Sunday, September 1, 2019

I Meet My Shadow in the Deepening Shade: Poetry in the Workplace

In The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, David Whyte writes, "If there is one common experience it would be feeling lost in the difficulty of a situation or in our very arrogance or nervousness over a problem." Whyte was encouraged as a resource to business by Peter Block -- trainer, organization consultant, and author of Flawless Consulting and The Empowered Manager -- who believes the powerful images available in poetry can be liberating in the workplace.

Having been a lover and author of poetry most of my life, I was delighted when a client gave me tickets to one of Whyte's workshops. One of the poems Whyte recited (and cites in his book) is a teaching tale in the Native American tradition by David Wagoner. It was thrilling to hear in Whyte's resounding and dramatic voice this response to the question, "What do I do when I am lost in the forest?" (shown in part below):
Stand still, the trees ahead
and bushes beside you
are not lost...
No two trees are the same to Raven,
no two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a branch does
is lost on you, then
you are surely lost.
Stand still, the forest
knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
Observing Whyte's impact on others in the group also gave me the courage to use poetry with my business clients. Coaching is somewhat like therapy in the quality and confidentiality of the relationship, but it's not therapy in that we focus on personal and interpersonal effectiveness. Some interesting shifts can take place by uncovering the symbolic aspects of people's (and organizations') growth potential. Making significant change isn't easy, and we all dig in our heels when the going gets tough. I happen to think of resistance to change as a normal and usually healthy response, and consider it my job as a coach to help clients move beyond their own so-called resistance. 

In Enneagram terms this means helping people go beyond the behavioral manifestations of their habitual patterns in ways that shake the underpinnings. While my practices are fairly eclectic, I'm fundamentally Jungian in this respect: I believe it's impossible to access repressed and unconscious material through intellectual understanding alone. I'm sure each of you has experienced, as I have, the difficult journey from the first ah-ha to experiencing significant and long-lasting change in ourselves. Resources buried in each of us, however, show up symbolically -- if only we know how to look for them -- in metaphors such as poetry, or dreams, projections, and other artistic expressions.

Thus, when I see untapped potential in my clients, I use anything I can that might take them to that symbolic level -- through stories, humor, poetry, or even symbolic gifts (for example, to a CEO criticized by her team for not giving enough praise, and also a life-long sailor, I gave a ship in a bottle). In this article, I'd like to show how powerful poetry can be to "arouse our hearts." Remember that none of the drives of one style are alien to the remaining eight, so as you read through the following quotes, let that part of you respond as you receive the images. I won't interpret at this point because each of you might find something unique:

For style Ones, who struggle with the passion of anger, imagine what might be evoked by Stanley Kunitz's poem, "The Portrait":
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself...
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand...
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
Or (quirky but effective), from "Bullfrogs" by David Allan Evans:
sipping a Schlitz
we cut off the legs...
quiet-bulging eyes nudging along
the moss's edge, looking up at us,
asking for their legs.
*    *    *    *     *    *
Working with style Two issues -- which include ambivalent feelings about caring for others -- what does Pablo Neruda's "Sumario" (translation by Alastair Reid) arouse in you?
I am pleased at having taken on
so many obligations in my life
most curious elements accumulated:
gentle ghosts which undid me...
my insistent need to be always watchful,
my impulse to be only myself...
(--my life was always
singing its way between joy and obligation).
Or from Walt Whitman's "A noiseless patient spider," which captures the Two's sometimes overwhelming relationship needs:
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
*    *    *    *     *    *
A.E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" addresses style Three's passion of vanity very directly, beginning with:
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place,
And later:
. . . round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead.
*    *    *    *     *    *
Style Fours, of course, seem naturally drawn to poetry, and many poems reflect their mournful, romantic quality. I particularly like e.e. cummings' "Sonnets--Unrealities, III":
it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when (being fool to fancy) i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise...
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
--turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep
A theme that may be less obvious for Enneagram Fours is their sense of being on the outside, looking in. Look for this in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall:"
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast...
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again...
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors...
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors?"
*    *    *    *     *    *
Naomi Replansky's "Housing Shortage" captures style Five's reductionism and desire for personal space as she moves from:
I tried to live normal.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles,
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.
On a lighter note, I've found amused reactions from style Fives to W.H. Auden's "I Have No Gun, But I Can Spit":
Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes. . .
Beware of rudely crossing it.

*    *    *    *     *    *
As with all Enneagram styles, there are many directions one could take with style Six (and I'll go into more detail below about the poem I used with a particular client). I recommend Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time," a powerful poem for all of us. For example:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade,
But I especially appreciate such Six-ish images as:
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall...
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
William Stafford captures the transformation of style Six through courage in "With Kit, Age Seven, At the Beach":
Waves leapfrogged and came
straight out of the storm.
What should our gaze mean?
Kit waited for me to decide...

"How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?"
"As far as was needed," I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
*    *    *    *     *    *
Most of us would recognize the style Seven in Philip Davey's lovely poem, "Prisms (Althea)":
It was a rainbow impossibly
beautiful, straddling the town
with one foot poised lightly on the sea.
You might be surprised, however, to see what happens when an Enneagram Seven hears the beginning of Stevie Smith's poem, "Not Waving But Drowning":
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
*    *    *    *     *    *
Sharon Thomson's "Pigeons" is a more subtle poem for style Eights than might first appear:
when I was a girl
a sultry sunday
about 3pm in mid-august
was the best time to hunt pigeons...
I aimed straight for the eyeball.
I'm somewhat partial to this Enneagram style, and perhaps they sense that. We're told their transformation is found in the quality of innocence, reflected so well in Theodore Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse:"
In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in
Cradled in my hand.
. . . Do I imagine he no longer trembles when I come close to him?

. . . I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway
The paralytic stunned in the tub and the water rising
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.
*    *    *    *     *    *
As style Nine I am perhaps a bit tough on myself, but I like Roger Woddis' "Down With Fanatics!" because it depicts our passive-aggressive quality:
I'd like to tie them to a board
And let them taste the cat,
While giving praise, oh thank the Lord,
That I am not like that.
Wordsworth is a wonderful poet for evoking Nine issues, as in "A slumber did my spirit seal" (the title says it all) or from "Composed upon Westminster Bridge":
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
However, one poem that speaks so eloquently of what's possible for Enneagram Nines is Denise Levertov's "Variation on a Theme by Rilke":
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:
a being. . .
. . . The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it new: I can.
*    *    *    *     *    *
Poetic images are powerful in and of themselves. Imagine, then, the effect within a particular personality style. Such was the case with Richard P., a style Six who was particularly interested in the Enneagram because he desperately wanted to understand the intensity of his emotional response to perceived slights. He suffered from what I call the "Patrick Henry" syndrome (and often see in this Enneagram style): a strong desire to "speak up for what is right" even if it meant shooting himself in the foot. But he'd agonize for days on end before acting. For example, Richard felt he should have been included in a planning conference one of his co-workers had conducted without informing him. This person, according to Richard, was "running his own show, as usual, without any concern for the importance of others' participation!" He did eventually talk to his colleague, who was actually quite responsive; but prior to the meeting Richard said he spent the entire weekend "eating myself up inside."

Richard and I worked on many issues. Here I'll note only what was unique to the use of poetry. He always insisted he'd had no need to rebel against his wonderful parents (he almost idolized them for being so caring and supportive), yet he felt there must be some basis in his background for his self-doubt and emotional stresses. At one of our sessions I read to him Nina Bogin's "Initiation, II," which includes the lines:
I. . . entered
the house as calm and ephemeral
as my own certainty:
this is my house, my key,
my hand with its new lines.
I am as old as I will ever be.
As I finished the last lines, Richard sat stunned as his eyes welled up with tears. When he was able to speak he said, "My parents have always treated me like a child--they still do. I never realized before how much I want to prove to them I'm a man." 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Poems that Illustrate Aspects of Personality

...when we fight with our failing / we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself... David Whyte, "The Faces at Braga"
Our perfectionism can lead us to preach at others who fail to live up to our expectations. To escape the judgments driven by anger, we may "run amok" at times.

We sometimes give advice whether others want it or not, seeing ourselves as "helpful." When driven by pride it's difficult to admit our own needs.

At times we're self-promoting and tend to seek our reflection in the eyes of others. Vanity's focus is looking good and, if stuck in this mode, our inner life may be lacking.

It's easy to focus on our flaws and/or sink into moodiness and sad stories. When stuck in this dynamic we feel envy, and the grass seems greener somewhere else.

Engaging our minds as a defense against deep feelings may lead to disdaining emotions. Being stuck here is a kind of hoarding, a stinginess of affection.

Sometimes we're stuck in self-doubt, indecision, and/or procrastination. Driven by fear, we may look for hidden agendas and be accusing, especially of those in power.

In search of pleasure and variety, we can become overly enthusiastic: life MUST be fun! When stuck in this state of gluttony, pretty much everything feels like an addiction.

Our "bull-in-the-china-shop" moments make it difficult to acknowledge vulnerability. Driven by 'lust', we feel responsible and may pursue power aggressively.

Being too "nice" leads us to merge with others' preferences. There's merit in seeing all sides of an issue, but indolence keeps us out of touch with our own wishes.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"If only..."

We all have an internal judging voice. For some this is coupled with a compulsion to make things perfect. On good days, wanting to fix things can be an inspiration to higher attainment. All too often, though, it turns into preaching -- at ourselves as well as others -- when things fall short of what should be:
Dear Lord, I have sinned against thee.
For I do not love all flowers equally.

For daffodils have come up in my yard instead of tulips.
For I hate their stupid yellow faces...

For in truth, my will is not done.
The above excerpt from Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's poem "Confession in April" conveys exquisitely our inner conflict when unacknowledged anger feeds impossible perfectionism. Impossible because -- of course -- the will cannot be done perfectly.  

Former poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz showed in "The Portrait" how his mother's unforgiving anger over his father's suicide when I was waiting to be born was passed on to him when he found his father's portrait in the attic: 
...she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
Constance Menefee's poignant "If Only" portrays the finger pointed inward. It also illustrates the self-bemused humor that's salvation as we learn to observe and let go of those inner strafing attacks created by shoulds: 
is a stubble-tongued whore
who clacks her bedroom
slipper false-teeth...
you coulda done more
shoulda done better
if only and if only...
A running amok side can provide temporary escape from trying to meet high standards. We've seen this in charismatic preachers caught in houses of ill repute, but it can also show up in innovative and charming slants on reality. Though born in 1912 and writing at a time when southern girls were taught to be prim and proper, May Swenson cared little for what the neighbors might say. In "Beast," for example, she admitted: Brown self
a thing gleam-jawed
goes downright
Most of us could stand to be more downright and four-pawed, let go of self-judgment, of holding ourselves accountable to an unrealistic ideal. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön teaches Tonglen, a breathing practice that awakens compassion, reminding us we can only have compassion for others if we do so for ourselves: "Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world." 

Mary Oliver calls us to such humanity in "Wild Geese:"
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting...

Friday, February 3, 2017

"As the child drinks..."

When we're attached to being helpful, we may use manipulation to influence people or step into the middle of things, giving help and advice whether others want it or not. True generosity, however, is at the core of the human spirit. In Louise Erdrich's "The Glass and the Bowl," the simple act of pouring milk for a child epitomizes that generosity:
The father pours the milk from his glass
into the cup of the child,
and as the child drinks
the whiteness, opening
her throat to the good taste
eagerly, the father is filled...
Sheila Bender brought nurturing to a high art when she simultaneously celebrated and mourned her grown daughter's departure to a new life ("For My Daughter Who Has Gone to Study in Japan"). The poet likened herself to a planet having given birth to the moon lying on its back with its tiny toes in the air:
I sang these words to you and never wondered
if the planet that gave birth to the moon
was as brave as her offspring, if vines and trees
mourned the dropping of their ready fruit.
When self-aware, we share the gift of unconditional love and then rejoice when those we've helped are strong enough to act on their own, even in the face of loss. So Bender rejoiced in the bravery of her offspring heading out into the world, yet mourned as vines and trees might mourn the dropping of their ready fruit

Sometimes we sublimate our own unacknowledged needs through caring for others. Instead of being loving, we act out the image of a loving person, which can only be sustained if there's someone needy to care for. This kind of love becomes, as Cathleen Calbert depicted in "The Woman Who Loved Things," a cult, a way of being:
But, of course, it had to be: the woman's love kept growing
until she was loved by trees and appliances, from toasters
to natural obstacles, until her ceiling shook loose to send kisses,
sheets wound tight betwixt her legs, and floorboards broke free
of their nails, straining their lengths over her sleeping..
Calbert exaggerated how people might cling to someone who loves them so much, but in that exaggeration we see the potential for hysteria when the desire to be loved for what we give becomes a compulsion. 

The transformational path from pride to unconditional love entails finding and acting upon our own needs without ignoring those of others. In "Summario," Pablo Neruda showed what must be overcome in this path when he characterized his impulse to be myself, only myself as the weakness of self-pleasuring:
...That is why -- water on stone -- my life was always
singing its way between joy and obligation.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Deep, the way it is..."

Ah, the bright lights, the roar of the crowds, the thrill of being in the spotlight. Surely each of us has experienced (if only in fantasy) a moment's ecstasy: "Me? Me? Why they're applauding for me!" Imagine now you're addicted to this Ecstasy, only sure of yourself in that moment of winning.  

Jonathan Holden's "At a Low Mass For Two Hot-Rodders" describes a funeral mass for two young men who would not chicken out and swerve. He saw with the poet's eye the cost of the race (they idle in a feelingless embrace) and implies the life-giving momentum of allowing failure. The winners are wheeled to their common grave by boys... 
Black-jacketed and glum, who also steered
Toward absolute success with total pride,
But, inches from it, felt, and turned aside. 
The boys who didn't crash are still glum about having felt, but this is a perfect metaphor for the transitional state to feeling from doing, from keeping eyes only on the prize. To lose that drive for others' applause one needs to walk where my own nature would be leading, as Emily Bronte reminded us in "Stanzas." Here, the lonely mountains reveal...
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.
Ah, but our own nature, the legend under as William Stafford wrote of it in "Bi-Focal," is deep as the darkest mine, and the signals along the way are spare ...the thick rocks won't tell. Why would we draw away from the accolades of the world? Because we know in our deepest souls the world happens twice...
...once what we see it as;
second as it legends itself
deep, the way it is.
John Berryman's "The Animal Trainer" thought he must leave the circus, the excitements of disappointment and praise. His animals had been his distraction and he thought if he escaped the smells and cages here he would stand naked in the sun. But his heart asked: Can you do without your animals?  
...What must I do then? Must I stay and work
With animals, and confront the night, in the circus? 
...You learn from animals. You learn in the dark.  
We do not become transformed by walking away from the cages our egos have constructed. We learn from our animals. We must confront the night. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"I'll marry the bent mirror..."

How many times have you looked around and decided your life is ordinary, mundane, when you hear or read about someone else's life and wish yours could be so?  When we step back from the ordinary and expand our vision, we can see things in a new, even innovative way. Carolyn Creedon's "Pub Poem," for example, quite beautifully expresses a completely new way to look at love:
If I hold my breath for a million years, little oyster
waiting my tables, fighting the tide, swimming to hope
and still I can't open you up, love
I'll marry the fat red tomato...
I'll marry each barnacle I scrub
bare, barely staying afloat...
I'll marry the bent mirror in the back
where I pin up my marmalade hair... 
The barnacles Creedon scrubs can be seen as "marrying" our flaws, just as marrying a bent mirror implies loving ourselves as we are, both unique and flawed. When we accept our own brokenness, we attract others who, too, feel broken. We then learn from our own wild child as Maxine Kumin did in "Nurture," drawing the abused, the starvelings into an empathic embrace:
Think of the language we two, same and not-same,
might have constructed from sign,
scratch, grimace, grunt, vowel:
Laughter our first noun, and our long verb, howl.
Being in touch with both laughter and howls deepens the anguish of loneliness and takes us on a search for companions who also allow their emotions fully. In Jennifer Merri Parker's "Four to One" she was like the ever almost unrequited lover who wanted to be joined in her angst:
...I must finally plumb the fathoms of your feelings and anoint
your clean, still-water surface with my muddy-fingered mess...
till you confess I wasn't in the maelstrom by myself,
but you were there and felt it all the time.
This longing can never be replaced with the ordinary, and when we look around and find our companions living superficially, what might have looked appealing from a distance becomes a cage, as in Mary Karr's poem "The Worm-Farmer's Lament:" suddenly long to shove your arm
down the disposal or rest your head
in the trash compactor or just climb in your
not-quite-paid for wagon
to breathe clouds till you can stop
breathing, stop sitting there...
Yes, we may even have suicidal thoughts, torn between our romantic vision and dissatisfaction with the worm-farm in which we must make our way. In this path, however, we learn to see the beauty in each moment as it evolves, as did Jane Kenyon, who threw herself forward, greedy for unhappiness in "Depression in Winter:"
...until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Thinking became a garden of its own..."

Gregory Bateson was a seminal influence in the fields of anthropology, social science, and communication (cybernetics). In Steps to an Ecology of Mind he introduced the concept of second-order change (a capacity to process and respond to information in self-corrective ways). His poem The Manuscript nicely appropriates our logical thought patterns and language:
if you read between the lines
You will find nothing there...

Only the precision

The skeleton of truth
I do not dabble in emotion...
Not that our attraction to logic denies emotion, but hanging out exclusively in our left-brain processes will create some distance in relationships (no need to have a deep conversation when the priority is clearly to complete a manuscript).  

Certainly the most waggishly comical depiction of this need for personal space confronts us in W.H. Auden's I Have No Gun But I Can Spit (the thirty inches taken from social science studies): 
Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes...
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.  
Karl Shapiro offered a brilliant metaphor for the pleasures of the mind in "The Sickness of Adam" (from "Adam and Eve"):
...He began to walk
Slowly, like one accustomed to be alone.
He found himself lost in the field of talk;
Thinking became a garden of its own... 
But even in such an intellectual garden we long for intimacy, which Shapiro's Adam seemed to know in his bones:  
...God approached him in the cool of day
And said, "This sickness in your skeleton
Is longing. I will remove it from your clay"...
To draw closer to others, we must move past our caution. Shapiro took us further into Adam's desire and fear in "The Recognition of Eve" (from "Adam and Eve"):  
...when she spoke the first word (it was thou)
He was terror-stricken, but she raised her hand
And touched his wound where it was fading now...

Adam could see her wandering through the wood...
And there he followed shyly to observe.
She was already turning beautiful. 
We can expand, step out of our narrow confines, connect with others and with our intrinsic nature. Naomi Replansky's luminous poem "Housing Shortage" unfolds the internal experience of this transformational shift:    
I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed...
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles,
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Who can point out a smell...?"

Some people, when stressed, are characterized by self-doubt, indecision, and procrastination. In interaction with others, they tend to look for hidden agendas and can be accusing, especially of those they perceive to have power over them. To counter their driving force of fear, they may exhibit a kind of reckless courage, then worry they've shot themselves in the foot... which often they have! 

I once asked my friend Joseph about a mutual acquaintance. "Oh he has to be in control," said Joseph. "I can smell it!" In his characteristic view, the world was dangerous and needed sniffing out. As Rita Dove points out in her poem Three Days of Forest, a River, Free:  
The terror of waking is a trust
drawn out unbearably
until nothing, not even love,
makes it easier...

Who can point out a smell
but a dog?
You may have heard, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you." That's the problem with anxiety. There's always some real danger, some anticipated threat that proves the point, and also develops the ability to foresee potential roadblocks -- warning barks if you will. Dove pictures the price paid for being constantly on guard:
... duty's whistle
slings a bright cord
around their throats.
After mentioning "the things I've carefully left out / descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily / people behave toward each other," John Ashbery (The Problem of Anxiety) leaves the reader slightly nervous:
...I've saved the descriptions of finger sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
We all have our glass eye that will never be appeased. Be honest. Do you get on an airplane without feeling the tiniest flash of possibility this will be the one that crashes? When you're walking home alone in the dark and you hear an unexpected sound, do you calmly keep walking"? Do you really like snakes? 

In Lizards and Snakes, Anthony Hecht's Aunt Martha had "an unfair prejudice" toward reptiles, an inflexibility that he and his friend Joe teased out as boys by leaving one in the basket of socks she was mending. They got their comeuppance when Aunt Martha outclassed them in scare tactics: 
... we never did it again after the day
        Of the big wind when you could hear the trees
Creak like rocking chairs. She was looking away
        Off, and kept saying, "Sweet Jesus, please
Don't let him near me. He's as like as twins.
        He can crack us like lice with his fingernail.
I can see him plain as a pikestaff. Look how he grins
And swings the scaly horror of his folded tail.
At some time we must all move into the dark of fear, because "in a dark time, the eye begins to see." In his signature poem, In A Dark Time, Theodore Roethke expands on that first line with, "I meet my shadow in the deepening shade." I can't imagine more moving or disconcerting lines than these:
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
Roethke also provides a formula for transcending fear, one that echoes Rita Dove's notion of moving through the forest toward freedom:
...A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Though the wind continues to blow, instead of falling prey to the terrors our minds create, we can enter within, find our courage, and become "free in the tearing wind." Instead of letting fears lead us by the nose, we become like William Stafford in With Kit, Age Seven, At the Beach. "What would you tell your child?" he inquires, if you were gazing at a turbulent sea and he asked, "How far could you swim, Daddy, / in such a storm?"
"As far as was needed," I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
"This could be forever.../ from here to the distant edge / where it looks like / you can fall off the world," warns Sharon Thomson in On The Flatlands, "... but you don't.  We know that. / Breathe..." 

Yes, breathe.

The images in Nina Bogin's Initiation II imply a realization of maturity ("When I walked up the road, the string sack / heavy on my arm, I thought / that my legs could take me anywhere..."), of moving through our feelings of powerlessness and into our own "home," as Bogin did:
...I climbed the pink stairs, entered
the house as calm and ephemeral
as my own certainty:
this is my house, my key,
my hand with its new lines.
I am as old as I will ever be.
Note the paradox in "ephemeral as my own certainty." Certainty may be transitory, but we will keep finding our way home when we realize that -- however blown about by external circumstances -- only we have the key.  Stephen Spender gives us that key in his poem about Dolphins leaping out of the waves, "The sun fragmented / To broken glass / By the stiff breeze... / their delight / Outside, displaying / My heart within":
...The dolphins write such
With power to wake
Me prisoned in
My human speech
They sign:
'I AM!'

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun..."

Any of us may have times when we can't bear dealing with reality. We may be over-focused on having fun, telling anecdotes and jokes to cheer up ourselves and others, diving into a variety of attractions to avoid a difficult scene of some kind. Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" captures in metaphorical language this compulsion to enjoy at all costs:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought...
And not waving but drowning.
If we look beyond the surface of this aspect of personality, we see that all the happy chatter and good times may be symptomatic of underlying pain (drowning). Thus the person in Smith's poem appears to be waving (having a good time, swimming), but always "much further out than you thought," in pain, beyond what we can see on the surface -- yet reminiscent of the joyful Sixties cry, "Far out!" 

The title of Paul Zimmer's "Zimmer Resisting Temperance" is an irony because temperance (or renunciation) is the spiritual path for addiction to pleasure: 
... Puzzled by melancholy, he pours a reward
And loves this world relentlessly...
Someday he may fall face down
In the puke of his own buoyancy.
None of us is without emotional bruises and we all cope at times by seeking pleasure to avoid pain. That's why we're drawn to such poetry. Good poets are good observers, able to share their own emotions and experiences in ways that touch us as readers -- when we see someone seemingly waving we are drawn to join in the fun. We need also to be aware of the pain behind a perennial smile, especially in ourselves. The persona of Zimmer's poem is looking for meaning in the wrong places. 

Nonetheless, focusing on the positive can lighten things up when we're too dark. One of the funniest and most touching poems I've read is "The Belly Dancer in the Nursing Home," where Ronald Wallace describes the pleasure of his father and others dancing their wheelchairs to and fro: 
...thumping their tuneless canes and stumps
driving old age and infirmity
out of the room like an unwanted guest.
If I ever land in a nursing home, without my teeth, I hope I'll get a chance to thump my cane to the music! On the other hand, I hope I don't hold on inappropriately to youth, treating old age as an unwanted guest.

We begin to feel the draw of deeper experience as we become more self-aware. In Billy Collins' delicious poem "Osso Buco," he hints at both the external pleasure and the pull to the inner secret marrow: 
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it...
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal...
Later in the poem, Collins acknowledges the suffering in the world, yet brings us back to the pleasant warm glow of this exquisite meal, seemingly to counter the pain of considering hunger: 
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent...
But here, the candles give off their warm glow...
Real depth comes from a balanced life and not one that ignores the reality of pain. May Sarton's "Now I Become Myself" reminds us that true joy comes from developing the maturity to be centered in the moment, whatever it brings: this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

"Heart, you bully, you punk..."

When we feel under attack, we're not very likely to acknowledge vulnerability. For many of us, perhaps more true of men, there were typically no safe places to be sissies when we were young. Gary Gildner's football coach in "First Practice" made this message clear to the young men on his squad when he lined them up facing each other and said: 
... if we are to win
that title I want to see how.
But I don't want to see
any marks when you're dressed...
Sharon Thompson's "Pigeons" gives us a glimpse of this combative attitude toward the world: 
...a sultry sunday
about 3pm in mid-august
was the best time to hunt pigeons 
it was then they felt safe
to swoop from the roofs...
Behind this tough exterior is an untended child who learned early, as depicted by Luis J. Rodriguez in "Cloth of Muscle and Hair," that soft things can become creatures of clawed meat: 
...The five-year-old girl wept, having held
these same rabbits only a day before,
gathering them close, fur to face, stroking them
and sensing their pulse beneath her fingers...
A good fight can strengthen a relationship, but not when we're overly protective of our hearts: What a great battle you and I have fought, wrote Anna Wickham in "The Marriage:" 
...A one-armed combat,
For each held the left hand pressed close to the heart...
How tenderly we guarded them;
I would keep mine and still have yours,
And you held fast to yours and coveted mine...
Were they not afraid of being vulnerable, the couple in Wickham's poem could have found a truce:
...We would have thrown down weapons
And been at each other like apes,
Scratching, biting, hugging...
But when bound by a war mentality, we fear our hearts will rule us if not locked up. Marie Ponsot, in "One Is One," locked hers up tight:  
Heart, you bully, you punk, I'm wrecked, I'm shocked
stiff. You? you still try to rule the world -- though
I've got you: identified, starving, locked
in a cage you will not leave alive...
It's a great strength to be able to do something others are determined not be done; this can also have great costs, as Marge Piercy wrote in "For Strong Women," how Her head hurts from always trying to butt her way through a steel wall: 
...People waiting for the hole
to be made say, hurry, you're so strong...
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness...
We can hope to be loved equally for our strength and our weakness if we are inspired by Seamus Heaney's "Doubletake" and recognize how our drive for justice is also a projection of our own suffering: 
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard...
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge...
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells...

Friday, January 27, 2017

"Wish I were here..."

Even for those who are not growing old (or naively believe you're invulnerable to the hazards of aging), you've had moments when you desperately wanted to remember something -- a quote, the punch line to a funny joke, the key actors in a favorite movie. Billy Collins captured this quality in Forgetfulness:  
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones...
Those lost moments are evidence of the distractibility we all suffer at times. The modern world bombards us with data, demands, and to-do's. When we retreat to that place where there are no phones, we have no energy to engage with life.

In Postcard From Home, Al Zolynas plays on the familiar theme of vacationers who write to their friends 'Wish you were here. Notice how Zolynas turns this theme into a revelation about self-forgetting with these lines:  
Sitting on the deck, bare feet...
Each detail says "This!"
and has always and ever only said "This!"
Wish I were here.
The less we're fully present the more we lock up our potential, and the more likely we are to be somewhat Bored as depicted by Margaret Atwood: 
All those times I was bored
out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it. Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows...
The speaker acquiesced to someone who knew what he wanted to have done. But why? Why wouldn't she unlock her feelings? Why wouldn't she say "I have other things I cherish that I want to do. Saw it yourself!" It's an admirable trait to be cooperative, but we keep ourselves and others bored when we refuse to take a strong position, when our focus became too narrow, with no space for errant feelings or thoughts.    

John Updike's "Dog's Death" is touching because the dead puppy in his poem had worked so hard to earn her owner' praise for being good: 
Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.
Good dog. 
The dog's death is a metaphor for going to sleep to oneself. Once aware, once awake and able to engage in life with passion, we can appreciate the presence of any day: a sky, air, light. See how life sings in Denise Levertov's "Variation on a Theme by Rilke:"  
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me... was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self...