As I’ve mentioned before, two central practices for a writer are one, the art of really paying attention (observation); two, cultivating imagination, which brings apparently disparate things together. Imagination is served hugely by thinking symbolically, getting into the habit of continually inviting metaphor. What’s it like? What’s this like? Everything’s symbolic; as poet John Casteen says: ‘The physical world / contains an inexhaustible supply of metaphor…’
Just as the phrase ‘what if?’ is a key phrase for a fiction writer, so the question ‘what’s it like?’ is key for a poet. (In fact, metaphor, I’d say, is central to any creative endeavour.) Looking for a metaphor – the comparison of one thing with another – is a way of thinking associatively; a ‘right brain’ activity that allows us a freedom from linear thinking. Where the rational mode tends to differentiate, discriminate and separate, metaphoric or image-based language is the language of the heart: it connects, associates, and tends to draw together.
I’ve been thinking about heart and heartfulness, and what that means; how important it is to live ‘with heart’, to write with heart, from the warm core of oneself.
Whether or not it’s actually physiologically the case, we all know what it means to have heartache, through loss, or love, or joy, or separation, or empathy: a physical pain that certainly seems to make itself felt in the region of the heart. (And goodness knows we all have enough reason to feel heartache in this poor neglected war-torn and overheating world of ours.)
And a metaphorical pain to the heart – a shock, grief, loss, mourning, separation – is so often mirrored symbolically in the body. I’ve been doing some one-to-one work with a writer who came to me to unblock his creative life. His feeling was that his voice was blocked and nothing seemed to have ‘heart’ in his life; no surprise to find that he’d had a minor heart op just before we started our work together.
Over a few sessions, we uncovered a number of sources of grief in his current and back story. Gradually, working through these things on paper, looking for creative images, metaphorical ways to relate to these things, he started to find ways to allow the repressed or unarticulated griefs of his life to shape new creative expression.
There’s a huge amount of energy locked up in trying to hold painful things at bay; and that same energy is therefore not available for creativity.
How’s your heart? Image for it? Ken Smith in Shed writes a poem to his heart after a serious illness. Here he compares his heart to a fennel root, to a great horseradish, to a loaf of hot bread ‘new minted from the oven’. ‘Heart, brave messenger’, he says.
I asked my client to have a Q & A session with his heart, writing it out as a dialogue. Then I asked him to acknowledge the various heartaches of his life, and to write a love letter to his heart, pulling him through year after year as it had. Finally, he finished by making a poem. Our hearts, metaphorically speaking, can always use a bit of attention. You might want to try something similar?
Shed: poems 1980-2001, Ken Smith (Bloodaxe Books, 2002 Northumberland)