A Poetic Vocation

“The poet is an anomaly in our culture. The goal of our culture is money and power. And that’s not exactly what poetry is about. What is it about? That’s a hard question. It’s about anything the human mind and unconscious can produce. And that’s infinite.” [Stanley Kunitz]

And living life within the confines set by our society is certainly not what writing is about, period. Writing, and being a writer, can be glorious when your readers flock to your words, like bees to honey, and demoralizing to your spirit when they do not. In our constant internship to our prose, we sometimes lose site of the fact we are as tied to those lines, and in their creation, as we are to food and water.

And so, I admit, Stanley Kunitz has caught my fancy. I featured him in a recent A Blessing for Sunday, and since then I have poured over this book. Tim loved this book. Oddly loved this book. I was at the time “why this book”? It was about poetry, and gardening and an old man talking about Raccoons roaming the town, and of Stanley’s meandering along the lanes of his divine garden. I admire his desires, and the soul that comes through his words, and the life he leads. I love this little book, even more so now.

Lately I’ve been going through and delving deeper into the lines this man has written. The book is called ‘The Wild Braid: a poet reflects on a century in the garden.‘ {written with one Genine Lentine}.

Here is part of a poem, RACCOON JOURNAL:

July 17
They live promiscuously in the woods
above the marsh, snuggling in hollow trees
or rock-piled hillside dens,
from which they swagger in dead of night,
nosy, precocious, bushy-tailed,
to inspect their properties in town.

He inspires me. A more genuine soul you’re not likely to meet. He is a little odd, but kind and funny. He has a vast wealth of knowledge tucked up inside, and this book I see as perhaps touching a small portion of that vastness.

This work is peppered with lovely photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. Gorgeous close-ups of flowers from Stanley’s garden, and some wonderful ones of Stanley himself … my favourite is on the cover, of him peering over into a patch of some precious organic leafy beauty, hidden by a bank of ferns.

For this man, poetry in its infinite potential, gives him the vehicle in which to share these intimate treasures he sees around him.

I find myself of late very much attracted to understanding the language of telling stories, the craft of drafting lines of prose, and the inspirations that create these poets.

Many of us are aware that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein on the banks of Lake Geneva, with Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, after a night of telling ghost stories to one another on a dark and stormy night. Yet, the creation of Mary’s monster is but the briefest tangible piece – what we don’t understand is that to have been there on that lake, at that time, took a certain state of mind.  The story is a product of perhaps a path that had been forged back in 1814 when her and Percy eloped, and escaped together on a harried journey across Europe.

In the years that followed their elopement, they came to be the centre amongst a coterie of some of the most creative minds in England. While debating politics and government, the plight of the poor and divulging scandalous lines of poetic, incestuous prose, their contemporaries where wallowing in the mire of their dull daily lives.

In Daisy Hay’s ‘The Young Romantics‘, she describes the environment surrounding Shelley and the owner of a popular publication at the time The Examiner . These men had seen the rise and fall of Bonaparte, and been born amidst the rise of revolutionary thinking, when speech was not free, and when few had the pleasure of speaking their mind. Ms. Hay writes of Shelley describing himself to Hunt “as an outcast mocked by all those who knew his work. He spoke too of how social exile had affected his sense of poetic vocation”:

Perhaps I should have shrunk from persisting in the task which I had undertaken in early life, of opposing myself, in these evil times & among these evil tongues, to what I esteem misery & vice; if I must have lived in the solitude of the heart. Fortunately my domestic circle encloses that within it which compensates for the loss. – But these are subjects for conversations, & I find that in using the privileges which you have permitted me of friendship, I have indulged that garrulity of self-love which only friendship can excuse or endure.”
[from Young Romantics: the Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation. by Daisy Hay c2010]

It begs the question – can one live a comfortable suburban lifestyle, surrounded by concrete and asphalt and still be true to our gifts? Does our creativity desire solitude? Or to be always within the bosom of loving friends who “get” our obsessive jotting and typing of what possesses our soul. Can we live how others feel we should, toe the line of popular opinion and still be what we were meant to be? Would Mary Shelley have written Frankenstein, holed up in her father’s house living the life he (and society) felt was fitting for a young girl of 17?

I think we all know the answer to that. Many brilliant youths would have lived into their Wordsworthian years, if they had toed the line of popular opinion and dutifully lived the life their society dictated – but what a dull world that would be. To not enjoy the delicious beauty and quality of thought that those Young Romantics fashion out of stormy nights and intangible dreams.

And oh, Stanley my Stanley, where would I be without old Stanley.

There is something in the human being I would call, in the most general terms, a need to transcend the corporeal being and become a person identified by his or her individuating qualities. Every artist I’ve known has been distinguished, almost from birth, by knowledge of that need to become a self, not just a living body.

As Blake put it, “We must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” You have to practice being yourself, and not merely exist as a number in a world of billions of numbers.

This is so contrary to the natter of well-meaning family and friends. This living amongst those without this desire can wear you down. It is impossible to explain the significance of sweating and straining over 3 infinitesimal lines of haiku, or the first draft of your massive epic novel. Myself? I’ve always known that knowledge for which Stanley refers; that sense that my understanding of self was the cornerstone of my creativity. Knowing and living it has proven to be a greater struggle then I imagined it to be back when I was 17, and off to see the wizard. Like Mary, what seemed like a fantastic journey away from all the things that held you back, I see now that it is that tug of war of being what we “are”, against the grain of what others feel we should be.

That struggle is the glue for which we hang our lines of prose on. These struggles create the friction that is necessary for those monsters of our creation to gain life. That electricity that is created out of that friction is the very core of who we are. If we deny that, if we stumble and allow our fear of these unknown places to direct our heart, then we will be as the dead who walk the sidewalks of suburbia – playing in the fields of manicured lawns, and clipped hedges. And our dull clipped lines, edited for fashion and trend, become devised merely to attract the seething masses … we are as tasteless as the headlines of fast-food culture many of us eschew.

Creativity is not a Romantic journey to a placid lake, it’s not for the weak of heart. It is a path leading into the mouth of the beast sometimes, or a walk on the edge of the precipice of safety. It is always I believe a tight-rope act of balancing our spirit with our means of acquiring food, water and shelter, and are rarely fashioned from the offsprings of our heart, but more often our compromises.

I feel compelled sometimes to rant and rave against the injustice of it all. Why do the good die young and the dull and dreary often live on into their dotage…flaking off bits and pieces of dry toasted prose and reaping the glories of longevity, rather than talent. Oh, accept my Stanley. For it is he that has taught me some important lessons about how to craft the soul whilst fashioning a life for which you can be happy within.

We are not mere plebs chained to our prose, but rather the voice and spirit of a continuum of other like-minded souls…spiraling down through the ages, reaching out to one another and greeting these like minds as the kindred spirits we are.

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