from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

poetry: tracking a wild animal

Poetry is a deep current that flows beneath my whole life, enriching and informing all that I do. And it also surfaces in cycles. Poetry is transience, arriving in moments and often unexpectedly, to wake us up – tapping us on the shoulder, tearing through our chests, leaving a taste of – what? A presence? An absence?

I've been thinking and writing a lot lately, as some of you will know, about the cultural aspects of the transition from foraging to farming in the late Neolithic, so it's not surprising, I guess, that metaphors spring from that for me.

I wrote yesterday to a student that poetry, for me, is like tracking a wild animal, whereas my writing of prose is much more straightforward, more like herding a cow: I find her where I left her, and with a bit of encouragement I can move her to where I want her to be, and on the whole she's still there when I come back. Once I know how, I can milk her.

Poetry isn't at all like that.

Working as I do so much with other writers, often more newly-come to the work than I am, I realise I've come to an acceptance of How It Is with poetry: sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not.  (Must be growing up, at last; maybe I'll soon be an Elder?)

Although I miss it when it goes back into the deeper places, as it invariably does, I no longer panic that it will never surface again, that it has deserted me (though it is true that during these phases I feel perpetually thirsty, on a subtle level but in a pronounced way). 

For me, I know that there will always be times when the tide is out, or the well has been emptied, or the torrent is a trickle; but that it will refill. It always does. For me, and I tell my students this, it seems to arrive in roughly three-month cycles. When it dives under again – what is there to do but wait for the next flow-tide, tend the wells, keep life watered anyway? I can also help the process along by waiting but not turning away: by taking time out to walk, to dream; by listening to my nocturnal dreams; by reading others' poetry.

And each end-of-month I dedicate a week to the poets I work with through my online courses. I notice the way I behave with this: initially I procrastinate. I now know why I do this: it's because I tend to invest 110% of myself in everything I do, and especially in poetry, and the last year I have been burnt out from doing that. I've addressed that in other aspects of my life; but poetry, like spiritual practice, needs that whole commitment from me. On a practical level, I usually dedicate much more time to the process than I've allocated or have to spare, and it all involves all my energy.

But I also know that the process of working with other poets is, too, like tracking a wild animal: looking for spoor, sniffing the wind, not moving fast, and when I do move it needs to be accurate. Much of how I respond comes from an intuitive and emotional level, and I need to translate that into clear and rational responses that are perceptive and helpful. It's a big ask; and I completely love it.

Another bonus is that along the way I can 'justify' time out to seek out poems new and old; this in itself is exciting, and also it can kickstart my own creative process again. 

So I love the work I do with poets. Working with the assignments for the poetry course I feel immersed in the rich and hidden world of language, the way it makes silence speak. 

Searching out stuff, I have met and remet these little fragments. I hope you like them too:

Reality is there where the silence...

Reality is there where the silence
means the birth of language. 
Because before something is heard, there is noise
and before something is seen, it's created
and before there are words, there are things.
Be quiet, so you can see, hear and speak
in a slow flowering of forgetfulness.

from The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water

...And there you are
      on the shore,

fitful and thoughtful, trying
  to attach them to an idea –
    some news of your own life.
      But the lilies

are slippery and wild – they are
  devoid of meaning, they are
    simply doing,
      from the deepest

spurs of their being,
  what they are impelled to do
    every summer...

Mary Oliver

The flame is out, but scent and smoke remain.
Is absence presence by another name?

Robert Wilkinson 

from A Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Proust who collected time within
A child's cake would understand
The ambiguity of this  –
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

Elizabeth Jennings 

And for me, it's back to tracking the wild animals now; this time literally first, on a belated walk with She Who Wears Her Grey Matter on the Outside... 

Oh, but not before mentioning to fellow writers that you might enjoy Natalie Goldberg's new book: The True Secret of Writing. It's still hot in my hands; it arrived 30 minutes ago.


  1. I like that idea, about writing poetry being like tracking a wild animal. I think too that chance or serendipity plays a part - being in the right place at the right time. Learning the places where poetry or awen is to be found is very similar to knowing an animal or birds preferred habitat. I find I have developed a kind if 6th sense for knowing when fox or roe deer are close, long before I see them. It's hard to describe, a certain kind of alertness, I think. So too with a lurking poem. Jinny x

  2. Lovely, Jinny - thanks. Yes. I know exactly what you mean - same here. It's about intimacy, isn't it? And a certain kind of love. Btw have firmed up details for Imbolc retreat. Will let you know! x


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