Spring Pools at 4 a.m.

I can’t sleep, and I’ve tried all the usual solutions: warm milk, melatonin, hot bath with Aura Cacia Tranquil Chamomile (Roman Chamomile, Lavender, Patchouli). So I decided to stop fighting the insomnia and consider the possibility that something wants to be written and it’s that something that is keeping me awake. When I did a little asking around, the answer came back that Robert Frost’s poem, Spring Pools, raised its hand. So here’s a little post about Spring Pools.

I found the poem this week while diving into The Ecopoetry Anthology (and you can even find a PDF sample online, I just discovered), a book I bought while I was still living in Seattle. I pulled out the book this week because I’ve been working on a recalcitrant little (or perhaps book-length?) poem that has me asking lots of questions about trees, bogs, swamps, brambles, thorns, mud, loam, etc. and I figured some sidewinding into other poems might help shake out a few words. I was stunned when I came across Spring Pools:

These pools that, though in forest, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods–
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Why was I stunned? First, I’d never known about this poem, never read it before, never even heard of it. It’s not one of the big Robert Frost poems that people always refer to.

Second, I forget how dark Frost can be, and I forget about his fascination with darkness and light. There’s the tension throughout Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, the speaker wanting to stay and watch the woods fill up with snow, wanting to stay in the lovely, dark, deep woods, but having to wrest himself away from the pull of the dark to resume his life in the world. And in Design, the line: “What but design of darkness to appall?” A line that gets even more interesting when you realize that in the root of “appall” is “pale”, the word describing the physiological response of going pale in the face of something disturbing, troubling, horrifying. The poem describes a white flower, a spotted spider, and the moth captured by the spider, and the speaker is troubling over the amorality, I think, of nature. The darkness in nature’s design turns the speaker pale.

I like the way that Frost turns the seasons around in Spring Pools, seeming to prefer the clarity of late winter. In the early spring, before the buds have opened, the pool can mirror the “total sky” nearly perfectly, “almost without defect”. The unfurling and surge of spring seems almost sinister, the thirst of the trees draining away the pools. The “pent-up buds” seem almost criminal, their hunger for life, Frost separates, puts at odds with “nature” although of course the trees and buds are part of nature. But he casts them as figures that “darken” nature. Summer isn’t typically thought of as a dark season, but in this poem it is. Those thirsty leaves are destructive as they “blot out” “drink up” “sweep away” the preferred pool. I love the way that line hammers home the speaker’s view, perhaps his anger or sense of loss or futility or inevitability, with not one, not two, but three verb-adverb phrases.

Other stuff I love in this poem:
1) the parallel in the first stanza: “And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver, /
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,” the daring internal rhyme and rhythm of that move, and the way that the parallel construction also underscores the sense of everything whisking away, the unstoppable change and loss in the movement of the seasons.
2) the parallel of adverbs in the last two lines of the first stanza: “not out by any brook or river” “but up by roots” and the subtle suggestion that the former would be preferable or more natural. Why would “out by any brook or river” be preferable to “up by roots”? Maybe it wouldn’t. Why is the thirst of a brook or river less disturbing than the thirst of tree roots? I don’t know. And maybe this preference isn’t there. But there is something in the “And” and “But” that suggests a preference to me.
3) the hidden source of the angst. For what anguish is all this loss a metaphor? There are no humans in this poem. Even the speaker is less present than the speaker in Stopping By Woods (besides, there’s that horse and the owner of the woods, presumably tucked up in his house in the village), and certainly less than in Flower Gathering. Who is the speaker and what is going on in his life that has him turning summer into a season of death and longing for pristine early spring to stop in its tracks?

Well, this may have done the trick. I feel my eyelids getting heavy. And I certainly feel deeper inside the poem than I did an hour ago.

I have some thoughts that this might be a fun exercise to pursue. So maybe you’ll see more of these posts in the near future.

For now, good night. Good morning.

“Wholly Consort with Mirth and Sport…

…to drive the cold winter away.”

This line comes from a carol called The Praise of Christmas. The author is anonymous, its origin dated sometime before 1625. The carols first came to my attention almost 20 years ago, in an instrumental version on a CD called New England Christmastide 2. Their arrangement of The Praise of Christmas combines it with Adeste Fideles, with Praise coming in quietly after a few lines like a rider on horseback in snowy woods. The first time I heard it I was so moved I burst into happy tears. Today it occurred to me to investigate it a bit, and I found the lyrics:

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may,
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away.

Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now,
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her your cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow.
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks,
Both beauty and youth’s decay,
And wholly consort with mirth and sport
To drive the cold winter away.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbours together do meet,
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet.
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay,
The old and the young doth carol this song,
To drive the cold winter away.

When Christmas’s tide comes in a like a bride,
With holly and ivy clad,
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had.
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play,
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away.

Handwriting Rules!

This research confirms something I’ve long known from experience — writing by hand helps the thinking process and allows us to access parts of the brain that typing does not. I love typing. (I’m doing it right now.) But working on a keyboard leads to and supports a different kind of writing than what results when I take pen in hand. And writing by hand sometimes brings back those memories of learning cursive (oh, the existential angst of the 6-year-old — “will I ever learn how to do this???” and the wonderfully pulpy yellow paper with blue lines that we practiced on). Handwriting takes us into a more soulful level, and allows us to connect to our physical environment, in an increasingly device-driven world. Check out the research: http://www.washington.edu/news/blog/uw-prof-handwriting-engages-the-mind/

Why I Call it “Let Yourself Write”

I am a woman who has taken years to learn how to listen. I am the woman who has taken years to recognize her own voice. To wake up to the slight stirring in her ankles that tells her something of import is on its way. The woman who struggles to listen, and sometimes succeeds in listening, in sitting down and listening through her pen. The woman who took a long time to recognize the irritation that signals the need to sit down and write, the irritation that signals, “it’s been too long.” The woman who struggles to sit down, to settle, to calm herself and surrender to writing. The woman who must learn over and over again how sweet that surrender can be, and almost always is.

It takes a long time to listen, to feel how your body responds to images like those limbs out there, the limbs that, in mid-November, still hold pale green yellowing leaves. Or the bare pale white lichened trellis leaning up against the fence, that had been there all the busy golden days of summer and autumn, obscured by the deep pink flowers of Autumn Joy now browning and bending to earth, not to mention the purple Columbine and scarlet Peonies of June. It takes a while, and lots of repeated looking, to notice how good that feels, the looking, especially the looking at the passing. And it takes a long time to recognize that that good feeling is worth paying attention to, that you deserve to feel that good. That the feeling good and that the looking, the beholding, may even be the best kind of prayer. And it may be a kind of work, a scrying over this creation that is longed for by both seer and seen. It may be a kind of communion. You may even hear something like a sigh of consummation, not knowing whether it comes from seer or seen. Only knowing that the sigh signals a job well done, a settling of bones, a celebration from on high.

Writing as Container

I love the ideas Ruth Ozeki conveys here (found in a recent newsletter from the Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat, on Whidbey Island, Washington State):

“For me,” Ruth commented in an interview with the Guardian, “writing is a way of thinking…I’m a very impatient person, so writing and meditation allow me to slow down and watch my mind; they are containers that keep me in place, hold me still. Language is something that’s been passed down throughout human history. I love the Japanese notion of kotodama – the spirits in words.”

Now my struggle will be to resist Googling “kotodama” and to try to stay focused on my day job. <sigh>

“Not Art”

My attention has been grabbed lately by the appearance of a stenciled, spray-painted, two-word at various places around the Cape: “NOT ART.”

The first time I saw it, adjacent to a sign for a big national kitchen-and-bath store, I laughed, appreciating the wry commentary on advertising and promotion, that it isn’t art, that art is something else without a purpose, or without the purpose of driving traffic and collecting money.

The second time, on the back of a traffic direction sign, I wondered. For a few moments while whizzing along at 50 miles an hour, everything in my field of vision became art — the vivid reds and yellows of traffic signs, the deep orange reflectors along the road, mailboxes, Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms blowing in the wind, the guard rail. Suddenly it was all elevated to something mysterious and powerful, raised by a two-word phrase and the question it posed (what is art?) out of the mundane and commonplace.

And of course that is what art does — the very phrase itself while denying itself to be art is in fact art, at least to me, because it caused me, if even only briefly, to see anew my surroundings, to look at them again with wonder and even reverence.

Whoever is applying these phrases may well have different ideas and intentions. But that is true of art and artists as well — they make things for their own reasons, and those things go out into the world to stand on their own and interact with others and those others will inevitably have a different relationship with the art than its creator did.

To Matter

“what is written does not have to be polished or finished or part of something larger or better to matter” — Alison Hicks, Senior Partner, Amherst Writers & Artists Method

This weekend I was re-reading an essay called The Silence Out of Which Writing Comes, and which is the source of the above quotation. I was reading the essay to get myself thinking about writing and facilitating writing groups, since I’ll be doing that again soon. And as usually happens — and one reason I like this work — I found myself becoming sustained, stimulated, and nurtured by what I read in the effort to refresh my purpose and sharpen my focus. 

What Alison says above gets to the very heart of what I love about this work, both for myself and for the writers I get to write with. What I have come to learn from practicing this method, from giving and receiving feedback in an AWA writing group is that the writing that matters is the writing we are doing now, in all its scrawly, half-formed, shadowy brilliance and originality. It doesn’t have to be bigger. It doesn’t have to be a seed of anything other than what it is. 

For many years I wore myself out with an idea about bigness. I could barely enjoy any act of creation, any flight of fancy, before my brain was hijacking the spontaneous combustion of my imagination and yoking it to some project of the ego, some effort to once and for all prove my worthiness. 

Somehow, by unearned but beloved grace, I seem to have grown into a place in my life where I can better enjoy the mystery of creation — and a big part of that is realizing that there are greater forces than my ego or my intellect running the show. The energy of desire and creation come calling, and I dance with them a little more lightly now. No longer attaching these energies to a project for my self-aggrandizement, I think I’m a more gracious dance partner, following rather than leading. 

We all have to start small, we all have to start over again and again, and come back to the beginnings. What I like about the AWA method is that it gives us a way to do that, and gives us companions who are also beginning anew, being surprised by their unique creative genius, the tiny little sparks of flame that are always flickering, that have such power to warm and light our way.