Serendipity: Poetry As Conversation
Sojourner K. Rolle -- May 11, 2006
Sometimes I find it hard to justify writing at all. Seems as if everything I can think of someone has written it already. I find solace in the thought that I am not alone in this sense that nothing is new under the sun. A preface to my second chapbook of poetry, Our Strength Will Grow, included the following quote from W.E.B. DuBois.: "I venture to write again on the themes on which great souls have already said greater words..." (Darkwater, 1920)
Seems like we are destined to repeat that which has been said before. We all like to believe that we have creative bones in our body. That we can find some new way to explain the wisdom of the ages. I read somewhere that there is an obligation to make it fresh. The best way I know how to do that is to wrap it in personal experience. Give an updated context. Last year, I began a poem about a bird singing in my yard. I was compelled to write it. The experience was so in my moment. Yet I imagined this to be a timeworn subject -- one I knew many had broached before. There had even been an anthology of bird poems produced by a local poet friend several years ago. Nevertheless, I wrote the various drafts and finally sent it off to a poet professor friend who sent back encouraging words. To my fear of being redundant he wrote, "It doesn't matter how often this subject has been written on before, you have fresh and unique observation to make." Works for me.
One Idea Leads To Another
I frequently find myself responding to something somebody else has said. Many poets carry on conversation via a poem. In fact, it has been fairly common throughout history for a poem to be written in response or "answer" to another poem. You often see sub-titles like, "after Whitman", or "a response to Wordsworth on the Passing of Time," etc. I guess that's what the epigraph is all about. People usually define an epigraph as a brief quotation used to introduce a piece of writing. I think it's all that and more. When I use an epigraph it is the starting place for the poem. Often it was this epigraphic idea that sparked the poem. So I see it like direct conversation with the other poet or the time or context or an event. Sometimes I contemplate the same question the other poet has posed. The fact that this reference is in my mind or is introduced to me and that I have an immediate reaction is the essence of serendipity. Two thoughts meeting or intersecting or one thing leading to another or bolstering another. The thing that I most want to cultivate is the act of following up. Get out the notebook and pen. Open up new blank document on the computer. Write something. Even if I can only write myself a note and a beginning by depositing a few of my first thoughts, I write something. Usually, if I start, one thing leads to another. Before I stop, I have to spit out the rough itness of a poem. Later I can refine. Sometimes this is several months or even several years later when I come across the rough notes or beginnings of the piece.
Getting back to the conversation.
It seems to go on in your head when you least expect it. The triggering event might be a certain sound or an overheard word. A song can bring back a flood of memory or spark a moment of lucidity. It's like your brain opens up. Your memory is popping. There is nothing like capturing the moment. Thinking to write it down, to be intentional about observing the context, the feelings, the references. The more you do it, the more you will be prepared to do it when an opportune moment worth remembering comes along. I like to practice sometime when I'm riding the bus or sitting alone at a coffee shop. Just to keep my skills of documenting the observed. I like to practice observing my surroundings and writing a poetic description. No poem intended.
I have always been a little skittish about epigraphs. I mean, you want to give credit where credit is due and maybe you want to state an idea that posits the reader at the starting place, so to speak. Or perhaps the epigraph serves as a blessing for all you have to say. My purest sensation of this happened the first year I went to Squaw Valley Community of Writers Summer Workshop in Poetry. It was a journey.
I had hitched a ride from Santa Barbara with my friend Sylvia who dropped me at the last stop on Bart that I took to Berkeley and hung out at my friend, Cynthia's house until it was time to go to San Francisco to meet the person with whom I was going to ride to Squaw Valley. We followed the map-the Bay Area through Davis to Truckee on to Lake Tahoe. When we got to the foot of the mountain and started up, I was awe-struck. I was excited about the whole adventure and what I was to encounter at this week of doing nothing but be about poetry. The ride up Squaw Valley Road was breathtaking. I was jotting down impressions all the time -- more like journaling. It was a ski resort area and the home of the US Olympic winter sports teams. You can imagine the terrain. But it was summertime -- plush mountain landscape and very hot. I felt I was ascending to a very unique and special place.
The Workshop Begins
The first night I took furious notes while Director Galway Kinnell described how the poetry week would work. Each evening there would be a talk by one of the staff poets. Each morning, we were to slip a newly written poem under the mat at our front door. Each morning at 7:30 poems were collected, xeroxed, and put into packets for the respective workshops. Workshops began after breakfast. Participants rotated through the workshops. The 12 to 15 people in each workshop read the poems and made comments. The routine would be repeated for six days.
My First Poem Came Easy
I had written down verbatim a comment from Galway. He said that as we made our way through the week that we might get tired and feel we could go no further but that second wind like second light would arrive. That first night, my first poem was easy. I could not resist transforming my notes into a poem about the trip up the mountain. Several attending poets had a similar impulse. Each of our approaches was different. I had positive feedback and my week was launched with a successful poem. I called it The Rising and opened with the epigraph. Right. I used the quote from Galway's comments. As I neared the end of the poem, I realized that some of the lines were interchangeable or reversible. It was interesting to me, like a puzzle. Next I realized you could read it backwards or forwards. Whether ascending the mountain or descending. An accidental palindrome. Several years later, when it was to be included in my Common Ancestry book, I sent both versions to the editor, David Oliveira, and he chose the ascending the mountain version. I still like them each equally. Back to the epigraph, which was a direct quote from Galway: "Second wind is like second light." What then is second light? When I looked up the definition I discovered it had to do with some greater light in some rarefied air above the mountains. Wow! You couldn't get more bingo than that. Here's the poem. We can all have great conversations with dead poets and even converse with the living. It is rare and exquisite when we can actually read the poem to the author of the inspiring quotation. The conversation begins.
Second wind is a mysterious force -- like second light.
-- Galway Kinnell
At the rounding of each plateau,
insinuations of greatness
ennoble the bounding ascent.
Volumes of gentle air
without imposition, ripple the
Legions of lodge-pole pines,
evergreen, ever faithful,
lift their arms in perennial salute.
Rimming the majestic plane,
a coronet of mountains.
Above the high sierras,
the silence of light reigns.