The mind of a poet

Merrill Leffler with his Roscoe Magnus, a poem that roosted in the Takoma Park streetscape.Merrill Leffler with his Roscoe Magnus, a poem that roosted in the Takoma Park streetscape. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

VOX POETICA — In my mid 20s, I began keeping an occasional journal – it was a place to write poems whenever the muse’s call came in but also to reflect about anything, including poetry, and to copy out passages from work I was reading and wanted to remember.

By the time we had children and bought our house (itself a demanding child), the days were full-up with going to work – teaching Lit at the Naval Academy, which I left for writing about Chesapeake Bay science at the University of Maryland – publishing books (Dryad Press), and doing the hundred other things one does in a day, I couldn’t easily respond to the muse whenever she rang.

I realized that if I was to continue writing for myself, whether poetry or prose, I had to show up regularly and at the least have an hour-and-a-half a day, uninterrupted. For me, the time was morning, early morning – it meant dragging my large body to the desk by 5:30. By 7, it was time to get our sons and myself on the move.

Was I writing poems each day? Hardly. But I was there, writing to find out where it led me. “The need to get words down,” I wrote in one entry, “that will lift the day off its earth-bound feet – the pure pleasure of just making my way with words as though I was a magician pulling sentences out of a hat and, if fortunate, surprising myself.”

Some of those sentences might sometimes lead to lines and the start of a poem – Eureka!

“All poetic language is the language of exploration,” Pound wrote. But if no poem came, I told myself it didn’t matter – I was at least feeding the beast, i.e., carpeting the lined pages with sentences. And for whatever reasons, pathological or not, after that hour-and-a-half, I felt as though I had taken a cold, stimulating shower – I was ready for the day and could take on almost anything!

Writing nearly every morning over these years has been the one routine in my life – I go back over these journals periodically to see if there are lines to mine and am always surprised to discover how much I have reflected about the writing of poetry itself, what I wanted from it, what I was after in making poems, what was a poem anyway.

All these “raids on the inarticulate,” as T.S. Eliot put it in The Four Quartets – meaning that that everything I have happened on or discovered in writing is always provisional. Nevertheless, I’ve brought some of these provisional “gleanings” together here – a selection of them. They are fragments and don’t add up to a formal aesthetic – they do relate to some of the preoccupations I’ve been engaged in over these years and that I would like to explore more concretely in future columns.

On poems and poetry

What starts a poem? A perturbation – of any kind. It may be joyous, it may be despairing; you are dissociated from yourself. The words and lines are like a bridge to join body and mind, to heal that dissociation, that duality, and once more make yourself whole.

Poems are the outer music of the mind’s wonder and amazement, its sorrows and griefs – they give us the music of the inner self in a language that may be direct or slant, understated or hyperventilated.

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A poem is that act of attention, which has been rescued from the mind’s disorderliness or confusion – Anatole Broyard: “it is language writing itself out of a difficulty.” The poem is what the poet discovers in the act of writing – and that discovery is ah! a surprise. If the poet is surprised, readers and listeners will be surprised.

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“Out of the arguments with others, we make prose,” W.B. Yeats wrote – “out of the argument with ourselves, we make poetry.” Marina Tsevetaeva: “Enslaving the visible for service to the invisible — this is the life of the poet.” In Arabic, the poet is sha’ir, “somebody with a sense of the unseen, so the poet is somebody who feels or senses.”

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Paul Valery described the poet as a “combination of refined dreamer, judicious architect, wise algaebraist, and infallible calculator of the ‘effect to be produced.’” In Greek, the poet is maker – Shakespeare: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

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What poets want from their poem and reader/listeners as well: a sense of the language so subtle that it will seize you suddenly, without warming – it excites the pituitary, the way your body is excited by sudden desire. Think of electrons jumping orbits: when they do, they release a packet of energy, a quanta of light, so brilliant that it could sear your eyes – you are witness to the mystery of what is as extraordinary as it is common.

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Poetry must alter the language like sculptors transform their material, whether inert clay or junk steel that a David Smith or Daniel Leffler will weld into a new form, its old function barely recognizable. The shaping and transforming is what distinguishes poems you “are truly grateful for.” (W.H. Auden)

At their best, poets are alchemists – they transmute ordinary words into marvelous intimations, if only of language itself. Or they are archaeologists of common things – a memory here, a glance there, a gesture, a blink, and making of them a revelation that can dazzle your blindness.

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Poetry, meaning, and reading

What do I want of poetry – news of the world? No! The philosopher Wittgenstein had it right I think: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language game of giving information.” Yes! The language itself must captivate or seduce you – we need poems that act upon us like a suicide, Kafka wrote, that bloody our understanding and free the frozen sea within us. I want a poem to be luminous, to strike like lightning – if you were in its presence, it would light up the sky. So Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”: “Beware Beware, weave a circle round him thrice/ For he on honeydew hath fed/ And drunk the milk of paradise.” We are irrevocably changed. Whoever or whatever occasioned the poem is gone or absorbed – the poem remains, an independent entity that dines at your table and wakes or goes to sleep with you. It is a living part of you.

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Poetry wants to break through the doors of complacency – to carry us into unknown territories of language and lift us on the wings of revelation.

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“Poetry by its nature, a ganglion of memories, impressions, influences. First you read the poem; then you try to read its secrets” – Stanley Kunitz

About the Author

Merrill Leffler
Merrill Leffler is the Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland.

1 Comment on "The mind of a poet"

  1. Aisling Geraghty | December 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm |

    This is a very interesting compilation. I have a teaching degree in English and RE, I am currently studying for a master’s in Poetry. My thesis is about the creatively literate mind. There is a lot of interesting ideas here.
    Thank you.

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