How to Live More Poetically
What would it mean to live more poetically? What would that look like? I keep asking myself this, I who have lived as a poet, a writer, for most of my adult life. What could this be and what has it been for me? Of course there are as many kinds of poets as there are people writing poetry, so there will be no conclusive answer. But we might ask, what do poets do, how do they endure, how do they see the world, move through it, persist, how do they live? Concurrently we might also ask, what do poems do? How are they made and what makes them special and strange and luminous? How do we look at the world with poet eyes? How to get more poetry into our days?
I keep asking myself these questions but I run out of time, life intervenes, we’re out of eggs or milk, or the dog is looking at me with his amber eyes asking for a walk. But I’ve decided to start and try to muddle my way through to answers, and it might take me several tries. I might come back to it. I’m going to start and what follows might be messy.
Let’s begin by looking at an article by Mark Yakich which was printed in The Atlantic in 2013, titled, “What Is a Poem?” Yakich talks about the orgin of the word, poem. He says:
“Poem” comes from the Greek poíēma, meaning a “thing made,” and a poet is defined in ancient terms as “a maker of things.” So if a poem is a thing made, what kind of thing is it?
He looks at books of poetry as being generally outside of the marketplace, and as being “a thing for its own sake.” He uses the example of the Aram Saroyan poem which is in its entirety:
Yakich goes on to say:
When I wrote it on the board and asked my students to examine it, one said, “How do you even read it aloud?” When we tried, we began to understand the intent of the poem. The word “light” seems to be implied, but what’s with the apparent typo? After a long silence, another student said, “That’s the point—in the ordinary word ‘light’ we don’t pronounce the ‘gh’—the ‘gh’ is silent, and the double ‘gh’ makes us realize that even more.” The poem calls attention to the system of language itself—the stuff of letters in combination—and the relationship between sound and sense. The familiar—a plain word such as “light”—has been made new if only for a brief moment. In Saroyan’s own words: “[T]he crux of the poem is to try and make the ineffable, which is light—which we only know about because it illuminates something else — into a thing.”
Poems wait. They can be simple and surprising and weird and insightful. They can make things new and strange in a flash. Why not look at the things of this world with this kind of curiosity and creativity?
Poems are luminous improvisations, made up of luminous details.
Charles Wright in his book Half Life says, "Poems are made up of details; good poems are made up of good details; great poems are made up of "luminous" details."
He also says, "One should write with a kind of meticulous abandon."
Whenever I read something about how to write, or what poems are, I can't help but wonder how it applies to life: because our lives are made up of details, and shouldn't we attempt to make as many of them as luminous as possible? The way forward? A meticulous abandon....
Poetry does so much. Jane Hirshfield, in her indispensable book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry talks about the quality of elegance in a poem. She says, "Within a good poem is the elegance scientist speak of when they describe a solution both economical and true. Cleaving close to the ground rules by which all language is made, good poetry carries broad information within brief speech." She goes on, "This elegance of means makes even the sparest poetry beautiful. Like an honest grocer, such a poem gives good weight."
A good poem is also attentive, and here Hirshfield directs us to the words of Rilke who says, "In order for a Thing to speak to you, you must regard it for a certain time as the only one that exists, as the one and only phenomenon which, through your laborious and exclusive love, is now placed at the centre of the universe, and which, in that incomparable place, is on that day attended by angels."
Later in the book, Hirshfield also draws our attention to Galway Kinnell's words: "The secret title of every good poem might be 'Tenderness.'" The poet, she says, must "cultivate a heart that opens in tenderness to all things." Poems, I think, are also generous of spirit, they have an integrity, the good ones, anyway. Who the poet is is also what the poem is.
How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.
Although we have by no means come close to exhausting the possibilities of what living poetically might look like, or how we might inject more poetry into our days, I leave you with a few thoughts about dreaming, taken from Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Revery. With Bachelard, we hear the voice of a poet saying, "You have seen well; therefore you have the right to dream." He also asserts, "The fact will always remain that reverie is an original peace. Poets know it. Poets tell it to us."
A poet is a particular kind of dreamer, attentive, solitary, at peace (which isn't to say a poet might not also be tormented, brittle, disturbed, outraged). If you were to live poetically, then you would certainly have the right to dream.