared by every human being, perhaps every single being from the beginning of time. As an emotionally-endowed time, dusk is not just about the difference between day and night, of course. It’s a sensory territory between ignorance and awareness, carelessness and alertness, semi-attention and deep consciousness.

wright2When Wright enters this shared passage of time and mindfulness in the twilight, he encounters there an alien and beastly other. But then after he crosses the “barbed wire” fence from modernity into the imaginary, he seeks to unite with what is not human but brings the human to mind (“to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist”). Here’s the opening section:

Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

After the incident has been initiated and the passage has been completed, both the narrator and the reader are ready for a transformative rebirth:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Existing in a semi-attentive, living state of mind prior to the start of the poem and then coming off the highway of that modernity, the poet in “A Blessing” encounters what all poets encounter:

You encounter new possibilities of living previously unknown.

You discover the essential importance of your inner cognizance as it relates to the world.

And you return from the poetic experience with a reborn identity.

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“A Blessing” dramatizes what you experience every time you write a poem. It dramatizes the ascendency of a new outlook on life and the grace of transformation that comes with it.

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In other words: what you might have once feared becomes what you most desire.

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Every time you write a poem, you’re learning to become a poet once again. Your writing imitates not the banal sequence from life to death, but instead imitates a descent into and out of a new womb of clarity (“out of my body I would break”). Your poems are the demonstration of the new life that has been discovered (“into blossom”).

Consider it a metamorphosis from the solid cycles of modern daily experience into the enigmatic substances of poetic imagination.

When you think of your poems in this way, you give yourself the opportunity to understand the cycles of your experiences and to find the poetic forms to utter your poem and inspire readers to be reborn into their own consciousnesses, too.

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In the next Poetry Wire…

How writing a poem is a submission to something larger than yourself.


David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →