“The poet, is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”
– T.S. Elliot
Two modes of thinking
Perhaps there is no instruction book or check list to be followed. Perhaps poems grow in the dark earth beneath the day light of our alert, problem solving, beta wave consciousness. Perhaps, poems don’t even begin with words at all, but meanings.
The Nobel award winning writer and researcher Daniel Kahneman states in his best selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, that human beings operate with two distinct modes of thinking which he refers to as system 1 and system 2.
System 1 is our subconscious, intuition and gut instinct. It drives our impulses, fears, prejudices and makes free associations between objects and feelings among other things. An example of this might be winter and snow or jelly and ice-cream.
System 2 is our executive functioning, our reason, skepticism and rationale. It analyzes whether the intuitions of system 1 are based on objective facts or bias and assumption.
The relative difficulty of applying system 2 thinking to problem solving means that it is often overridden by the quantitative ease of using system 1.
But perhaps, where poetry is concerned that is no bad thing. Perhaps the deep meanings that effect us in poetry actually emerge from such a place because that place taps into our collective hopes, fears and dreams, indeed, even our bias.
“I never find words right away. Poems for me always begin with images and rhythms, shapes, feelings, forms and dances in the back of my mind…My imagination is pre-linguistic, preverbal.” Composing the words is a “further exercise.” “Language, comes after imagination.”- Gary Snyder
Elliot’s statement evokes something almost primeval. A place before language development let alone the written word. It is a place of archaic grunts that emerge from the animal body. Perhaps, poetry, more than other language art starts with the body rather than the mind. Rhythm and meter are essential to any poem. The metronome of the human heartbeat resonates in the antiquated Villanelle, the repetition of a Persian Ghazal, and even contemporary, stream of consciousness Blank Verse alike.
The guttural cry is the first sound of the poem. It gives the poem it’s free associations, its rhythm, tone and theme. It is the beginning.
But the analysis and editing of system 2 refines and turns the raw material of our human psyche into cloth like the spinning wheel of Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold thread. It questions our initial intuitions and the bias of our emotions. Its stark analytical questioning can become the axis on which the poem turns.
”Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, squares, and the like, but for the human emotions. If one has a mind which inclines to magic rather than science, one will prefer to speak of these equations as spells or incantations; it sounds more arcane, mysterious, recondite.” – Ezra Pound
System 2 can whittle a ramble of words down to their most precise meaning, discarding the extraneous and superfluous. It can clarify. It is a refining fire. It judges, compares and contemplates how and where to use literary mechanisms such as line breaks, metaphors and repetition. It judges how these devices work on the page and translate in the mind of the reader.
‘As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly-created universe. – Philip Larkin
One of the benefits of poetry is how it channels common human experience such as love, death, loss, grief, joy and hope through the lens of an individual’s perspective.
Poetry begins with the collective consciousness of system 1 and ends with the individual reasoning of system 2.
It the commonality of our human experience refracted through the reasoning of an individual mind. It belongs both to the poet and the reader alike.
‘Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.’ – Dylan Thomas
My writing process
I have started to observe my own writing process and have found that I do indeed begin a poem with an emotion or meaning that I want to convey which usually starts out as quite biased in that I want the reader to arrive at a certain outcome.
A poem will also often begin with a sense of rhythm to sketch its structure. The rhythm might be terse, scant and stark if the general emotion is melancholic or reflective or if the theme of the poem is loneliness or detachment. If the poem is more passionate the rhythm might be more iambic in meter, full of galloping upstrokes and alliteration. If the poem is centered on an ordinary moment the rhythm may be more meandering, conversational and prose-like.
After a first draft I leave the poem to sit for a week or so. During that time I won’t think about it or look at it. When I come back to the poem my system 2 thinking takes over. I can see it far more more objectively. I begin to question why I wanted the poem to conclude a certain way. Have I considered an opposite point of view? How might I include a counter perspective to give the poem more depth? I will read my poem aloud many times.
At this point I also experiment with line breaks as in my first draft line breaks will usually be inseparable from meter and rhyme scheme. Line breaks change the overall rhythm again, often magnifying the feeling of the initial draft. Line breaks can also alter the speed the reader travels through a poem and emphasizes different aspects of the poem by isolating them.
My poems can go through many different versions of themselves before they feel as if they are comfortable in their own skin.
An Example of one of my poems in stages.
And cleared away to make space
Mid – Life
A liminal space,
A barefoot ground,
Burning a bark gold shroud.
Remaking a way, a clearing, a glade.
Clearing the raw, the un-hemmed, the frayed
leaf dreams, bare as winter sky
and full with weeping
low as chariots aflame.
for something more
Simple as a plain shift dress,
a clear dawn sky
Though starlight fades
All defined lines erase
to a plume of dust
to a breeze
in the fall.
Old layers peel,
old masks flake,
bark, calloused as shell fragments, breaks.
Lichen grows like fur in furrows,
Silent deer lap slow green streams,
Stems bend with currents.
Hard edges erode, become soft
and all is worn down
to the jewel inside the stone.
I am an owl moving
through sifting sands of silence.
Chaff abandons clay baked grain.
A womb of clear darkness quakes.
My own dance, dances now in the dapple
bough heavy with storm and ripe with fruit,
not of the wilderness nor
the well ordered rooms
I walk between
because I walk between
I am a paper chain of people
a single note, strung into a chord.
“Moments “burn with lifetimes,”
the spaces between
all things grow green with rain,
and nothing is lost
Quoted text inspired by The Four Quartets by T.S Elliot.
“As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
[…] In my end is my beginning”