The Best Poetry Takes Courage

apoetryI wasn’t thinking about poetry when I wrote this about courage in my journalism text Living Ethics:

As any war veteran will tell you, fear is a natural or logical response when you confront a potentially significant or catastrophic threat. In fact, fear lends meaning and substance to the words courage and bravery because a courageous and brave act suggests that a person did not succumb to fear when the stakes or consequences warranted.

But courage is part of poetry’s creative process, too.

Just as beginning poets overcome fear of writing or rejection, they quickly encounter new terrors. They realize they must share some significant lesson or truth with readers. They must face and make sense of their fears. Otherwise they simply add to the slush piles of mediocrity.

Of course, you can compose confessional poetry and simply recount what has happened to you (no matter how embarrassing or self-invasive). But only a few insightful authors–Sharon Olds and Colette Inez come to mind–can do that effectively through their mastery of metaphor and symbol.

Another approach is to write poems that use personal experience to explore cultural values.

Perhaps the best poet writing such verse today is Molly Peacock, author of four poetry books, including Original Love (Norton). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry and other leading literary magazines.

I asked her to discuss courage and her creative process so that you, too, can confront fear and compose powerful poems.

Courage To Feel

Eventually, most poets realize that they must share intense emotion–including fear. Some make the choice to convey its texture and meaning, trusting the human condition. Some turn away and resort to trivializing it with cliches.

“Often cliches of language are in fact cliches of feeling,” Peacock says. “When you want to make your feelings acceptable, you end up resorting to cliches and the writing becomes shallow.”

Poets should serve as cultural visionaries. But often, their shallow writing seems as if they are blurring their eyes intentionally. “You have to keep your gaze steady,” says Peacock, or your simplest descriptions will seem trite.

An example is the cliche “green as grass.” According to Peacock, grass is never green in the presence of strong emotion. “It’s mint green with a tentative sweetness, or green as St. Puce, the flea, who, according to satirist Nathaneal West, lived in the armpit of our Lord. It is chive. Chartreuse. Like tinsel. Like straw.”

In her poem “The Guilt,” about unresolved feelings toward her sister, Peacock compares photographed insects in a magazine to “sticky, gargantuan hairtaffy.” She doesn’t call them creepy or icky or even hairy–all cliches.

Her most elaborate description in Original Love occurs in the meditation “The Spider Heart.” Peacock says her fear associated with that poem arose in her mother’s apartment the night after she died. “I woke up with a feeling of physical clogging in my chest,” Peacock remembers. “The poem actually began as I lay frozen in fear in my mother’s bed, my husband asleep beside me, trying to figure out if I was, literally, having a heart attack.

“I was so frightened that I thought of waking Mike up and turning on the lights, but I didn’t. I was fascinated by my own fear, and so I looked at it.”

Peacock confronted her fear so she could attach words to the emotion. That led her to more observations and specific sentences. “I felt like there was something in my rib cage other than my heart,” she says, “and that whatever it was was scrambling, not beating. I felt again like turning on the lights, and again I didn’t. I didn’t want to wake Mike up. I really wanted to find out what–animal–was inside me.”

Peacock, in a highly charged state of mind, perceived what was inside her with keen originality-the operative word in her book’s title: Original Love.

“It was a crab, I thought at first, a crab in my rib cage,” she recalls. “Then I looked more carefully. It was a spider. It was a crab spider, a spider crab. As I watched, this animal inside me turned into a tree, the legs becoming both roots and branches. It was my heart, and it was who I was. If only I could attend to it! If only I could keep my gaze steady enough to hold what I felt in the beam of my perception. And not turn away. If I turned away,” she adds, “I would just have an ache in my heart. I would have heart ache. Heartache over the death of a mother. A heartless cliche for what I really felt. I needed the courage to feel.”

Peacock also needed another kind of courage.

Courage To Think

To write convincingly about fear, you must think it through or you risk sentimentality–wailing on the page without grounding (or a sense of occasion). Fear can be complex, recalling childhood experiences or filtering through layers of adult phobias. The poet’s goal is to explore fear rather than confess it, to attach values or visions to it and, in doing so, to strike a universal chord in readers.

According to Peacock, “There’s advice afoot in many workshops that goes like this: ‘You can make a poem with simple feeling, simple vocabulary, simple syntax and no ideas.’ Let’s not damn genuine simplicity, but let’s resist oversimplification, which avoids complex feeling and thinking. You really do have to think as a poet.”

Peacock defines the word poet as “someone who is awake in the dark.” The Old English meaning of the word awake is “to rouse from sleep” and connotes enlightenment. The Middle English meaning is “to watch over the dead”–as in the noun wake–and suggests meditation. In the case of “The Spider Heart,” Peacock literally was roused from sleep to tend feelings about her dead mother.

The courage to think through fear empowers a poet, Peacock promises. “It energizes syntax and allows surprising turns of thought.”

Beginning poets who feel sharp emotions too easily need to appreciate the thought process, Peacock advises. “It’s what makes you carry an image around day after day until you understand it.”

Peacock carried the central image of “The Spider Heart” for a week before feeling the urge to write. “That spider had come back for several nights in a row, persisting after my mother’s funeral, and becoming almost a friend to me, but a mysterious one.”

Part of the creative process is knowing when to write. Poets sense pressure–almost a calling–that compel them to put words on paper. Peacock has disciplined herself to obey that pressure because she knows that it will yield a potent first draft. “Not obeying the pressure, putting the poem off until later, leads to shallowness,” she explains, because feeling and thinking become stale.

“When I sat down to describe the spider in my heart, I realized that I also had to describe how it had changed into a weird kind of horizontal tree. My feelings were primary, but in describing them, I thought of something Ralph Waldo Emerson said about how, when his father died, he’d felt a great tree had fallen, but that after a great tree is downed, the young, struggling tree nearby begins to grow madly. In a sense, I was that struggling tree.”

“The Spider Heart” opens with a complex but concise sentence that grounds the poem in a specific place and time, makes reference to Emerson’s tree, and introduces the spider:

Sleeping with my husband in my

mother’s bed the night she died, I expected the

tree-the one that Emerson said grew tall

and wide after his father died–but woke up

instead with a spider wedged in my ribcage scrambling.

In setting the scene, Peacock also composes in a rough blank verse–the mode of an elegy–using slant and internal rhyme, so that each line reads as a unit and works in tandem with the one above and below it.

Her three-stanza poem is too long to feature here, but its form is worth noting. It develops a “tree-like” structure, containing simple declarative sentences (or “roots”); a sentence that pivots on a semicolon (“trunk”); sentences extending out from a colon (“limbs”); and an exclamation, questions and more declarations (“branches”).

You can find traces of original feeling as Peacock describes the spider: “crab-like, black and horizontal,/ like a squat tree on its side.”

But also note the thinking process at work in the above simile of a tree. That word echoes off the Emerson allusion and provides a transition to the next stanza, which begins with an astute analysis: “death opens the plot of a life.” Now Peacock can evaluate her mother’s life–only ten bad years, she asserts–“a seventh of her life–no worse/ than anyone’s!”

The final stanza represents the conclusion of her syllogism, or logical argument in three movements. Here, Peacock melds both types of courage. “I wasn’t going to have Ralph Waldo/ Emerson’s tree,” she admits as she contemplates the spider with a steady gaze:

. . . I looked hard behind my ribs and the spider changed under my

watching eye, its thorax elongating, its legs flexing ballerina-like, its color fading to the translucency of dancer’s

tights, silvery as birchbark–one set of legs root-like, whiter, one set branch-like, darker,

though still horizontal.

Finally, she refers again to her tree metaphor and acknowledges her own lack of awareness:

I had two limbs of a thought at once: You haven’t seen the end of that

spider came first; then the other, How will you set the birchtree up-right?

Peacock chose such an ending because, as she puts it, “the struggle to understand wasn’t really over, and I didn’t really want to draw a false conclusion. So I ended with a question, one that the reader could be reasonably assured the poet would answer, that is, whenever she grew up enough to find the answer….

“To know where your limits are–well, I guess–that takes a kind of courage, too,” Peacock says.

Tapping Your Courage

To help you muster your own creative courage, keep a “fear” journal and follow these suggestions.

* Instead of denying or avoiding the object of your fear, describe its texture using surprising or original word combinations (as in barbarous iridescence from the Peacock poem “Greeting Card Verse”).

* Associate your fear with a concrete word, using a simile, metaphor or some other comparison (as in “nervous excitement in his voice/ spreads through the phone like watercolor on/ a wet page” from “The Scare”).

* As soon as your fear subsides, analyze it to determine where it came from and where it’s headed. You can associate your fear with allusions like that Emerson tree in “The Spider Heart.” Or you can explore definitions, as in the very word courage, whose two syllables come from French words meaning heart and age (as in “You lack/ courage–or maybe only age to add/ to coeur–which time achieves” from “Instructions to Miss Muffet”).

* Carry inside you the images recorded in your journal until you feel the pressure to write. Discipline yourself to obey that pressure. During the composition process, you’ll confront your fear with a steady gaze and share your insights with a receptive audience.

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