Posts Tagged ‘brendan graham's ideas on writing songs’

Being written—how some poems come through us

October 20, 2022

In the previous post, I was impressed by what Brendan Graham said about being chosen for a song to go out into the world. “I had learned to keep out of the way, let the song write itself. … The truly special songs write us; we don’t write them. We don’t find them; they find us.”

The video clip concludes with him saying: “I am grateful to be merely the conduit, an accident of time and place through which something I don’t fully understand is given voice and is heard.”

This reminded me of some of my own experiences in the past writing certain poems. As he said, it was more like they wrote me. I just put them down on paper as they were being given to me. I was the conduit—the intrinsic reward. Here are 4 poems and how they came to be written.

ODE TO THE ARTIST Sketching Lotus Pads at Round Prairie Park

The first magical interaction I remember was with an artist friend. While driving around the Fairfield, Iowa countryside we noticed signs to Round Prairie Park. It turned out to be the first park the Jefferson County Conservation Board had developed. We drove on and found the entrance. A small historic schoolhouse on the left and a pond on the right were the first things we noticed. We continued on around the bend past the campsites and picnic tables to the end of the road and parked the car.

After a short walk, we discovered a bigger pond. It was filled with large lotus pads and pods. A drought that summer of 1988 had lowered water levels everywhere, including the pond. As a result, some of the lotus pads stood even taller. My friend pulled out her notepad and began sketching them. I asked her for a page and a pen. I made a few attempts at writing a poem about them, then gave up.

We spoke about The Secret Life of Plants and how they can sense what you’re thinking. She went back to sketching. I decided to switch perspectives—what I later learned is ‘reverse seeing’—and tried again. This time I felt a heightened awareness and quickly wrote down the words as they came to me. When it was over, I looked down and saw a poem on the page, but it was written in a voice other than my own. At that moment, a bird in the tree above me dropped a turd. It landed on my writing hand! A blessing from nature?

ODE TO THE ARTIST
Sketching Lotus Pads at Round Prairie Park
Black lines briefly sketched on paper
capture our appearance but not our essence.

Your attention interests us,
although others have never before.
Your watchful eyes tell us
we are apart of you.

Can you feel our thoughts?
Can you think our feelings?
We do yours
and we thank you for committing us to memory.

For long after we’ve gone
and transmuted ourselves back into nature
our likeness will remind you that we were.
And your response will touch our hearts.

I had entered the poem in a Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum competition that was announced in the local Fairfield Ledger and forgot about it. Eventually, the editor acknowledged receipt of the poem, which he appreciated, said it was in the competition, and had a question about the way I spelled ‘apart of’ in the last line of the second stanza.

I explained that I wanted to express both ideas of togetherness and separateness at the same time in the same sounding word—’a part of’ and ‘apart from’. A language professor friend suggested I italicize ‘a‘ and ‘of‘ to give it that appearance and meaning in ‘apart of you’. It felt right.

The following summer, a postcard in the mail told me to go to the Post Office to pick up a registered letter. I had no idea what it was about. When I opened it, the letter announced that I had won Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum’s Distinguished Poet Award, which included a $100 check. The plaque would be mailed in a few days. What an unexpected surprise! It also happened to be Guru Purnima Day 1989, making it extra special to me! I was so grateful for this honor and recognition, especially since I had been going through a challenging phase of my life.

I told the writer at The Ledger about it and she said to come in with the plaque. She interviewed me and they took a picture of me holding the award. She thought The Ledger would need permission to publish the poem and asked me to check with the publisher. He said I owned the rights to my poem and could approve them printing it in the paper. The article had already come out, so they published the poem the next day. These unexpected events were signs encouraging me to keep writing.

Sometimes Poetry Happens

The editor wanted a follow-up poem, which made me nervous since I felt I hadn’t really written that first poem. So, I thought about the dynamic between us and the lotus pads, wondering what had really happened between the two—the observer and the observed—from both sides.

When I put pen to paper, surprisingly, it flowed effortlessly, even blissfully. The middle part of the poem reiterated what Brendan Graham had said about the truly special songs—in my case, poems—finding us and writing us, not the other way around.

But, when I tried to make a statement, nothing worked. I gave up, let go, and lay down on the couch to take a break. In a few moments the conclusion to the poem composed itself in my mind. I quickly got up, went back to the kitchen table, and wrote it down.

It was written in such a comprehensive poetic manner. I never would have imagined such a perfect answer to the posed question of what had happened between the two. I explained that in a reply to an appreciative comment on the poem.

The editor was pleased to have received the poem and published it. Besides being a memory of what had been heard, the poem became a kind of commentary on the creative process, that, if we’re lucky enough, sometimes poetry happens.

Sometimes Poetry Happens
(Sequel to ODE TO THE ARTIST)

Some poets can write
from reflected experience
referring back to what was written.

Others need to be there,
in full view of their subject,
opening up to what’s being given.

Sometimes poetry happens between the two.

It’s then you don’t really write the poem.
It writes you!
You just put it down on paper.

When you see it there,
You’ve captured it.
Or, rather, it’s captured you.

What really happened between the two?

To explore that space
between you and me
is to discover who we are.

For deep within,
at the source of the gap
lie the togetherness of the three—

the seer, the seen, and the poetry … in between.

Being in Nature—a gift from a tree

Other poems would start with a seed idea, then grow and unfold while writing them down. One short poem resulted from a surprising interaction with a tree on the UBC Endowment Lands in Vancouver. I had moved back to Canada during the 1990s.

I was standing with an artist friend closely admiring the bark of a tree in front of us. The tree reciprocated the attention with a ray of words entering my heart-mind: “the realness of natural things, the nearness of you.” I immediately wrote them down.

The next morning, I looked at the two-line stanza wondering where it would go next. The poem answered my hunches and completed itself as I wrote it down in my journal. It felt like a collaborative process.

The repetitive end rhymes and number of syllables per line created their own matching patterns, like a little gem. The title would come much later, while thinking of the word ‘being’ as both a subject and a gerund.

Being in Nature 
a gift from a tree 

The Realness of Natural Things 
The nearness of you 

The Beauty that Nature Brings 
When seeing is true 

The Silence that Inward Sings 
When hearing is clear 

The Harmony Between all Beings 
It exists right here!

Indonesian Mystery Poem

This reminds me of the start of another poem that was given to me a few days after having arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia in early June 2000. I had joined our group there on a project. They told me to just rest (meditate and sleep) in my room for a few days to get over the 17-hour jet lag.

It was very early in the third morning, while I was still asleep, when I heard these words softly spoken in my mind: “He hides within the rock of three dimensions and cannot be found in this world.” I woke myself up and wrote them down. The rest was like taking dictation. I had no idea who or what the poem was about, so I titled it Indonesian Mystery Poem.

When I shared it with an older Indonesian gentleman on our team, he recognized the mythic Queen of the Southern Seas in the poem and told me about her. So did two expats, after I taught them to meditate. In a book on Indonesia I later bought for my son, I discovered the story about Nyi Roro Kidul and the annual celebration taking place at that time.

The leaders of our group—a Canadian and a Dutchman—had been invited by our sponsors to West Java for the holiday weekend. In the Samudra Beach Hotel where they were staying was a room with a shrine dedicated to the mythic queen featuring a portrait of her painted by a well-known Indonesian artist.

When I read the poem to the Dutchman, he shared a few unusual experiences that had happened to him while they were there—before and after meditating in that hotel room, later when swimming in the ocean, and before they left. It’s all in the post of the poem, with various paintings of the queen.

Indonesian Mystery Poem 
Honoring Nyi Roro Kidul 
Queen of the Southern Seas 

He hides within the rock
of three dimensions
and cannot be found
in this world

When night comes
she rises like a moon
to shine her light
upon the mountain

The sea dances
rising and falling
like a lover
in her arms

What pull does she have
on his life
as she looks for a partner
to dance with

The moon bows
before the rising sun
and he is left
breathless

All these confirmations made me feel grateful, as if I had been chosen as a conduit, but for what purpose I did not know. Maybe, as Brendan Graham said, “through which something I don’t fully understand is given voice and is heard.”

The Indonesian poem was mentioned in an interview I did with TM Home. They included the first two poems and how they were written in their profile: PR to poetry – how things sometimes happen to Ken Chawkin.

Postscript

Talk about being a conduit in a poetic way, B. Nina Holzer’s final entry in her journal shows us how she is an innocent instrument for writing.

EVENING

One day
I walked on the mountain
and the flute song
went through me.
That’s all.
I became the reed
and the wind went through
and I wrote it down
in my journal.

I recommend her book—A Walk Between Heaven and Earth: A Personal Journal on Writing and the Creative Process—to anyone interested in wanting to express themselves in writing. I found it very inspirational.

In a post following this one, newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón describes what Ranier Maria Rilke reveals can happen if you give yourself fully over to a Thing, how it can respond if your attention is completely devoted to it. 

An earlier post discusses negative capability, reverse seeing, beauty & the desire for transcendence & unity in life & poetry.

Added Nov 2, 2022: What the Living Do—Marie Howe’s ‘letter’ to her brother—an elegy to loss and how she lives with it.


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