Posts Tagged ‘writing as a spiritual act’

What the Living Do—Marie Howe’s ‘letter’ to her brother—an elegy to loss and how she lives with it

November 2, 2022

In previous posts we highlighted how certain poems (or a song) seem to come through poets as if they were a conduit. Another example is poet Marie Howe. During a poetry reading she gave at a Christian Scholars’ Conference in 2017 Plenary, she said this about her writing. (19:39)

“So much of writing for me is writing a lot and throwing it out, because as John would say, I knew that already. So, it’s writing and writing and writing until the poem actually begins to write me, which was a great great feeling. And this is a poem that ended up being a title of this book, because I was working on four or five different poems in a very long day and finally pushed them aside, because I had to give up writing a poem, and just write to my dead brother John. And it ended up being what wanted to be written. It’s called What the Living Do.” (20:18)

So, it’s writing and writing and writing until the poem actually begins to write me, which was a great great feeling. And it ended up being what wanted to be written.

Marie Howe on the poem to her brother, What the Living Do

Fresh Air: Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss

She read and discussed this poem, and others, with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air: Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss (Oct 19, 2011). Her younger brother John died from AIDS-related complications in 1989. A few years later she wrote him a poem in the form of a letter. They wrote, “the poem is an elegiac description of loss, and of living beyond loss.” The title poem of her collection was later selected for inclusion in The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry

These comments by Marie from their wonderful conversation stood out: “So many poems occur at the intersection of time and eternity and the fullness of time. … Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die. The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that—and poetry knows that.”

Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die. The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that—and poetry knows that.

Marie Howe on our mortality and poetry’s redeeming value

The Writing Life: The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal

During her two-year tenure as New York State Poet Laureate, Marie Howe collaborated with the MTA and NYU to create public poetry events. She told poet Sandra Beasley, host of The Writing Life, that the coolest thing they did, and expanded upon the next year, was The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal, where hundreds of people lined up for hours to have their own poem written for them by an award-winning poet. The program was so successful they had to build more sets and bring in more poets on a rotating schedule to handle the growing demand. That section of the interview, Marie Howe wants you to carry her poems away, is cued up at 20:38.

The Millions: Writing as a spiritual act

I featured another powerful poem of hers in this earlier post: New York poet laureate Marie Howe reads “Annunciation” to Krista Tippett On Being. She described how the poem came through her, “and it had nothing to do with me.” I highlight an interview with The Millions. When asked if she thinks of writing as a spiritual act at its core, Marie replies:

“I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction, which is, in order for it to happen, you have to be there, and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as good as that. Being there and disappearing—being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self—and yet the self has to be utterly there.”

Nothing feels as good as that. Being there and disappearing—being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. Writing is pretty much a relief from the self—and yet the self has to be utterly there.

Marie Howe on the contradiction within writing as a spiritual act

Poets Ada Limón and Ranier Maria Rilke

This relates to the previous post about Ada Limón, the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate, where she describes her experiences of writing poetry—how deep attention can turn into a poem, that deep looking is a way of loving, and can transform the smallest thing into something of great importance. She said it is the thing that brings her the most joy.

Ranier Maria Rilke describes, in great detail, this process of deep seeing and ability to surrender completely to “Things whose essential life you want to express.” If you do, then it will reciprocate and “speak to you” with a most glorious outcome. His amazing description, translated by Stephen Mitchell, is included in that post.

Previous posts on being a conduit for poetry and song

I share a few of my own poems from a similar perspective in Being written—how some poems come through us.

In a previous post, Karen Matheson sings a beautiful sad Gaelic song. Written by Brendan Graham, he reveals how the song chose him as a conduit to tell its story of loss and grief during Ireland’s 1840s famine.

Poems about death by Stephen Levine and Mary Oliver

Here’s a look at death from a different, more enlightened perspective in Two profound poems by Stephen Levine: in the realm of the passing away & millennium blessing.

Mary Oliver reflected on death, especially towards the end of her life when she was ill. These two poems reveal her thoughts. White Owl Flies Into And Out Of The Field — maybe death / isn’t darkness, after all, / but so much light / wrapping itself around us–. When Death Comes — When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Breath and fire in the heart feed each other as essential creative forces in Erica Jong’s poetry

April 11, 2020

I’ll admit my ignorance here. All I remember of Erica Jong was her early 70’s infamous best-selling novel, Fear of Flying. I had no idea that she had become such a prolific award-winning writer. Besides being a famous author, she is also a fine poet. She says, “The poetry is the source of absolutely everything I do.” I discovered some of her impressive poems looking inside Becoming Light: New and Selected Poems, and on poetry websites PoemHunter and Poeticous.

Filled with life and passion, Jong uses breath, air, wind, “prana whistling in the dark;” and fire, “a flame in the heart,” “a living lantern,” as imaginary ways to describe the creative forces within the heart of a poet. They are beautifully expressed in these 3 poems: Alphabet Poem: To the Letter I, Poem to Kabir, and Zen & the Art of Poetry. There may be other poems with these motifs I have yet to discover, but these caught my attention for their shared imagery and theme of being a poet, a writer.

Alphabet Poem: To the Letter I (12th/last stanza, 3rd poem in Becoming Light) 

We are all one poet 
and always 
we have one 
communal name, 
god's name, nameless, 
a flame in the heart, 
a breath, 
a gust of air, 
prana whistling in the dark. 
i dies— 
but the breath 
lingers on 
through the medium 
of the magic 
alphabet 
and in its wake 
death is no more 
than metaphor. 

Poem to Kabir   

Kabir says 
the breath inside the breath 
is God   

& I say to Kabir 
you are the breath inside that breath 
which is not to say 
that the poet is God–   

but only that God 
uses the poet 
as the wind 
uses 
a sail.

Zen & the Art of Poetry
 
Letting the mind go,
letting the pen, the breath,
the movement of images in & out
of the mouth
go calm, go rhythmic
as the rise & fall of waves,
as one sits in the lotus position
over the world,
holding the pen so lightly
that it scarcely stains the page,
holding the breath
in the glowing cage of the ribs,
until the heart
is only a living lantern
fueled by breath,
& the pen writes
what the heart wills
& the whole world goes out,
goes black,
but for the hard, clear stars
below.

In the last section of What You Need to Be a Writer, Jong comes clean, listing her fears, then describes what it really takes to be a writer — having something to say so intensely, that it “burns like a coal in your gut…pounds like a pump in your groin,” and concludes with having “the courage to love like a wound that never heals.” Ah, the human condition.

& then there’s all 
I did not 
say:   

to be
a writer
what you need
is
 
something
to say:
 
something
that burns
like a hot coal
in your gut
 
something
that pounds
like a pump
in your groin
 
& the courage
to love
like a wound
 
that never
heals.

In a Mother’s Day Playboy interview last year, the first question daughter and writer Molly Jong-Fast asks her mother is how she knows things, especially what’s happening to women in the socio-political arena. Jong answers: “I think a writer is someone who lives like a wound that never heals. And if you’re a writer, you feel the rumblings in the air.” It’s interesting how she uses the same metaphor for a writer to love or live like “a wound that never heals.” How she’s been bravely living her life.


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