The Gospel of Mark: What I Believe and How I Work
(First published in The Victorian Writer, 2012)
1. A Poem is a Leaf that Tells a Tree
Unusually, last week, I took some of my own medicine.
“If you want to write,” I wrote in The Little Red Writing Book, “take a walk. Take it again, sitting down at your desk.”
Last Tuesday morning—having, as ever, no time to spare—I stole some and went down to the river. I carried with me only my self and my iPhone. And I was glad of the iPhone because the walking and the weather and the birds and the river, the making of myself a place again (not merely a poet and a parent), delivered up a poem, and as I walked home, I walked it into its first draft with my fingers on the touch screen.
I walked from the other end of the track
This morning, hoping to meet you in the
Middle. I saw the white horse and the thrush
Lark you’d told me about. I stopped to touch
The red warts on the small leaves of the gum:
A poem, I thought, is a leaf that tells
A tree. I shared a smoke and tied the odd
Fly with the grey fantail, and I left him
To cast himself like a fine line into
The poem goes on, like all good journeys, to fail to find what it was looking for—finding, instead what wanted to find it. This particular failure transpires through nine tercets, each line made of ten syllables. And there, in lines four to seven, is the world turning over an old leaf for me: giving me at once itself, and an image and a form of words in which to say a thing that’s been said many thousands of times—and yet, I hope, is said in the poem economically and musically because it came from that place beyond mere social self and language and agendas and time in which poetry arises. A poem is a leaf that tells a tree, the leaf, in its Braille, seemed to tell my fingers, in a voice that sounded like my own.
Poetry overhears the music in the intelligence of things, I have thought a few times and written down somewhere. And here was another instance.
Poems—such small things, like birds and bombs—are a lot bigger than they look; they go off! They make more noise (not to mention mess and other kinds of useful damage) and they travel farther than seems possible. A poem is much larger and wilder, if it’s any good, on the inside than the outside. A poem dances down the cage that keeps it—the cage (the poem’s form) that its making has depended on. What you see is the cage; what you get is the poem escaping it.
I’m generalising, but not, I think, unfairly: poetry tells the big story small; fiction (most fiction) tells a small story big. Robert Bringshurst puts it this way: “thought is a thread, and the raconteur is the spinner of yarns—but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver.” Textus, from which we get “text”, means (or meant) “cloth”. The poem is a cloth, then; a textus, woven with pieces of a hundred threads (thoughts and stories and hypotheses and epigrams), amounting, at once, to less than any of them, and more than all of them. Leaving nearly all of what it says unsaid.
A poem is a leaf that tells a book; a page that tells a library. A poem is a hint that nails a thesis to a door.
2. The Gospel of Mark.
Once in a pub in Newcastle I was asked by a Christian missionary what it was, if not his God, I believed in. Beauty, I said; poetry, the shape of things, landscape, birds, music, children, reading.
I have a spiritual life that never believed in anyone’s gods or ointments or offices. If there is a god, she is the weather and the complex and damnable divinity in each of us; god is the kind of holy but impious trick a poem or a piece of music or a line of hills or the shape of a breast plays on ordinary reality now and then. But as it happens, I live next door to a Catholic novitiate, and sometimes the poets who workshop with me in my cowshed stay there. Last time, there was some trouble at breakfast with the Trappists; the poets wanted to talk. One of the sisters was overheard whispering in exasperation about “the Mark group”. Turns out there was another group staying that weekend studying the Gospel of Mark; I wasn’t the “Mark” they had in mind. But I might as well have been, my fine students told me, such is my passion for the poem.
In that spirit, here are some notes toward a personal gospel of poetry: what I believe and how I work. You’d have found them on my whiteboard that weekend, short sutras, dropped leaves. And I’ve already begun, of course: a poem is a leaf that tells a tree; poetry writes the big story small; poetry overhears the music in the intelligence of things; poetry comes from a place beyond mere self and language and society and agendas and time. Here’s another: Metaphor, writes Jan Zwicky, is the shape of wisdom—meaning, I think, that what you have to do to fathom a metaphor is what you have to do to grow wise. Poetry trades in metaphor, of course; it makes it in speech music. And here are some metaphors in prose, phrasings falling well short of doctrine, I hope, but speaking for what I love and try to practise.
3. The words in a poem are only there to keep the silence apart.
“A poem begins in language awake to its connections.” That is how Jane Hirshfield quietly puts it. Adding: “poetry practises in language what meditation practises in silence.” Poetry is a yoga of language. A Trappism of mindful utterance. Poetry—made with language transfigured by the disciplines of care poets learn to practise, stops merely meaning what (if anything) it means, or looking like it looks, and starts singing, sometimes, like a singing bowl, ringing like the original OM. It becomes a place—replete, alive with itself and a whole lot else. Rich and charged, the way a forest is, or the ocean, and about much more than itself. About, among other things, you. All of us, not merely the poet, herself.
4. A poem is a sculpture of voice.
A poem is an architecture of utterance—an act of speech become a nest or a pot. What a poem is is not just what it says or how it sounds, but also how it looks—its form. Syntax, Robert Pinsky writes, keeps speeding a poem up; form keeps slowing it down. Poetry happens in the friction between the sound (the voice in time) and the form: the poem is the love these two aspects (Siva and Shakti; lover and Beloved; masculine and feminine) of a poem make with each other. Most of a poem’s poetry is how a poet’s language, like an organism, adapts to where it finds itself—to how it improvises in response to how it is constrained by its form.
5. Poetry recasts life’s exquisite spell.
“Life,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.” Banality abounds; we are broken and so is paradise. Most of our words and most of our lives are made of plastic. But poetry remembers the divine comedy of it all, the treacherous, tenuous miracle of each moment; it sings the heaven in a wildflower, the eternity in an hour. It writes, said Francis Webb, the enormous moment. Life, and the dying it entails, is a gift, and poetry returns it. Poetry recasts life’s spell over us. Poetry is the one-night stand that lasts ten thousand nights.
6. Cleverness does not last.
Nor does fashion. But music lasts—the music, in particular, of one’s own true voice, made truer by the disciplines of attention and prosody and syntax and grace, speaking one’s mind, in metaphor, without pretension. And remembering the earth and the Self your self participates in, the world that precedes the words, in every phrase you make.
7. Everything is equal in a poem.
Robert Gray put it this way to me once. A radical democracy in which each linebreak matters as much, but only as much, as each word, matters as much as each comma, matters as much as anything you want to assert or any story you want to tell, matters as much as the form you choose, matters as much as the metaphors you choose and the tone you strike. I think Gray overstates it, but to good effect. If everything is equal in a poem, though, speech music is more equal than anything else.
8. If you’re not making sense, you’d better be making something.
Poetry is oracular. It shares its secrets by keeping them—by giving you metaphors and vernacular jazz instead. It is opaque and indirect. “Prose,” said Octavio Paz, “is language making sense; poetry is language making love.” If, making a poem, you don’t want to use sentences and you don’t want to make sense, you’d better make something else (like play, love, music, trouble…), and you’d better make it dance; you’d better make your dark oracles rock. Tone deaf in-jokes are something, I guess. But nothing much like poetry.
9. Each line in a poem is a poem.
Another thing I first learned from Robert Gray. Poems are made of lines, and each line is, itself, a proto-poem—an indicator species of the larger poem, and of the world of implication that poem stands for. Each line’s ending is an ecotone between languaging and silence. And a fair bit of each poem happens in that edge.
10. A poem is a window.
What you write is the glass and the frame; what you give is the view (looking in) and the viewer (looking out). In the Chinese tradition, a poem writes the scene and the feeling. Each—the landscape, first; second, the lover, the traveller, whoever, and the world of their thoughts and feelings—stands for itself, and it mirrors the other. There is no scenery, and there is no hero. The poem articulates the music of the understanding that plays between the world (somewhere) and the mind (someone), the place they make together in the moment. The poem, like a window, opens them to each other. Neither clean nor perfectly clear, the poem lets two separate worlds be one. There is wisdom in this understanding of reality and poetry—there is ecology and spirit and discipline and modesty. The poetry I admire, through many traditions, is beautiful with this wisdom. I try to make such windows, myself.