Creative Collisions

Creative Collisions—Poetry as a Transformative Act

William O’Daly
October 2018

The Meditation

From where do poems come? How do they grow—without and within? What’s the poet’s role in the receiving and the making? Regardless of how one responds to these ancient questions, poets spend years preparing heart, mind, and spirit to compose the inner voice. They witness and speak out as their voice evolves from other voices, from inner and outer processes and perpetual change. They commit to a lifetime of learning how to transfigure the steeple and the street, the cosmos and the river, the fallen petals and the joy.

Seeking sources of vitality, poets and other dreamers— singers, dancers, translators, visual artists, linguistic anthropologists, buffalo seekers—reach back to the stories painted on cave walls; the symbols, customs, and memories ritually etched in the collective imagination; the songs performed around the common fire. To this day, Native American tribes perform their ceremonies and celebrate their traditions around the ritual fire. Some preserve the old stories by originating from their spoken language a written one. College and community writing workshops, another form of community, can be helpful, depending on how a poet relates to them and learns. The pedagogical thread encourages study of the lasting works, of prosody and poetics—of literature.

Artists in all genres, as lifelong learners, seek to discover and rediscover themselves in the cultural landscape of which they are a part, of which they are an expression. The more they explore the possibilities, the more unfathomable it all becomes. As they become themselves, all that surrounds them becomes itself. Along the way, we grapple with beliefs, theories, manifestos, invention and deconstruction, edicts claiming how and even on what subject poetry should and should not be written. How poetry should not be written. How it should be.

But the poet’s journey is of the kind any explorer, intent on observing and creating rather than plundering and converting, might embark on. The poet walks the plaza and the playa, grows imagination and intuition, an emotional and intellectual life, and in the daily practice calibrates the internal compass. The poet draws from the spirit of dream and of physics; the poem forms before the words. In twilight, the poem’s substance is shaped by the practice, by how the poet dreams and perceives and breathes, even as, from the first beginning, the poem creates its own being. Poets witness how the poem shapes their relationships to themselves and to others, to the physical and the spiritual worlds. Discovering that web, they sing it, work within it. In the making, the poem costs everything and nothing.

In their singular worlds, poets speak of writing as taking dictation. In his book Common as Air, Lewis Hyde relates that the Hindu mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan “believed that his family deity, the goddess Namagiri, visited him in dreams to write mathematical equations on his tongue.” The same experience is shared by musicians and other artists and is amplified by those who translate poetry from another tongue. Poet-translators listen, intuit, think and feel in another language, in another history and culture. For a spell, they share in the perceptions of the poets whose works reach across borders, mountains, deserts, and oceans. They sharpen their eye and ear. In a sustained translation practice, they teach themselves their own language.

Why anyone writes, how anyone hears a poem and receives it, what impels a poet to commit to the art form—the answer is subject to personal and evolutionary forces. Whatever their fleeting or lasting form, answers arrive intimately, at some latitude and longitude, in their time. We experience them as unspeakable, as speakable only within a culture.

What good is poetry to the self or the other? Pablo Neruda’s description of his poetics, of his roles as translator and reader, is of the essence. “Each and every one of my verses has chosen to take its place as a tangible object, each and every one of my poems has claimed to be a useful working instrument, each and every one of my songs has aspired to serve as a sign in space for the meeting between paths which cross one another, or as a piece of stone or wood on which someone, some others, those who follow after, will be able to carve the new signs.”1 Bradford Morrow, in the preface to his interview with poet, translator, essayist, and social critic Kenneth Rexroth, describes that American master’s bearing: “What was so honorable about Rexroth was that, like any person who rises into true and genuine greatness,…he stood for what he loved and took a strong, active stance against what he believed was contrary to human dignity and the spiritual transcendence of the natural world.”

Those artistic qualities and social positions, almost as much as Neruda’s and Rexroth’s works, have inspired many to emulate their commitment to the art form, to its communities, to the propagation of poetry and even making the world a better place. But no one ever accomplishes this by walking in the shoes of another. Every poet, writer or translator—any true artist—travels his or her own road, not only to prepare but to be open to inspiration and be filled with the voices of others.

Inspiration comes from the dry well or from light-years away, from the subway or the wave, and sometimes, when we pay attention, from close by—whether with a loved one gazing from the emerald hills upon the Florence of Dante and the Medici; or sharing with a friend on a clear, high desert night the moon lily; or sitting alone with a book and a hunger before the winter fire. Whatever the case, I take comfort in Antonio Porchia’s words: “They will say that you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.”2

Poetry is born of a commitment to living consciously, to succeeding and failing, discovering and reclaiming, and giving in a committed way. Poetry invites our dreams—and the dreams of others—to speak with us.

The Journey

My friend and I turn off Interstate 80 east of Reno, take State Route 442 a short distance to SR 447, and head north toward Surprise Valley. This evening we’ll attend a reception launching an inaugural event to celebrate convergences among landforms, flora and fauna, the natural sciences and generative processes. We’ll gather with friends and meet others who share a passion for the always becoming that is life, for the poetry.

As we pass through the arid, nearly treeless subbasin of the Great Basin, and despite knowing the deep blue will soon materialize, Pyramid Lake’s sparkle comes as a revelation. It’s the lake’s southeast arm, not far from where the Truckee River empties High Sierra snowmelt into that sudden and salty waterbody. We catch sight of the iconic mounds along the shore, which my friend says are generations of crystalline tufa formed underwater in prehistoric times.

We rise and pass from that sunny subbasin to a rainswept one, between the brush-covered red clay hills bordering the playa. We steer our rented Prius along the bottom of what, 20,000 years earlier, was vast Lake Lahontan. Pyramid and one other lake are scant remnants.

Between conversations and speculations about what we’re seeing, on the ground and in the air—a peregrine falcon, a Cooper’s hawk, western scrub jays, Canada geese, a single snowy egret—I’m staring out the passenger window. I’m watching for metaphor, now feathered, where new expression might perch and call out and return to build its nest. I’m missing how tuned in I’ve been to rhythm and tone, how connected I’ve felt to unseen rivers and bridges, to destination as it develops on the page. We wind up and down the desert, climb another pass and descend into the next subbasin. Craggy formations and the dry sandy whiteness of the playa bring back the first stanza of Thomas McGrath’s poem, “A Coal Fire in Winter”:

Something old and tyrannical burning there.
(Not like a wood fire which is only
The end of a summer, or a life)
But something of darkness: heat
From the time before there was fire.
And I have come here
To warm that blackness into forms of light,
To set free a captive prince
From the sunken kingdom of the father coal.

We pass an exposed town beating back the desert, a town sunken and hanging on. Metaphor courses in this otherworldly, starkly beautiful landscape. The black hills to the west expand and contract with the morning light, while each day they lose some immeasurable part of themselves to time. Their breathing guides, moves us to listen to what’s far away and what’s nearby, to listen for the poem which appears first as rhythm, with a pulse and illusionary ease. Such a poem is what Neruda called a “rose of energy,” one that grows in the imagination and transforms what came before.

The second and final stanza of McGrath’s poem offers that same sense of renewal.

A warming company of the cold-blooded—
These carbon serpents of bituminous gardens,
These inflammable tunnels of dead song from the black pit,
This sparkling end of the great beasts, these blazing
Stone flowers diamond fire incandescent fruit.
And out of all that death, now,
At midnight, my love and I are riding
Down the old high roads of inexhaustible light.

The poet and his love warm with the ceaseless light of all that came before, pass the long night in the flaring, their union made sacred by the passage. They live forever in the light glancing off their bodies. The past thrives in those constellated forms of energy—in their ceaseless journey—in the dancer’s muscle, the poet’s cadence, the painter’s dream.

As source and instrument, the poet transforms experience much as the jazz musician does the spirit when playing the tenor sax and much as the sax does the spirit when shaping the breath. The poet hears the undertones breathe life into something out of nothing, out of everything, out of what they don’t know. Or maybe sometimes out of what, with mixed results, they know. The ancients, navigating the Arabian Sea or plowing the plains of central China, believed the earth was flat. What is self-evident is not necessarily accurate. What may be evident to the self can be utterly false.

Poets say they receive their best poems. In my experience, everything about the writing, and later the recalling of the process that brought such a poem into being, feels like being given the rhythms and the words—sensing or even hearing them without knowing their full measure, scope, or destination. This ineffable gift has long engendered fealty and gratitude in the poet, but to what or whom? Homer asks the Muses to sing the hero’s failings. Catullus depicts as eternal the books given to the poet by the Muses. Dante equates the Muses with genius, and Shakespeare praises them as embodiment of invention. Whatever the myth or metaphor—in this era of the corporatization and commoditization of culture and self, of “nonpolitical” poems and the exalted one, and, as Gary Snyder puts it, “the weirdness of television”—the belief that the poem is received acknowledges that the poet plays an integral role. But not as originator or font, not as one or zero. The poet and the work are diminished when the poet is, in the words of critic and translator John Felstiner, egocentric, not ecocentric. That’s because the poet belongs, as a transformative force, to the contiguous and continuous ecological and kinetic processes of the art form.

I think of belonging, as my friend and I pass silently through the motionless town of Gerlach, gatekeeper of the Black Rock Desert and home of the Burning Man festival. Like any poet might, this town appears isolated but is fundamental to the shape of the human world, even more so when tens of thousands arrive to spend a few days in “tribal” communities, to receive and to give, to renew and be renewed, to just be there. An astronomical exchange occurs in that dust-blown region, where now there’s nothing but the teeming life of the desert, silent, hidden. We motor past the unseen names of gold seekers carved in the rocks and the thrumming of spring water below.

The convergence of self-concealing life cools the fires and the echoes of Burning Man. It recalls the high school physics class I barely passed and the legendary skepticism of my teacher, Father Tobin. That oblate priest taught us that energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one class into another. For everyone’s sake, I resisted the temptation to ask, “Even by God?”

With a glance heavenward and a nanosecond of stillness, Father Tobin gave a nod to Albert Einstein with the insight that matter is energy. Energy takes the form of matter and is conserved as matter; matter contains potential energy, which exists in constantly varying proportion to the matter’s kinetic energy when the matter is subject to a physical change or set in motion. Unfortunately, now that I get it, it’s decades too late to retake the final exam.

I’ve since come to see that poetry is subject to the same natural laws. The poem is language in motion, set and kept in motion by forces beyond the poet’s control. As a college freshman, I followed Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to go within myself to discover whether I needed to voice in poetry my inner life. Does poetry gyrate in me; is it an urgency and a necessity? I felt poetry in the way Father Tobin lectured about “the catalyst,” a stimulus to change that makes things happen without itself diminishing or changing at its core. Most days, yes, poetry did; other days, it did not, not that I could feel. That’s when I thought I understood relativity, even as I foolishly tried to know place and motion at the same time.

What restored my belief in the calling, was the poetics of Charles Olson. In “Projective Verse,” Olson circumnavigates the poem as a “high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” The poet prepares the “composition by field,” attentive and ready to receive, to reel in, to gather up; to avail of natural gifts and acquired skill; to be present and shape language in genuine and changing proportions. I began to know in my bones—when the poem arrives and is performed aloud for others, or when it’s read silently—energy is exchanged, a cycle of give and take. When the poem bridges languages and cultures, the energy of the original transmigrates. It lives in the poem in translation, not as a clone but a new poem. Potential and kinetic energies coexist in the original and the new poem, in an intimate relationship that forever binds their separate lives.

If all matter is a product of change, poetry is born of exhaustion. As land artist Robert Smithson observes, poetry is “a dying language” and a language that never dies. It occurs when matter gives way and energy acts upon it; a consequence of the sum of natural laws, it becomes something else. Although this flies in the face of how people often talk about the creative act, the evidence is all around and inside us. The astonishing formations of ignimbrite in the Hayes range, bordering Surprise Valley to the east, were formed by the hot suspension of particles and gases. Those particles and gases flowed from a volcano, driven by a much greater density than that of the surrounding atmosphere.

When we climb, physically and in our imaginations, a sedimentary formation that resulted from a pyroclastic flow, the formation becomes for us the austere glass- and crystal-encrusted stone perch of the goddess Ignimbrite. Then, that poorly sorted result of primeval “fiery rock dust cloud”3 is transformed into poetry by those participating in the conference.

Why goddess Ignimbrite? Because the formation sings of incomprehensible transmigration, of the fertile remnants of creation and destruction. We revere, are in awe of, the energies converging further back in time than anyone can comprehend. This energy is present and in a form that animates us. “Once an inner gift has been realized,” writes Lewis Hyde, “it may be passed along, communicated to the audience. And sometimes this embodied gift—the work—can reproduce the gifted state in the audience that receives it.”4

Nothing brings this home more than a night visit to the playa. Several of us drive across the dry, sandy lake bottom. We turn off the headlights and pile out of the car, into the darkness. No moon, no ambient light. Just dim points along the western edge of the valley, whose light in no way obscure our view of Cassiopeia, Orion, Scorpio, the Big Dipper, and nearby Venus. The Milky Way streams across the black sky with a consuming brilliance I’ve seen only twice before: once when I camped at age fourteen in the Mojave Desert, and then during the predawn hours when I sat alone, at the northeastern rim of the volcanic crater Rano Raraku on Easter Island.

I swore I could hear the neutron stars, the pulsars—incredibly dense, rapidly spinning remains of burned-out super giants light-years beyond our sight—speaking in radio waves. When the core of a supergiant star collapses with the exhaustion of its fuels, material distant from the center moves closer. Like a spinning ice skater accelerates by pulling her arms into her body, the star spins faster and faster.

In the same neighborhood, supernovas. Farther out, quasars emitting unfathomable light swirl around black holes. They speed up and draw closer, release energies beyond measure. They live billions of years later in our retinas and photographs, in our minds and hearts and words, even as untold eons ago they ceased to exist as matter.

Much closer, all around us and within me, I could feel the faint tremor of the meteorites and the comets that over four billion years ago collided with Earth, the cataclysm depositing minerals and water needed to sustain life. I felt remarkably at home among all that momentum and death, gravity the unifying force and exhaustion proof of gravity’s existence.

Life is the liberation of energy, as is poetry; it demolishes preexisting relationships. Its gravitas constellates memories, perceptions, emotions, intuitions, and ideas in new relationships—from which derive the poem’s musical shape and cadence, the quality and the nature of its perception. Gravity brings the poem into being and eventually destroys it. This brief poem, inspired by “What the Water Knows,” by the late Sam Hamill, is one shard of that process:

What the heart reveals
can only be given away.

What the feet acquire
is emptiness of mind.

What the mind knows
only water can grasp.

What the spirit seeks
is everywhere.

We’re evidence of poetry born of exhaustion; the act of lovemaking and our life cycle obtain in the same way. Our poems and poems in translation do so, too, in our DNA. We go on writing from a shift in perspective or some other change of life. The poem breaks at the edge of laughter or of tears, when the work is “closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than to intelligence, closer to blood than to ink.”5 All poetry authentic and true—the goddess Ignimbrite or Lake Lahontan, the brazen brown hills flanking us or the desert populated by music and fire—survives as energy and, in turn, makes our survival vital.

If each day falls
inside each night,
there exists a well
where clarity is imprisoned.

We must sit on the rim
of the well of darkness
and fish for fallen light
with patience.6

We are the answer to the poem’s miraculous relations, as is the poem to ours. As witness of our existence, neither the poem nor the poet is alone. Intellection about how poems should be written trails in the wake of the daily power of poetry, impelling us to sustain the art not so much as an act of will but as a condition of being human. Poet and poem collide with what is, who they are, their strengths and their weaknesses, their hidden songs and their vulnerability. Poetry sustains us, revealing what it is to be.

1 From Toward the Splendid City, by Pablo Neruda. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974.

2 From Voices, by Antonio Porchia, translated by W.S. Merwin. Copper Canyon Press, 2003.

3 New Zealand geologist Patrick Marshall derived the Latin-based term ignimbrite from “fiery rock dust cloud.”

4 From The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, Vintage, 1983.

5 As Federico García Lorca described Pablo Neruda (translated by Steven F. White).

6 From The Sea and the Bells, by Pablo Neruda, translated by William O’Daly. Copper Canyon Press, 1988, 2002.