I Take This Personally

To Another Poet

Write. Just write. Write your heart, write your soul. Write volumes and reams and write without scissors. Write blindly, without looking. Write what you feel, write what you know. And if you feel nothing, if you know nothing, then write what you see. Write, write, if you must, about me. Write, write, write. Write until you drop. Next week you can edit. Don’t stop.



I don’t know if this online friend had me in mind, or someone else —most likely someone else, she has many online friends, and not a few of them write poetry — but since she posted it in a place that she knows I read, I’ll take it as targeted in part, at least, to me. In any case, it’s good advice, and suggests something of the passion that is required for someone to undertake the foolish quest of turning the soul inside out, to reveal one’s heart to a cold and mostly unlistening world, or, more significantly, perhaps, to oneself. I have a significant other who can’t fathom for the life of her why I would want to write for writing’s sake, and, even more so, why in the world would I ever think that anyone would or ought to be interested in what I have put down enough to read it or hear it read. She thinks, I guess, that my ego is overblown by orders of magnitude. This may be true, but I don’t think that matters.

Write your heart: What shall I write if my heart is full to near bursting with longings for things that can’t be described, or for people I can’t reach, or for a world that everyone is likely to tell me is an impossible dream or can only be arrived at in a post-apocalyptc paradise? What shall I write if my heart is empty, dull, neither hoping nor despairing but surviving for the next hour? What shall I write when my heart warns me that the voice in my ear is right, there’s nothing here worth saying? What shall I write when my heart is silent, and silence is all it yearns for?

I’ll write of the silence, the emptiness, the lack.
I’ll write of the need to not turn back.
I’ll write of love, though far away.
I’ll write of the nothing I did today.

Write your soul: Ah, but what of those days when the soul is silent, when there is no “there’ there, no ”I“ in the midst of all the geographic ego-centredness that can loosely be called my life? What if I’m an empty suit, all hat and not cattle, with nothing to say because there’s no one really here to say it? What if I’ve lost touch with the dust of the ground from which I’ve been formed? What if I’ve felt no divine breath within me? Where then is the soul?

Volumes and reams, no scissors, blind:
I can write this way. I can write of
the coffee mug by my left wrist,
of the alluring liquid inside,
of the baked on decoration that speaks today
of a Disney dream,
something I’ve heard of, that has lived
in fantasy but never in real life
except by broad analogy to other unfulfilled
dreams and fantasies
that form the weave of the substance
of much of the ethereal nothing
that could quite inaccurately be called
my consciousness.

I could probably go on for page after page about that particular mug, without ever even getting to a detailed description of its looks; the colors in the decal, the cartoon movie there portrayed, the fairy-tale upon which that movie was built, how that fairy-tale interweaves even to this day with my foolish dreams, the exotic bean whose liquified extract helps me awaken each day from those dreams, though I don’t like to leave them completely, As I write, however, life overtakes me: that precious liquid, good to the last drop, reaches the last drop, and I must interrupt myself to go pour a refill. The handle of the mug is white, the inside purple, a shiny glaze on stoneware. I know some things about stoneware and glazes and could go on about that for a page or seven or a hundred, if I did not have to pause and go refill the mug. I could go on for pages and volumes and reams if I dared interrupt a stream-of-consciousness flow for such an action, or even for a paragraph break.

After the break, the catalogue of interruptions could take up another page or three: getting the coffee, conversations within the household, instant message chat from a distant online friend, reading email, oh yeah more exotic liquid, and so on. There’s a reason that all the attempts at writing volumes, reams, blindly and without scissors seems to also be somehow rushed, hurried, like a sprint to a deadline: no one ever sits down and writes a volume or a ream. They just write a paragraph or a sentence or a page or a vignette, and often in the midst of that life overtakes, other things happen, minutes or hours or days can go by between this paragraph and the next one, or between this sentence and the last. To capture again the sense, the tone, the heart and soul (or was it just the fashion of the suit?) that drove those former phrases toward their headlong goal: hardly even possible without the scissors and a critical eye. It may take a paragraph or so to get there, and then it is shown that this itself was yet another interruption.

Interruptions are the stuff of life, and one can no more go back and complete the thought begun two paragraphs ago, than somehow reverse the heading of the Exxon Valdez in the narrows. One can never go back, one can only assess the present, incorporate all the relevant data including the interruptions up to the present moment, and proceed.

Write what you feel:
What of those days when
I don’t know what I feel,
when I am numb,
or overwhelmed,
when the torrents of joy and sorrow mingled
will, so it seems,
even physically burst my heart
if I let them flow?
What if I feel all the small things
that would silence me:
shame, pettiness, inadequate, hopeless, frustrated?
What if I feel as though my feelings
have no relevance?
Or what if I’m afraid
that letting that precious honey of emotion bleed onto the page
will sour it somehow, spoil it, make it unclean?

Write what you know: Shall I write of all the trivia on a thousand topics that has accumulated in my brain over years, Is that knowledge? Shall I write of how to make pottery, what it’s like to be a psychiatric inmate, how to live on the streets, the adventure of hitchhiking, life on the farm in the fifties, small-town New England in the sixties, growing up under the Bomb, what it felt like hiding under the dining room table talking about World War Three during the Cuban missile crisis, fallout shelters, ice skating, shoveling snow, the Vietnam War, drugs, sex, rock’n’roll, Jesus freaks, being a Jesus freak, conversations with hundreds, maybe thousands of people about the meaning of life and the big questions, what I learned in school, what I learned after school, the first cigarette, the first job, the first girlfriend, the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth heartbreak, who broke whose heart, who’s counting, games, comic books, marriage, management, business practices, parenting, bankruptcy, wealth, poverty, dialogue, rejection, renewal, unemployment, political influence, charity, the non-profit community, church, family, ancient texts, modern interpretations, languages, linguistics, computers, technology, photography, the blogosphere, neologisms, poetry, dance, rhetoric, the power of words, history, truth, faith, theology, God? What do I know of these things, what can I write?

But my friend has anticipated my objections, and said: If you feel nothing, if you know nothing, then write what you see. I could take that too literally, and write of
the fingers on the keyboard,
the white screen with the black letters,
the nothingness in front of me being filled with words.

Others have done that so much better than I, and the anguished poet who wrote so eloquently of La Feuille Blanche, and whose entire output across his career was not enough to fill one ream, let alone one volume, will be left as a role model for another, or for myself on those anguished angst-filled days when the silence, seen as a negative, turns to self-pity.

In a larger sense, since my life’s task is to see the unseen, make the invisible visible as well as I can, then of course my writing often takes a mystical turn, and poetry is a mode that is most apt for this effort. A friend once defined poetry as ”distilled emotion“ and I am inclined to think he is right. Whether what I see is psychedelic illusion or angelic vision, the nightmares of my own night terrors or the Devil himself, turning the unspeakable into words is the poet’s task.

In a smaller sense, at any moment I see something in particular: today, bookshelves, a piano, a painting, sunshine refracted through windowglass, grey skies, bricks, wood, a broom, my fingers, a ring. Each of those deserves to have its own way of revealing the hidden truth underneath our lives unfolded. There is no shortage, then, of opportunities. ”Sermons in stones, and books in running brooks“ indeed.

Write, write, if you must, about me. My friend puts herself in last, as though as an afterthought, the dregs of available material that still is reluctantly available to the very desperate. This friend, though, has much to say on her own, and produces an enviable wealth of material, both original poetry and commentary on many things. By those means and through a few conversations I know her a little, having perhaps been allowed a few small furtive peeks into her soul. But every soul (as this friends surely knows) is a universe as vast as can be, opaque and inaccessible for the most part, but when looked into, what riches, what resources appear, oh how worthy of words, if any can be found with which to explore such sacred ground!

Write, write, write. Write until you drop. Next week you can edit. Don’t stop. Ah, there’s the rub! I began this short gloss on that wonderful piece of advice on a Friday morning, and now it is the following Monday. My life allows me less luxury than I would prefer. Still, I agree. Even more so, because of what I must tell you next.

I had a near-death experience some years ago, when it seemed to me that I was ready, only a half a century into this earthly existence, to shuffle off this mortal coil and enter whatever reward might await me. I was so sick, and so weary, I was ready for relief. At that moment, I heard the voice of God —not the vibration of air on my eardrums, mind you— as clearly as that divine Word has ever come to my awareness, and here is what it said: ”Not yet. You are too rich. You haven’t given away nearly enough yet of what I have given you.“ And I knew it was true, that it would be selfish of me in the extreme to die that moment. What has He given me? He’s given me a sure knowledge of the divine presence at all times and places: this has become my heart, my soul, the vision of the invisible that must be made manifest for the sake of the beloved. If I write, then, it is because it is my burden and my joy to do so, the purpose of my being, the reason I have been called back from the brink. I’ll write in fits and starts, little by little, in e-mails and instant messages and short journal entries and blogs and vignettes and poems and essays and yes, maybe one of the half-dozen books I keeps saying I’m working on will eventually be brought to birth; but in all of that, what’s being expressed is my love-offering to the world on behalf of something so holy, that to even attempt to speak of it is almost inevitably to defile and diminish it and make it less than what it is: that the universe tends toward Life, not Death, toward Renewal, not Destruction; and that this is the burden of all poetry, all religion; most certainly of the religion that honors as alive forevermore one who willingly embraced, not the death of others, but his own; and which says that by that embrace he opened the way to a new creation.


3 thoughts on “I Take This Personally

  1. Ah! It’s good to hear you write about writing, mostly because I feel like I’m having a conversation with myself from the future. And so I ask my future self: is it worth it? And he replies: yeah!

    Which is all I really need sometimes. So–Thanks! Being single I worry alot about things like marrying a person who doesn’t appreciate reading and writing like I do, and about asking myself what kind of support I need. I worry about the world that doesn’t listen, and so you writing about writing’s sake evokes for me a hopeful future.

    I’ve been dealing with alot of feeling alone in these aspects lately (especially among my group of friends). They’re great people, incredibly concerned with Social Justice, and finding truth and God, but not many of them really appreciate the long furrows of self-reflection and writing. Which, has a strangely adverse affect on my ego, since I am many time concerned and filled with the idea of reflection on the page.

    It’s something about the relationship between words that stretch out before the eye, the complexity, multivalency, and intended meanings. Something about a sea of words crashing on the shore of consciousness. I’m enamored, drawn in, I don’t know if I was ever meant to do anything more than read and write-out my inner life. (But never for the sake of myself, which can make it pretty hard when no one you know likes to read your thoughts).

    I digress, I am a slave to writing, but I love it.

  2. I’ve got a proof-text for you: “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that readeth it”…. (Habakkuk 2:2) After all: the Word [is] God.

    Working with words, we are in the realm of miracles, the means by which new worlds are created. It is a sharp two-edged sword [Hebrews 4:12]; an awesome thing, to be handled with utmost care and respect. “Life and death are in the tongue” or, in this case, at our fingertips.

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