Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy 2009 - May it be a year of inspiration

Though according to most working poets, it's about as likely to have daily poetic inspiration as it is to have lightning strikes each morning in your living room.

Or so says former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in an interview that made me feel reassured about my lack of ideas. He says he sits in his living room every morning to write and "nine days out of ten nothing good comes of it." Yet he does it, day after day, disciplined as any craftsman. He says if, after writing every day, at the end of a year he has 12 poems he cares about, he feels fortunate.

William Stafford reported similarly low levels of inspiration as adequate to compensate high levels of dedication. In his books Crossing Unmarked Snow and Writing the Australian Crawl, the poet reports with good humor that the way to make it to high art is through dismal failures. It's not quite the monkey-at-the-typewriter odds of writing Shakespeare, but you get the idea.

These comments by great poets indicate a little-discussed and never-taught quality needed for great creativity: patience. We read the life stories of poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and can hardly imagine how they found the inner resources to persevere with so little encouragement. In patience is great creative power.

So says Flaubert: "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation." Mary Oliver cites this quote in A Poetry Handbook, and she comments on the hopefulness of this idea: "For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them."

Which bring us to New Year's and resolutions. Mine for this January 1 is to continue to note daily observations of some object along my daily path that strikes me as potent with meaning. Not to note the meaning, but to embed the meaning in the description. I have a little notebook, pocket-sized and ready with a little pen, and I'm going to give that little book over to this practice.

Practice, practice, practice. On that subject, I wrote a villanelle whose subject was the unending daily practices of ballet dancers. I think it applies to poetry as well. It's dedicated to my ballet teacher, who basically taught me how to be a poet.

Ballet Teacher’s Catechism
– for Rosalie

You’ll practice every day until you die.
When years of sweat have dried, call it Art.
Eight en croix, thirty-two on each side.
You kids only like the easy part.

When years of sweat have dried, call it Art,
glittering threads whose weft you never see.
You kids only like the easy part.
You don’t understand the work of simplicity.

Glittering threads, the weft you never see—
beauty is woven on a loom of pain.
You don’t understand the work. Behind simplicity
is a dancer with a one-pointed brain.

Beauty is woven on a loom of pain.
Only repetition can make a movement pleasing.
The dancer with a one-pointed brain
trains sinew and bone past habit and reason.

Only repetition can make a movement pleasing.
Eight en croix, thirty-two on each side.
To train sinew and bone past habit and reason
you’ll practice every day until you die.

(from Femme au chapeau, David Robert Books)