Why Write If You Can’t Write Anything Nice

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NaPoWriMo: Day 1. Oh, grand. I’m supposed to write a poem a day in April and I’m already out of ideas. But that never stopped me before. So I’m going to start with a short rhymed–abacadaea–piece about something I heard listening to an audio of a Alexander McCall Smith story the other day. Is it true that W.H. Auden never put a space after his commas? I haven’t tried to confirm but it’s a lovely story.

Auden, I’ve heard, never left a space

After the comma; never a pulse

After the pause. Why no trace

Of breath where breath is signified?

Was he bidding us hurry, to race

On to his next thought, his next image:

Calling on the lagging reader to embrace

His poem as he did, flying from typewriter

To page, dissonant jazz beat, staccato grace.

And yes, I did leave spaces after my commas. Mama didn’t raise me to be a copy-cat.

So, Day 1, mutilated and done.

“The time has come, the walrus said…”

Public Domain Reprint

Public Domain Reprint

Eve of NaPoWriMo. Poetry exercises done: 0. Ah, yes, the cruelest month, indeed.

My favorite book on writing poetry came from an unexpected source. I’ve been a fan of Stephen Fry since he and Hugh Laurie did their sketch comedy show on BBC and can’t read P.G. Wodehouse without his voice as Jeeves. But when I picked up a book called “The Ode Less Traveled,” I wasn’t linking the author’s name with either of those. Stephen Fry. Yes, it sounded a tad familiar but…Well, gosh dang it (as Rich Hall might say on QI, the Stephen Fry quiz show that I’m so hooked on as to not accomplish anything in my break time), the author is indeed that Stephen Fry. And I can hear his voice once again on every page.

“Ode” is not just a book about poetry or writing poetry but an exhortation to write poetry and play with poetic form–with “poetics,” in fact, the figures of speech, rhymes, rhythms. His exercises prod you to just put words on paper: but words in order, words that may rhyme or not, words that fit into the gallop of tetrameter or the Victorian flow of pentameter. And if they’re junk, well, so what. They’re your junk.

So…in that spirit. A short bit of iambic pentameter to prepare for April 1 and “a poem a day.”

The practice must begin with lines of stress

Pentameter must come before the rhyme

Let beats of rhythm pound within the breast

The planning out to come before the crime.

 

Zen and the Art of Writing Bad Poetry

003After many months away from this blog, I’m coming back to torment my followers by making this my site for National Poetry Writing Month in April. I’m hoping to start doing some practice work here over the next few weeks. And, no, not all my poems for April will be related to Mindfulness, Buddhism, Qi Gong, etc. but some may well turn out that way.

I love “form” poetry (as opposed to “free verse”), so I’m going to try to write in as many different forms as I can, from villanelles to haikus to, maybe, even a limerick. No promises that I’ll get in a poem a day. My grand word total for National Novel Writing Month–where the goal was 50,000 words–was just over 4000. But I did get a nifty little start on a mystery about a meditation retreat that I called “Being With Nothingness.” Maybe I’ll return to it someday.

Thus begins my scribbling.

Kuan Yin: Beyond Human

The Subject As A Younger Boy

The Subject As A Younger Boy

He’s lying in the sun, breath heavy and fast, sides shrunken, bones of the chest and neck showing through the skin, backs of the ears and the toes almost hairless now. Just an old cat suffering from age and pain and a host of ailments. “Just put him down,” people tell me especially after they hear I have to clean up his feces several times a day and live with puppy training pads on my bedroom floor because that’s the only way to keep him from urinating on the carpet.

Only one room still has carpet, in fact. He ruined all the rest so we’ve replaced it with hardwood, an oddly beautiful gift he’s given me through his feline dementia. And he still climbs onto my lap while I write, sleeps by my side at night, meets me at the door with his companion cat, who doesn’t understand why there are no wrestling matches every day.

My husband would be relieved to see him go–as I would be much of the time–but has come to understand and accept why we go on with him: not because I can’t bear to part with him but because he still has a pure enjoyment in much of life. I feel I need to respect and support that in an old cat no less than I would in any person.

Yesterday, I bought a new scratch pad laced with cat nip (which I’ve been referring to as “medical cat nip”) and he scratched and rolled and rubbed his cheek on it, then plowed through a bowl of cat food to satisfy the “munchies.” And as we ate dinner, this old arthritic boy came barreling down the hall top speed, startling his companion, and stretching his paws up onto the cat perch. This is not a cat ready to “go gently.” And I feel I need to respect that as well.

We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep him alive. He’s off almost all medication because the drugs for one illness just make another worse. And he gets to eat the cheap grocery store cat food he loves rather than the “special diet” that is supposed to make him feel better. He’s in hospice with us. We just want to give him comfort.

I will respect his right to die when his quality of life degrades or he is in pain. But I will also respect and show compassion for his delight in life until then, this old, skinny, balding orange tiger. Even as I clean up his latest gift.

Re-Versing Time

20111229-224052.jpgWe did a lot of “Om”-ing back in the ’70s. Meditation was practically a competitive sport. We’d sit Lotus position, eyes only half closed so we could sneak looks at those around us. “How does she get her foot that high on her damn thigh?” “Oh, c’mon, look at the math geek–half lotus, how sad.” Not only did we not empty our minds, we practically hoarded, adding as many random thoughts as we could cram in. Forget about “gently bringing the puppy back”; we might as well have been at a dog park.

I was a Lit major then. But we all were, weren’t we? Literature or Philosophy:  two perfect majors for those who believed a decent salary was a tool of the Devil. I prefer to think I naively believed I could make a living wage teaching Jane Austen under an oak tree–but that life is truly another story and this story rolled together in that most basic of beliefs: Everything Changes.

What struck me recently is that I might have had some sense of the value meditation would bring as I aged, even as I played it like a varsity sport, when I read a collection of Louis MacNeice poems. I loved MacNeice in college, especially “BagPipe Music.” And when I reread it, I thought: “Yes, maybe I wasn’t totally clueless about the depth meditation can bring to life.”

“Bagpipe Music”: The title says nothing about the content but everything about the lope of the poem from line to line, the bouncing repetition whose gentle lilt hides the darkness of the lines caught in opening couplet:

‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,

All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.’

And in the last two lines, after much ill omen and ill will and images of young urbanites trying to outrun their fate, I might have first wrapped my brain–as a young urbanite trying to outrun my fate–around the importance of the “now.”

‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,

But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’

Yup, Everything Changes and you can’t stop it so…

Which led me to my other favorite poem from college and one that I chose as a reading at my third wedding–when I was older, hopefully wiser, and had finally ditched the Philosophy majors: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

Put two of its most resonant lines with that last couplet of MacNeice and there it is: Mindfulness; Everything changes; Be Here Now.

‘The grave’s a fine and private place

But none, I think, do there embrace.’

My Lotus position was never that great anyway.