Yale University

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One Poet's Way

Syd Lea

July 23, 2013

Category: Culture > Arts

Like much post-Romantic poetry, mine is an outlet for what we lately call the right brain; it moves me out of aprioristic thinking.  Understand: I neither attack nor reject reason, but only challenge its exclusive dominion, wanting less to assault our patterns of either/or as to consider what may exist on their far side.

Many use the word "transformative" to praise a poem, noting exactly how it turns opinionation into some novel perception. Though it flies in the face of dialectic — in the manner, say, of Jesus' parables — the multiplicity of its perspectives shows us how confined and confining our biases can be.

Now the poet as prophet is a figment of Hollywood's imagination, his or her art perhaps having a lot more to do with humility (a quality discouraged, I fear, by Yale and other "prestige" academies). Poets' "ideas," after all, are as constricted as others', and the image of the artist as particularly sensitive, except maybe to language, is absurd.

Thus this little essay will be ... unsatisfactory, like most of my discussions of poetry — and of spirituality, any deep truths, especially  "religious" ones, defying debater's terms. Poems, like prayer, move beyond such reduction.

I'm often asked how I get "inspired." Well, inspiration for me is more a matter of selective memory than of some super-earthly intercession. And yet my abandonment to something beyond self is essential to my so-called creativity.

 "In the beginning was the Word," John claims. My self-surrender may not be to The Word as he limns it; it is, however, to words — before which I must humble myself, and by so doing find some noun or verb or adjective or phrase occurring to me, which I can accompany as it finds another, which can in turn resonate with another. So on.

My poem tends to begin with something I've heard, small matter when or where. I write it down — and then I let it lead me on, as I say, until all those beckoning words have assembled, however desultorily.  Then I begin to play, and not all that "seriously."  Indeed, I must discard solemn pretensions before something else can take over.

Say a draft ends with 63 lines. I wonder what it would look like in seven stanzas of nine. I experiment. Then I try nine stanzas of seven. If I still don't know where the poem wants to go, I may add a line and try eight stanzas of eight lines, etc. Though this sounds risibly mechanical, and is on one level, it allows me not to worry too strenuously about what I mean. 

For me, such faith in the literally creative power of the word is akin to a higher faith, described by Paul, in "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Scripture and, more importantly, times when I've bumbled onto an awareness of God's operations in my life contribute to my poetry. But they're not where it starts, which is rather, despite my human, narcissistic instincts, with that submission to things unseen — which portend things not (yet) said.