Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Life of the Poet

The process of writing a poem represents work done on the self of the poet, in order to make form. That this form has to do with the relationships of sounds, rhythms, imaginative beliefs does not isolate the process from any other creation. 
-- Muriel Rukuyser, from The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukuyser's words express, in my opinion, one of the great secrets of filidecht. The poet and the poem are intertwined. Every act of writing undertaken with intention creates some subtle change within the body of the writer; it sows the seeds of evolution in mind and spirit. 

Using writing to create deliberate change is an act of magic at its root. Words change the world and so by their nature they also change the self. When we look at the concept of the "connecting thread of poetry" found in the early Irish laws texts we find the rationale for how that change may be seen to take place. Tug on a thread and the rest of the web will feel it. As writers and poets, we cannot help but shift and change within ourselves as we find the words to express what's in our hearts and minds. To write, to recite, or to compose is to incubate the images we store within us and ripen them into expression. 

When we contemplate the images as we work toward a poem on the page we are learning to understand them. Writing, like teaching, so often forces me to confront my knowledge so that it can be enumerated and expressed. To leave it unwritten or unsaid in some sense leaves it incomplete and untried. This is part of how writing the poem changes the poet; it creates within us a matrix for understanding that may not have previously existed.

Rukuyser speaks of how she took eight years or more to write a particular poem, starting from a brief note taken of an image, and living with that image in the course of her everyday being. As time went by, it became more nuanced. It gained accretions of experience and resonance. Eventually, words began to take form on paper, slowly thought over and edited, opened out and explored. The poet who produced the final poem was changed by that process, no longer the same person who had noted the initial, sparking image that grew into the finished piece.

What we turn our thoughts to in our writing will, in many ways, influence who and what we become. As we brew those images and experiences in our internal cauldrons we extract nourishment from them. They grow like reefs within us, changing our internal landscapes and structures. They wound us or heal us as we carry the shadows of them within. The best of our poems and our other writings recreate us and make us anew. We are reborn.


  1. "To leave it unwritten or unsaid in some sense leaves it incomplete and untried. This is part of how writing the poem changes the poet; it creates within us a matrix for understanding that may not have previously existed."

    Drafting this response has haunted me for the past week or so ;-) I feel compelled to acknowledge the significance of your words in my own evolution. At the same time, the process of creating the response has changed me and my perspective. To actually write the response seems to almost imply that the change is complete, when I know that it is not....yet, to leave a response unwritten leaves my shifting perspective untried and the need to acknowledge the importance of what you have written unresolved ;-) The difficulty, for me, and the challenge, is in drafting a response that isn't trite, but relays the significance for me of your words. Doing so in a public forum adds yet another dimension of what I would call "performance anxiety" which, for me, means that I am less likely to respond because there is a potential audience...and the transformative potential of drafting the response is even greater because I have to plumb the depths of why I feel compelled to respond, why I would be reluctant to respond and what I hope to accomplish in responding. So, these words are the "product" of that process, as it has unfolded thus far.
    Thank you for writing this, and doing so in a way that forced me into such a transformative process ;-)

  2. Concha -- thanks for your comment and welcome to my madness!

    Kenneth -- I was looking forward to seeing what you had to say about this one. Writing does, so often, seem to imply an end point in our thought, yet it really just expresses what is in our mind at the moment of composition. I've encountered this with some of my other writing, notably the Circle of Stones book, where people seem to believe that a writer cannot change their mind, cannot grow, cannot evolve from a previous viewpoint.

    Public view and public participation can also very much influence what we write and how we express our experiences and beliefs. Sometimes there's a filter of sorts, whether intentional or subconscious, regarding what we write in the public eye. We get self-conscious about how we express ourselves. Yet it is this public eye that creates dialogue; if it were written in a private diary, there would be no feedback beyond the possibility of our own future contemplation and revision of opinion.

    Understanding that our words are magic is important. What we say influences what we understand, and what we become. To brave the public eye in pursuit of our transformation is significant, though it is certainly not the only way to shift one's consciousness or one's understanding and practice. Yet the poet in composing poetry is engaged with an audience, seen or unseen. The act of creating poetry implies the audience to whom the poem is addressed, whether that be other humans or the spiritual entities we address in our rituals. We engage on so many levels when we take up the pen, sit before the keyboard, or stand before the altar creating extempore compositions. The art exists in the moment and transforms us through its expression.

    Like water carving the channel of a river, words create the place and define the boundaries of our understandings.