Fire and Blood of Poetry: Keeping the Fire Alive
Mediocribus esse poetis
non homines, non di, non concessere columnae.
“Neither men, nor gods, nor booksellers allow
poets to be mediocre.”
So declared Horace in his Ars Poetica. Keeping this charge from one of the fathers of poetry in mind, how do we breathe life and fire into our work to make it shine brighter, sing more sweetly, and move with greater rhythm? How do we keep our work vital, energetic, and original? How do we write poems that shimmer and dance seductively?
We can begin by deciding to live more fully from our hearts. To live from our hearts is to live from our centers, where our true life is, the home of our real voice, and the source of our fire. If we commit fully to be in the experience of living it will be a commitment to our art, connecting us more deeply to the people and world around us. This passion in us will, in turn, emerge organically in our work. Mary Oliver who possesses a burning ardor for living and for the natural world infuses her poetry with this intense passion:
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open —
pools of lace…
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies…
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
— Mary Oliver
Oliver, wholly enchanted by the wonder and beauty around her, creates a kind of magic in her poem that allows us to rediscover the world. She looks at nature with such freshness and a sense of awe that we almost feel innocent again. The “terror beneath” however, is a sharp reminder of the ever-present paradox in life—that life’s fragility is tied tremulously to its beauty.
As poets we have to dare to be original, to be innovative. Being too immersed in the culture will make our work conformist. So we need to step back, take a long, hard look at the way we are in the world, and pay respect to our individuality. From that place we may be able to write something surprising.
Incorporating the element of surprise into our poems can have a powerful effect on our readers. The following poem proceeds quietly with great clarity, simplicity, and seeming predictability . . .
Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed
Wan Chu, my adoring husband,
has returned from another trip
selling trinkets in the provinces.
He pulls off his lavender shirt
as I lie naked in our bed,
waiting for him. He tells me
I am the only woman he’ll ever love.
He may wander from one side of China
to the other, but his heart
will always stay with me.
His face glows in the lamplight
with the sincerity of a boy
when I lower the satin sheet
to let him see my breasts
Outside it begins to rain
on the cherry trees
he planted with our son,
and when he enters me with a sigh,
the storm begins in earnest,
shaking our little house.
Afterwards I stroke his back
until he falls asleep.
I’d love to stay awake all night
listening to the rain,
but I should sleep too. Tomorrow Wan Chu will be
a hundred miles away
and I will be awake all night
in the arms of Wang Chen,
the tailor from Ming Pao,
the tiny village down river.
— Richard Jones
With direct, simple language Jones builds word and image so that the shift at the end leaves the reader slightly off balance.
All the universal themes in life have been written about so much that it’s risky to handle a well-worn subject. It takes guts to step into the arena and deliver work with a new twist. Guts are needed to drop the old perspective and to step confidently into a new attitude. Poets have to do this in their own lives though in order to do it in their work—shed their habitual skin and be willing to inhabit new clothing.
The approach to love and sex in poetry has often been one-dimensional. Love is frequently portrayed romantically and sex often pruriently or with a Hollywood sense of fantasy. In her poem, “First Sex”, though, Sharon Olds writes with such honesty and detail about her first sexual encounter that the overall effect is the opposite of pornographic. She creates, instead, a picture of passionate innocence and physical pleasure, untainted by guilt or sexual exploitation. She stays in the moment so deliberately and unflinchingly that the poem’s power emerges as we enter its real humanness.
I knew little, and what I knew
I did not believe—they had lied to me
so many times, so I just took it as it
came, his naked body on the sheet,
the tiny hairs curling on his legs like
fine, gold shells, his sex
harder and harder under my palm
and yet not hard as a rock his face cocked
back as if in terror, the sweat
jumping out of his pores like sudden
trails from the tiny snails when his knees
locked with little clicks and under my
hand he gathered and shook and the actual
flood like milk came out of his body, I
saw its glow on his belly, all they had
said and more, I rubbed it into my
hands like lotion, I signed on for the duration.
— Sharon Olds
Ultimately all poems celebrate life, whether they contain negative emotions or are inspired by awe. So if poets live more deeply, more vulnerably, more responsively to the individual moments in life then their poems stand a good chance of dazzling and awakening the reader to the underlying mystery and miracle of ordinary life. If we are in the flow of life we will be able to recognize and celebrate these moments of beauty and affirmation. The following poem is an example of how one poet’s ordinary day was suddenly transformed into something truly exquisite:
Maybe it’s Ian. Maybe walking with him
to the sitter’s, a kind of
religious exercise, his singing
counterpoint to mine as we walk
wakens the gods.
The fog dances more gently
into the trees. This ripest of
moments gives birth to amazement
so pure it hurts. That the world
arranges itself so vividly for me!
— Austin Straus
Finally, fostering curiosity in and for the things of the physical world as well as delving into the larger metaphysical concerns will serve to fan the flames of poetic creativity. Poets who ask questions in their poems keep a dialogue with their readers alive. In “Sunday Morning” Wallace Stevens openly queries the value of traditionally held religious beliefs and invites his readers to listen to other possibilities:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
— Wallace Stevens
So, if we have the guts to ask questions from our hearts, honor our individual voice, and add a little dab of defiance to our lives we will burn and sparkle and our work will embody that same intensity. We may wake the reader from sleep to the actual world of the moment and remind all of us that: “Everything comes and goes. Only strong art is eternal.” (Theophile Gautier, “L’Art”)
Wendy Fulton Steginsky is the author of The Tide of Bermuda’s Light (Aldrich Press, 2014) and Let This Be Enough (Aldrich Press, 2016). She attributes her love for poetry to growing up on the shores of Bermuda where the sea’s rhythms seeped into her bones and stayed. Her work has been published in two volumes of Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, Bermuda Reading and Writing Festival Companion 2014, courtesy of Read*Write*Bermuda Books and the Buechner Society of Bermuda, And The Questions Are Enough, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, US 1 Worksheets, online at tongues of the ocean, Wild River Review and featured in an exhibition, Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (November 2012 through March 2013). Currently she resides happily in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.