December 2011

Stoking the Poet Coals

How to consciously stimulate an unconscious process
Trying consciously to make art is probably the hardest and most fruitless endeavor a human can undertake. As a writer of words that occasionally take shapes that could be called poems, I constantly find myself frustrated with the spontaneity of my own creative process. For the life of me, I can't just sit down and write a poem whenever I feel like it. If I decide to write a poem and the poem doesn't want to be written, all that will come out us a sticky grey sludge of words in sequence. Sometimes I feel as though the poems that come out of my brain have brains of their own, their own little wills, and they only show their faces when they feel like it. But really, I've found that they're most like seeds. You can't instruct them to grow on command, but put them in the right place and give them enough water and they will eventually emerge seemingly by magic.
 
Of course, poems aren't always obvious in what they need to grow. You can't always water them with the same stuff. But over the years I've generally found that a few things help me get into the correct mindset for making poems happen. Certain activities stir the brain cells around in productive ways. Certain decisions can set the non-decision of poetry writing in motion.

The Bard

What Is That Exactly?

What is a “bard”? To be extremely specific, a bard is a type of poet found in Celtic-speaking cultures since the most ancient times, mentioned as characteristic of the Celtic peoples by the Romans and the Greeks. A bard is seen as the voice of the community, the voice of tradition, and his words carry tremendous moral weight. In the past, it was believed that if a bard wrote a satire about you, you could literally die from the black magic power of it. People don't believe that anymore, but real bards still exist in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland and in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.

Odd Nerdrum's Lonely Stand

Real Art And Real Poetry Are Both Rare

“I saw that I was in the process of making a choice that would end in defeat. By choosing those qualities that were so alien to my own time, I had to give up at the same time the art on which the art of our time rests. I had to paint in defiance of my own era without the protection of the era's superstructure. Briefly put I would paint myself into isolation.”

 

These are the words of Odd Nerdrum, a modern artist completely out of step with the modern world. I'm writing about him in a blog devoted to poetry because I consider him to be a kindred spirit, and find myself to be deeply in sympathy with his controversial artistic stances.

Catullus

Poet of Ancient Rome

“Goddess, Cybele, great goddess, lady of Dindymus, let all thy fury

be far from where I am, O my queen.

Let it be others you drive into frenzy, others you drive into

madness.”

 

So says the Roman poet Catullus in his long poem “Attis,” supposedly inspired by a nightmare he had after listening to the eerie chanting of the priesthood of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele in his neighborhood in ancient Rome.

Ossian

Will The Real Ossian Please Stand Up?

“I look unto the times of old, but they seem dim to Ossian's eyes, like reflected moonbeams on a distant lake. Here rise the red beams of war! There, silent dwells a feeble race! They mark no years with their deeds, as slow they pass along. Dweller between the shields! thou that awakest the failing soul! descend from thy wall, harp of Cona, with thy voices three! Come with that which kindles the past: rear the forms of old, on their own dark-brown years!”

 

Is this bad poetry, or good poetry? Most people now would probably say it was very bad poetry indeed, but most people when it was first published went absolutely wild over it. It was considered one of the most important literary works of the era. It inspired paintings and operas- and a great deal of controversy.