Towards an Ars Poetica
By Jane King
Special to Prometeo
Is poetry important? Why is it important? The best answers are the simplest, I think. Almost any reader turns to poetry at the most emotionally charged periods of life. Lovers like poetry. Death announcements are full of poems. And most of us read poetry to small children. Utterances that use more or less rhythmic structures and say succinctly some truth that you might be too embarrassed to say in your own words, perhaps? Songs, of course, are probably the most common uses of poetry in the quotidian world, but greetings cards are important too. And beyond that, the more sophisticated reader appreciates the techniques that allow the whole to work, and demands more sophisticated writing. But surely, at the bottom of it all, the time when each of us came to appreciate poetry at whatever level we understand it, must have been a day when we heard or read something and thought: Oh yes, that is EXACTLY how I feel. The precision with which the poet can state the ordinary is perhaps the most important reason for poetry’s popularity and its lastingness. After all, although birth, love, loss and death are very significant to each of us, they are essentially ordinary events.
To the poet, the production of poetry requires something special. For me, it involves finding a way to delve deep into my subconscious and to allow myself to share whatever nuggets I may find lurking there. And there are times when it seems to me that this is abominably self-indulgent. The only thing that saves it from being absurd is the belief that I cling to despite mounting evidence to the contrary that we are all more alike than we are different. That if I can go deep enough, I may come to that level that Jung called the collective unconscious, and that the nuggets I can mine there will resonate with other people. After all, even the people who hate, despise and try to annoy me are stuck with the same human failings that beset me. They live, they love, they lose. They die. They need little anthems to celebrate signal moments, and when they do, they very often look for poems.
And it seems to me that poems last longer than many other types of writing. I haven’t fully worked out why. But those of us with a reasonable education in literature read poems (and plays in verse) from the sixteenth century, for instance, and read them with relative ease. I think we find most sixteenth century prose much more cumbersome. A John Donne lyric can offer a periscopic peek into a bedroom in the 1500s in a way that nothing else can. And one of the best statements about grief I’ve ever read has to be Ben Jonson’s poem to his first son, that beloved boy who died on his seventh birthday. Novels from periods as recent as the Victorian are difficult – in fact, novels often celebrate such a particular period and culture that even novels from the 1960s can be hard to read – but poems in English go all the way back to Beowolf. So, no matter how taxing the mining for poems, how debilitating the trawling in the depths of the subconscious, one feels, at least when reading other people’s poems, that poetry does matter.
Even when it’s embarrassing and intimate and revealing – perhaps most especially then? As a very young person, I wrote “my naked soul has a dirty face” – and it is still true, certainly of me, perhaps of all of us. Poets try to get round this in various ways. John Figueroa once assured me that of course we do not write about ourselves. I have no idea what he meant. It seems to me that, even when we write science fiction or murder stories, of course we do write about ourselves – where else would our material come from? – and that if we cannot find the truth of our characters in ourselves, we have no way to connect with each other. But perhaps Figueroa’s assertion is a fiction that is available to a male poet in a way that it isn’t for a female one? There certainly are differences in approach, as Robert Graves (in his introduction to The White Goddess) and Kingsley Amis (in “A Bookshop Idyll”) have both reminded us. (“… the awful way their poems lay them open/Just doesn’t strike them/Women are really much nicer than men/No wonder we like them.” – Kingsley Amis. And I think he was lying too.)
I find myself a somewhat reluctant poet. Since I found myself able to hold a pen, I have occasionally written poems, but this is not the same as being able to call oneself a poet. Most of my poetry, though, has been written in one of four distinct periods, and in trying to compose something like an ars poetica for this festival, I will meditate on those periods.
Robert Graves once wrote that there are very few female poets because as soon as women have children, they stop writing poetry. He went on to say that he was sure this was quite right, since surely a healthy child is more important than a poem. I am not sure whether or not he really believed this. I suspect most male poets don’t believe it. When my two step daughters were teenagers living at home, their father and I tried to claim Saturday mornings as sacred writing time. He got the bedroom for his writing space, while I tried the dining table. They never interrupted him, but seemed to think that interrupting me was perfectly all right so long as they said, “Excuse me, Jane…”
But in any case, Saturday mornings and other sporadic days don’t work very well for me, I need lengthier periods I can devote to more sustained effort.
My first sustained period was actually just before the girls came to live with us. I was a teacher, it was a summer holiday, and I had no children to worry about. I was able to roll out of bed whenever the mood took me, and write for as long as I wanted, without bothering to wash my face or eat my breakfast. The last time I tried to mediate on my poetic practice I called the piece “dirty-faced poetry” – because that’s what works for me. My theory was that I needed to keep my focus entirely interior. That I wouldn’t talk to anyone in the morning and would therefore be able to access my own subconscious and that poetry would then emerge from that deep wellspring. And actually, it worked quite well. I found myself dreaming a lot, and many of the poems from that period use dream imagery. I felt excited and creative -but then a trip to Jamaica became absolutely necessary, and I discovered the downside to this process.
I had blundered into my poet-persona. And while I was able to stay home and wander around barefoot, disheveled and unwashed, not having to make sensible conversation with anybody, the poet-persona was perfectly happy. However, when required to find a passport and fill in immigration forms and negotiate hitherto unvisited spaces, the poet-persona became a complete nervous wreck. The situation got worse when faced with my poor hosts, who no doubt think to this day that I am a totally undersocialized blithering idiot. (Anita, Alwyn, my apologies.) It was a tough visit and was prolonged by some problem in Trinidad - I think it was Abu Bakr – that persuaded BWIA to become totally patriotic and throw off all non-Trini nationals booked on their flights so as to allow Trinis to go home. We were stranded in Jamaica an extra week, with no money and my poet-persona’s anxieties running high-octane. Then the Jamaican BWIA office booked us on a LIAT flight that no longer existed… Anyway, I got some good poems out of it, including “Kingston Ramble”, and “Fellow Traveller”, and many of the other poems that appeared in In to the Centre, which won a Saint Lucian poetry prize. And I was in perfect receptive mode for Erma Brodber’s Jane and Louisa (which really needed an audience in this skinless condition) and the Edna Manley exhibition, which we were able to see in Jamaica.
I came home and became the full time stepmother trying to write on Saturdays. I wrote a few short stories which were quite good but which I have LOST. Not sure whose fault that is, the poet-persona, or the more organized one who was just then asked to become a Dean at the college. Deans at our college are full time administrators. I tried to keep just one Literature class but it proved to be completely incompatible with the administrative schedule. And then, just as I decided that yes, I would be Dean, I was awarded a Witter Bynner Fellowship to go to Yaddo, the Artists’ Colony in Saratoga Springs, to write poetry. I had the most wonderful Principal at the time, but he didn’t want me to go off on this fellowship, and in the end, I was only allowed to go for two weeks.
I was determined to make the best of Yaddo, and decided I was going to write a whole sequence of dream poems. Of course, this meant that I didn’t dream at all, the whole time I was there. Nonetheless, this was the most productive two weeks my poet persona has ever had. Yaddo understands the creative process perfectly. You are required to have dinner with your fellow inmates, but whether or not you face them at breakfast is entirely up to you. Lunch is packed and left ready for you to pick up whenever you need it. I slept, stayed in my sumptuous dark room all morning writing and then had wonderful dinners with people who were all in the same condition. There was always someone sitting absolutely still for half an hour ignoring the conversation then suddenly lurching up to interrupt with some completely unconnected observation. And everyone understood! It was bliss. I had no dreams but found that once I just sat my unwashed self at a beautiful desk and allowed whatever came into my head to happen. Poems usually just appeared based around objects in the room. I had bought myself a new bag, which spawned “Bag Lady” and of course, it was Easter, so that helped. There was the day when I was about to give up because nothing was happening, put my head on the desk and smelt my hair burning on the bulb of the lamp – and the poem “Postulant” appeared. The whole period was full of lovely little episodes of that sort, and produced poems that went (along with a group of poems from In to the Centre, and a few from Miami) into Fellow Traveller, which was published by Sandberry Press, owned and operated by Pamela and Martin Mordecai, of Jamaica and Toronto.
The next time I was really able to get into writing was not long after Yaddo, when my husband, Kendel Hippolyte, and I were awarded James Michener Fellowships to the University of Miami’s Caribbean Writers’ Summer Institute. That was a great place for workshopping poems. Mervyn Morris was the poetry resource person that year, and a very sympathetic presence. Some of those poems went into Fellow Traveller as well – poems like “Wash Day” and “The Lecturer Lady”. There wasn’t quite as much scope for long dirty-faced days – there were, after all, workshops to attend. But there were days off and a community of fellow travelers. This was where I met the Jamaican American poet Claudia Rankine, who said to me that writing poetry was easy. “All I have to do,” she said, “is sleep as long as I like and not have to talk to anyone in the morning.” Amen to that. I agree with her absolutely. But how does one achieve that lifestyle without ending up starving in some proverbial garret? As everyone can see, I don’t take well to starving…
After four years of being a Dean, I decided that I had had enough. I wanted to write more, I wanted to go back into teaching, and (as Robert Graves had predicted) I wanted a healthy baby. My still wonderful Principal asked me, as one last Dean-favour, to take on the management tasks involved in getting a play to Trinidad for Carifesta. I decided that I would write in the mornings, and do the administration in the afternoon. I then learned a whole new side of my poet-persona. I have said that the poet-persona is asocial, if not downright anti-social, incapable of the simplest organizational tasks. My Dean-persona likes being highly organized, quick and efficient. I thought I would be able to switch from one to the other. I was completely wrong. The poet-persona is such a precious, delicate, annoying creature that she refuses to appear at all if you tell her she has to switch off at two in the afternoon. Never mind that she will be tired of working by then and will want her lunch; if you even hint to her she has an appointment at two, she simply will not start work in the morning. If you try to fool her, get her started and then try to bring in the Dean-persona, the poet will simply sabotage the organization needed by being wimpy and anxious and this will drive the Dean mad. Having discovered what it must be like to be the victim of a severe mental illness, I allowed the poet-persona to retire after producing a number of edgy, sad and mad poems that make up most of the unpublished collection I called Performance Anxiety.
The healthy child is now fifteen, and like all healthy children (and their mothers) required Nintendo gadgets and iThings and other twenty-first century paraphernalia. I therefore stepped back into the Dean’s job. But now, the Dean is about to retire. I am wondering whether I can persuade the poet to come back, even if some other persona- or person? - has to be found to make the breakfast and drive the child to school in the morning. Or perhaps the Dean should continue to indulge that side of my personality until her most beloved child is finished with school. And perhaps the poems will continue to be few and far between until the dirtyfaced mornings can be allowed back.
Poets need to be looked after. An Indian gentleman once explained to me that the Hindu extended family was the perfect place for the poet. Everyone understood that he had to be taken care of. He did say “he”. I don’t know if Hindu extended families are as generous with their female poets. I greatly admire Derek Walcott’s practice of writing every single day, but it takes some dedicated organization to support it. I once asked Seamus Heaney what he did to make the poems come. He laughed and said that if you just live each day in terror, they come with no problems at all. My poet-persona knows exactly what he meant, but my Dean-persona doesn’t like living in terror. The Dean meditates every morning so that she can maintain calm all day. One cannot write in that calm condition. I did try getting up at 4:30 to write, but found that with a day in the Dean’s office looming, all I would write would be memos. So, before a day in the Dean’s office I meditate from 4:30 until 5:00 am and then do Zumba before making my son’s breakfast and lunch. It works for the Dean, is useless for the poet. I have tried everything I can think of. Different clothes for the poet for instance. Nothing works, except short concentrated stretches of days when I don’t have to think about other people’s needs. The problem is, of course, that I like thinking about other people and trying to gratify their needs… What I personally really need, I suppose, are a couple of periods a year – two to four weeks each, perhaps - where I can find Yaddo-like conditions. Yaddo itself, or a monastery, or somewhere else – an all-inclusive hotel? - where I can be fed and sheltered and left to write as long as I want and allowed to indulge myself for the rest of the day. I enjoy the process of writing poems, but I don’t think I would enjoy having to live full time in the poet- persona. Sometimes you meet poets who have just emerged from several months of lonely writing and listening to them you will find it difficult to make rational sense of their rambling. Poets like Derek Walcott balance their writing with the making of plays, which is an intensely social activity, and with occasional teaching. To be fully a poet and nothing else would, I think, be unhealthy. But to have a poet in you and never allow it free rein is also profoundly uncomfortable. I think I will have to ask Yaddo for another two weeks…
Published on June 15th, 2012.