Grains of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.” – Keats to Shelley

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For me writing is the closest thing I have to religious experience. Whether it’s because, through the act, I open a trapdoor into some Jungian subconscious, or it speaks to the transcendental nature of words themselves, or it’s something else completely, I don’t know. But every writer, I think, is an ascetic in some way.

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There are a lot of little hurts in West Branch, Michigan (and Staten Island, New York and Friendsville, Maryland, etc). Write about them.

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We’re creatures of rhythm—from our mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb to the pulse that maintains us. Each of these rhythms is unique. This is the beat of our poems.

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The satoric moment—the moment when clarity reveals itself—is the lyric moment we try to capture: something releases the pigeons within us so those birds ascend in a fury of wings and feathers. That moment when the birch bark is ripped asunder and the knots in the tree’s muscles are freed, that’s the moment we try—often futilely—to capture.

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Perhaps memory is composed of an archipelago of vivid images. To write from memory means to raise them above the sea level of the mundane with as much vividness and energy that made you need to recall it.

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Matthews: “Memory is a constant good to writing. But memory is not a system of information storage and retrieval. Memory itself is a kind of writing.”

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Abstractions are balloons that float above our heads. Images are the strings that allow us to grasp them. Some poems are one balloon. Some are a bouquet of such balloons: colorful, delicate, and striving to rise above us.

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At Bay deNoc College, a student asked me about the number of sirens in my work—especially, she noted, in love poems. I hadn’t noticed this before, and although sirens were often background noise to a New York childhood, I think it has to do with the fundamental need for tension in a poem. It’s important to keep in mind the proximity of despair in even our happiest moments; after all, faith is strongest only in relationship to doubt.

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Miró: “Each grain of dust contains the soul of something marvelous. But in order to understand it, we have to recover the religious and magical sense of things that belong to primitive peoples.”

This makes me think of the ancient Talmudic scholars who believed in the spark of god which is found in all things, that remnant of creation. Sounds like the big bang, to me. Sounds like each word in a poem should be aware of what it contains.

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Poetry is flying a kite in a hurricane.

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In a New Yorker interview, director Mike Nichols said: “When a joke comes to you, it feels like it’s been sent by God. What it is, really, is discovering your unconscious.”

Same can be said for poetry.

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Two touchstones of poetry: Subtlety and specificity.

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Again Miró: “For me form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake.”

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Sometimes formal poems remind me of the well-gridded, well-groomed streets of gated communities: ordered, clean, soul-less. Sometimes free verse poems remind me of cluttered, winding, narrow streets in some European city—the soul is there, but we’re too busy navigating the streets to experience it. Both ways of founding a poem can be poorly done. It’s not in design, but in execution, that a poem’s power is found.

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The formal and intellectual gamesmanship of the so-called avant-garde (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, fractal poetics, etc) doesn’t interest me beyond the first glance. They are curiosities, but usually not filled with the heart I long for in poems.

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The writer is a magician. Like a magician the result of craft is more for the audience than the poet. Metaphor is one way to make a silk scarf turn into flowers. The lyric moment gets the applause.

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Felix Adler (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown): “The simpler the trick, the better, so long as it contains an element of surprise.”

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Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.

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A poem is rhyme, meter, form in service to the details/images/“narrative” of the poem, in service to the tools of lyricism and meaning, not the other way around.

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Greg Orr: “Memory is a form of imagination.”

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Randall Jarell: “A poet is not so much one who has had the experience so much as someone who needs to have it.”

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Re: Plato’s two worlds: the world of being and the world of becoming—the world of things and the world of ideals. We live in the world of things, therefore poetry based purely in abstraction, in the world of ideals, takes poetry away from its inherent readership. Imagery that engages the senses that reflects the things of the world enables the reader to engage abstraction in a tangible way, much as the way the experience of sitting in a chair enables us to engage the ideal chair. Every poem, therefore, exists in both worlds simultaneously. It is, and it is becoming.

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The poem’s page is a door between the abstract world and the quotidian world. The right words unlock the door.

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Like the space within the atom—between electrons and the nucleus—the space between the lines of a poem needs to have gravity, pull, necessity.

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Poems are a way of thinking, which is why Plato was frightened of the poets. It’s a way of thinking and a rhetoric that is antithetical to deductive reasoning. This is also why Hegel saw poetry as the second highest art form after philosophy.

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Images in poems can work like buoys in a harbor: they gauge the depth of the poem’s waters through their use, how the language around them works, how connected they are to abstraction, and how they engage other images, narrative strands, language within the poem.

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Poems are not feelings put down on paper, but may be feelings mediated by craft and the act of translating them into language.

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Memory has no fixed points. Memories don’t take up disk space. By using memory in poetry one attempts to give memory its own particular place.

Therefore returning to a memory in another poem, a poet does not alter the memory as the writer remembering is the changed thing.

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Pierre Bonnard “painted from memory because he wanted images that had made a connection between reality and emotion” (NPR)

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Visual art is eternally present tense even when dealing with history. The present tense lyric attempts a similar simultaneosity. It wants to capture an event that has already happened by giving it resonance through voice which the reader then experiences in the now.

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The importance of the image in a poem is that it helps us not only re-envision an abstraction, but also, by way of its symbolic/metaphoric weight, re-envision the object itself.

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Consider the use of imagery in a poem as the use of talismans. The poet imbues in the image emotional/spiritual/psychic weight so that the reader can feel it. In other words the best/strongest/most memorable images in a poem are like charms, like relics, like something someone we loved left behind—a shirt, perhaps, that we keep among our thing so that the beloved remains with us even though the person has gone.

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Poetry like magic is about making what is impossible seem possible. Or the other way around.

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It helps to consider the poem as a lever, gestures on one side of the fulcrum have to move something on the other side of it. If not, nothing happens.

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I read the Bible, stories, and magic books as a child. Which means I learned the sublime—and myth, story, and the power to transform the things of the world—to make things do the improbable. I also played Eye-Spy which taught me to pay attention, and sang along with the radio in the back seat of my mother’s car. Those five things are all any poet needs.

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from Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Poetry
(forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2015)


 

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