Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

Personal Journey

February 25th, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

022510A guest showed at our workshop last night, one who attended a reading I gave in October. I’d presented Mainline poems from 45 years ago along with Chalcedony Songs and talked about how the voice, in both, uses the world and emotion as reflections of a personal journey.

But I don’t know exactly what intrigued our guest. We do often invite people to see what the workshops are like, and the invitation goes out to whoever displays a spark.

This guest brought a poem with intense heartbreak in the first stanza, and the next three stanzas seemed to spin away from the trauma. Our guest used highly interesting language, but the feeling in the first stanza was not developed. We couldn’t tell what the motivating impulse might be, whether to explore the heartbreak, to accept it fully, to complain about its injustice, or to expose its ironies. Or something else.

We gave feedback, reading to each other lines that we liked, pretending the author was not in the room. This protocol is designed to give our guest the sense of eavesdropping on an honest conversation. There were a number of lines that we liked quite a lot.

The questions was then asked, “What does the poem need?” The imbalance of emotion was noted, and we discussed two strategies. One, to develop the heartbreak, at the same depth it was presented, in the remaining stanzas. Two, to dilute the feeling and spread it, more or less evenly, throughout the poem.

Next we asked the author to join the conversation. We were thanked for our feedback, but our guest had nothing more to say. I couldn’t tell if our comments had struck a chord. And today I received an email thanking us for the invitation and declining to attend another session, on grounds that the workshop was not a fit.

A goal of mine currently is to be more honest, so my reply contained more than polite noises. I made a guess at the forces underlying the previous evening.

“I’m sure you gathered that our workshop believes writing that’s hinged to one’s personal journey is by far the most powerful. Your piece clearly started there. When you’re ready to develop that connection, please feel welcome to join us again.”

Accessible Poetry

February 17th, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (3 Comments)

021710Poetry should be accessible. And I believe the only poetry that works over time is direct and totally understandable. Poetry’s ancient and continuing role is to carry our culture from generation to generation, and we don’t join that tradition if our primary impulse is to show off our brilliance. Or to be witty, or to make money. We do well when we join the tradition with full humility.

Today, of course, this role is debased, but less than one might think. It seems debased partly because of how we define “poetry.” Advertising fits several definitions of poetry perfectly, and it certainly carries much of the culture, even as it drags us down. Spoken Word is totally accessible, and it’s poetry, and it’s carrying the culture for many young people. Same for Rap.

The reading public’s complaint is correct, though: what is termed “mainstream” poetry is often inaccessible. But we should understand “mainstream” is a misnomer. It’s a marketing tool, and there’s nothing mainstream about it, other than that some successful publishers and their audiences use the term. Most mainstream poetry is oblique lyrical poetry. It’s designed to be meditated on, rather than understood. But, to give it its due, mainstream poetry can be far more accessible than procedural poetry, for instance, or Language poetry.

If you read my poetry, you’ll see one way of working through this problem. There are many ways. We should remember how accessible most of our favorite poems are, and “accessible” does accurately describe much poetry. What’s inaccessible about “rosy-fingered dawn” or “money doesn’t talk, it swears” or “the poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law” or “we were very tired, we were very merry” or “be kind to yourself” or “the pure gold baby that melts to a shriek” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or “mango warmth fills my belly”?

Poetry and Darkness

February 2nd, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

020210“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” writes Mary Oliver in “The Wild Geese.” This line has become an anthem for this generation, and for those of us going through changes. It might be the most quoted line of this decade. We need this growth and spiritual advice desperately.

Not easy to let the soft animal love, though, if you own upbringing has been difficult. One poet in our workshops is far into the journey of discovering what that might be. Who she is, what that soft animal might love. And poems are a powerful aid.

The journey might not be pleasant, and the poems can be dark. In fact, we were working with our poet and her poem, which has all the pain of being orphaned in a few compact lines. The images were energetic and troubled. The poet worked into the trauma and took a step forward. That step was dripping with pain, and it was only one small step. But the step was forward.

We could feel her exhilaration. We could also feel the darkness.

When it came time for the poet to speak, she was full of gratitude. “My previous workshops got so they wouldn’t read my poems. Too dark!” She mimicked those folks, holding up her hands with her index fingers crossed to ward off evil. “Don’t read us your poems!”

We looked at each other in astonishment. Hadn’t we just been given a few stations of her journey as a gift? Tough though it was, we were honored to join her.

I can’t speak for others, but for myself, my own journey is so difficult, I’m grateful for anyone sharing their own troubles. It’s trusting, for one thing. For another, it affirms the faith that we are together in this difficulty called life and there is common ground. Thanks are due her, from us, for such a gift.

I looked the poet in the eye. “I’m grateful for the company.”

(With help from D. Jayne McPherson.)