Creative Writing & the Psyche: Words as Art Objects

The Threat of Making Art VIII: One Writer's Journey

Posted Oct 15, 2020

At heart a visual person as well as a lover of words, in addition to a unique and identifiable voice, what most captivates me about a poem is the painterliness of it—the exquisite execution of detail, simple or baroque, Alaska landscape or Persian carpet—and the ways that words connote or carry voice. The right word insists I smell the garbage, the sh*t, the powder on the baby’s neck, the fire after it’s gone; it releases the vulnerable in me—the shame at the center of my chest, the child—joyful or afraid, the heat in my groin, the old woman carefully dying; and it goes for the forbidden in me—the wolf, the bear, the huge sex of it, the bare teeth. And it is the facile blending of words to make exquisite morsels and the freedom of the psyche to bring forth images that only the underworld understands—this is the gift of the painterly poet—in his or her hands, words are brush and paint: color/pain/rage/sex /joy/food/drool….

I’m drawn as well to the visual power of words—they weave whole tapestries with each. They amplify each other — rendering one another stronger or quieter by their physical proximity — beside, above, or beneath. It’s not surprising then that along the way, I found the physical side of my poems, or better said perhaps, I discovered that place where poetry and visual art merge and words exist as art objects and tools rather than simply as carriers of literal meaning. They are the sculptor’s clay and the arms and legs of the dancer. 

Just as Molly helped me to find my poems, this discovery too was set in motion by a mentor. One day over coffee during one of our many conversations about poems, my good friend and poet Baron W asked me what my relationship was to the left margin. I answered simply that that was the place poems started from and returned to. Baron indicated that he felt some poets were left margin poets and others were not—he was and he felt I was not. I recalled that I had used the page and the line differently when I first started to write — starting lines and stanzas in the middle of the page, alternating stanzas from left to right among other things, but I had abandoned those tendencies early on. In my attempt to write an acceptable poem, I corralled its physical as well as its emotional life. In my mind, invention and imagination were restricted to words, images and ideas; form was inherited, its creation completed by the masters who came before us. I simply followed the "rules" already set down for big emotion and blank verse; though my lines were long, they obediently returned to the left margin before taking off again. Baron suggested I discard convention and explore my own impulses. I felt exhilarated and inspired — like a commandment had been lifted. I could do what I thought I could not. A widely respected poet, a master himself, encouraged me to invent my own art.

As I write this, my relentless dependency on authority figures continues to embarrass me. I would like to have taken those liberties on my own, but I could not. And I am not alone in this. Try as we might to divest ourselves of (or at least firm up) our childhood frailties, they leap to the foreground when we are our most vulnerable, particularly when our lives and loves (people and poems) are threatened. Why didn’t I know that I could invent my own form? Where was it written that the book on form was already closed and complete? Here again, my defenses (in this case, denial) were working to protect me from some wildness I feared would erupt should I let go. At heart, I was still a bad girl hiding her evil or crazy nature. Desperate to be good and to please. Because I was already saying wildly unconventional things in my poems, I needed to house these in more acceptable traditional frames. To have invented on the page as well would have been to leave myself aesthetically out there on a limb completely alone. I did not have the confidence for that. I needed to belong and the more I wrote, the more I felt myself moving into a field of my own. But with Baron beside me, I felt less alone and very much affirmed. Remarkably, this had been my experience with Molly—her encouragement the permission I needed to explore dark territory and make poems of subject matter and imagery that often seemed bizarre and even offensive. (I had similar permission in the discovery of my imagination. Reading Gerald Stern and then studying with him opened me up to the delight of play and imagination. This was another magical world that only opened when a mentor said it was safe to go inside—to not be frightened or repelled by my differentness—in fact, to revel in it). 

After this conversation with Baron, I went back to my poems and blissfully took to the page as canvas on which I painted words—letting the voice and the poem decide their direction and how loud or soft their volume. It was exhilarating this opening up. I was in love with letters and words as physical beings that have shape, size, color, and intensity—tallness, fatness, redness—tools that when manipulated could deepen emotion and resonate on multiple levels—conscious and unconscious. Each is its own sculpture that separately and in combination with others becomes the greater structure that is the poem. So too I saw how the length and shape that the lines take all deepen the art — the livingness of the thing. I agreed wholeheartedly with Baron that not all poems are adequately represented by departure from and return to the left margin. I came to understand that the poem has to be allowed to sprawl if it wants to or stand straight and correct in its assertions—its spine more or less prominent in keeping with its emotional and intellectual voyage. For that reason, though I admire them a great deal, formal poems, though rigorous and grand if well executed, seem in dissonance to the stretch of many feelings and experiences. Therein, however, lays the art for the formalist—ordering the chaos.

My aim, on the other hand, is to embody the feeling in its truest, perhaps roughest, primitive shape or limb, so that the physical reality of the poem reflects and promotes the meaning. For me, poems are dances: live beings standing or moving in broad empty spaces. Each has its own form and distinct identity on the page, and as poets, it’s our challenge to discover that. Whereas my self-protective impulse had initially denied and stifled the voice, then attempted to tame it and eventually to simply tone it down, I now use its physical characteristics to deepen and propel the voice — to slow or accelerate its movement or intensity — through the poem; where successful, it more clearly conveys the voice on the page as I hear it and as I want the reader to hear it.

Carried even further, even our sense of the page as a canvas for words comes into question. Imagine "Leaves of Grass" or "Howl" written without the imposed boundary of the paper size that fits in a book and must stand on a shelf. I like to daydream about long sheaves of parchment rolled and tied with leather string lounging on broad shelves or tables or hanging on walls — size and shape again determined by the stretch and reach of the poem and the voice calling from inside it. 

To Each Our Own

Before ending, (or perhaps the better word is interrupting), this ongoing discussion of voice, which began with a gift from Allen Ginsberg teaching us that to write good poems we had to write bad ones, then led to my own journey and expanded into a theory about voice in general, it is important to perhaps restate the obvious: Namely, that voice is the single most significant source of the poem and the one thing that makes it uniquely and utterly our own. It cannot be duplicated.

On the other hand, technique and craft are shared. They are learned. While each of us selects what works best for our poem, the technique is mechanical; it is a device, and therefore, it is known. But voice is unknown. It’s that door opening inside us revealing that place where our soul lives. And given our willingness and commitment to listen, to wait and record, we are rewarded with the soul’s conversation offered up in its unique language, logic, imagery, and form. This is the bedrock and brilliance of the poem. This is the gift.

Finally, it is this intimacy between poet and soul that not only gives us the poem and its readers; it is also our antidote for envy — this voice that is our gift, this that we may learn to love, this that makes our own art separate and original and lasting, this like no other.