Reading and Writing Poetry as an Invitation to Wake Up
Guest post by Nadia Colburn, PhD
Nadia is teaching "Poetry as a Contemplative Practice" on May 18th, 10:30-1:30. Click here for more info. Nadia holds a BA from Harvard and a PhD in English from Columbia University. Her award-winning poetry has been widely published in such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, slate, American Scholar, and Yale Review. Nadia works as a writing teacher and coach at GrubStreet and at Align Your Story, her business which helps women--and men--write and live from their most powerful, authentic voice. More info www.nadiacolburn.com.
Sometimes everything can feel dull; the world seems usual, expected, muted. March and rainy April are like this: another day, no leaves on the branches; no signs of spring.
And then in Boston towards the end of April and the beginning of May, suddenly everything pops: the sun comes out and the cherries and magnolias are in bloom; tender green leaves open on the leaves, and I’m reminded there is another way to see things, another way to be.
Then summer comes and it’s too hot and I get used to the green and I forget again the mystery of being, the amazing ability of the world to change, to transform.
But poetry, in any season, can help me remember. Poetry can remind me that I can see differently; that things not only can change, but always are shifting; and that I will know this if I am just more aware.
Rumi’s short poem “Breezes at Dawn” (trans Coleman Barks) is just such an invitation to greater awareness:
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want
don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
On the one hand, the language is deceptively simple; the syntax and vocabulary are not more complex than what a third grader would use.
But its very simplicity is a sign of the poem’s great authority: the poem speaks directly to the reader and encourages her to pay attention—to pay attention to herself and to the world around her, from the subtlety of the breeze to tuning into what we really want.
On the surface it may seem easy to ask for what we really want, but how many of us really know what this is? (Often the thing I think I want is not what I really want.) And if we do know, do we know how to ask? (Often asking for anything can be really challenging for me.)
In waking up to our deep desires, we approach that doorsill where the two worlds touch—the doorsill of the sacred, of mortality, of creativity.
And though I sometimes think of morality—and even creativity—with fear, the poem is very gentle: the door is round and open; it’s an invitation. My own perspective shifts, and in reading the poem, I have a different approach to my own life.
A poem can be exciting in the questions it asks, in the ways it encourages the reader to be an active participant.
Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Summer Day,” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” Did she know she was going to ask this question when she sat down to write the poem, or did her experience of describing a grasshopper up close, as she does in this poem, lead to this personal question?
I find that as I both read and write poetry, I come to the unexpected. The very small can lead to the very large, and the questions that come to me often surprise me.
“In Leaves of Grass,” Whitman writes: ;
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?...I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.”
What we do not know, our imaginative “guesses,” are often more interesting than factual answers. The white spaces of a poem slow the reader (and writer) down, and in that slowed down space we have time to examine and re-examine our perceptions, our desires, our intentions.
Reading and writing poetry both become an interaction between what is said on the page and what is not said, between how we normally see and new ways of seeing, between what we know and what we do not know.
“Glory be to God for dappled things—“ Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Whatever we think of the word God, Hopkins brings his sense of wonder to the page. He spent hours outside, describing in great detail in his journal the natural world around him. Then he’d turn those descriptions into poems: “For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;/ For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;/ Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings.”
I can sometimes forget how miraculous our world is. On a day like today, the first really warm day, when the new leaves are all ready to unfurl, there seems to be poetry everywhere, and the page becomes a place to put my wonder and enthusiasm.
But on days when I forget this wonder and the creative energy of spring, a poem can help me remember, can help me slow down, look again, and find meaning.
Meaning needn’t only be in the new growth and joy of spring, but also in the difficult spaces, in the things that scare us, in the doorways that we thought we did not want to cross, but that we can learn to walk up to and approach differently through a poem.