I wrote a poem for a friend last night, someone I’ve know for a good while now who recently had a death in the family. I’m staying abstract in my description because I don’t want to talk about the poem or its subject. Instead, I want to focus on something I noticed as I revised the piece: how my imagination and the natural world seem indelibly melded.
Writing the poem, I started out with the image of pine pollen on a car windshield, a common springtime sight here in South Georgia. As the poem took shape, some natural associations of spring and winter emerged: spring as rebirth/ revitalization time and winter as death/ end of life. At first, as I worked on the piece, I rejected these associations. I wanted to do something “new.”
As I’ve thought about the poem, though, I’ve been wondering if my associations are tied to art/literature or to real life. And no, I don’t have a problem with the term real life. Despite what some post-post-postmodern mumbo-jumbo would have us believe, there is difference between life and art. The world is not merely a text.
Do I associate spring with rebirth because all the poems and literature I’ve read over the years have told me to do so? Or, is there something inherent in the blossoming dogwoods that touches some deep, metaphysical part of me (call it a soul, call it psyche; just know you can’t measure it)? I suppose this question is unanswerable. But just because a question doesn’t have a definite answer doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t ponder it.
The question is aesthetic as well as metaphysical. If in creating art, I must always seek to defamiliarize and make new, then shouldn’t I always seek to distance my poetry from standard associations? Should my writing never associate spring with rebirth? I’m engaging in a bit of either/or thinking here, I realize. But as someone who values good writing and appreciates the challenge of a difficult poem, I find these questions urgent.
Writers can’t escape who they are. Whatever we write, we find ourselves speaking, above all, as ourselves, either through the lyric I or through some dramatic guise. So, if there is some part of me that associates spring with rebirth, then my poetry will naturally have that inclination, as well, unless I temper it or work against that impulse. And I’m not arguing that I shouldn’t. I wonder, though, if I’m giving up some essential part of my by rejecting this association. Should I reject it simply because I worry that a reader (or editor) will say, “Oh, this is trite and old. Everyone knows that spring equals rebirth. Yawn”? At what point am I lying as a writer? At what point am I lying as a person?
“Poetry,” Robert Frost said, “provides the one permissible way to say one thing and to mean another.” His statement reveals a lot about the way Frost thought about poetry: for him, it’s metaphorical and intentional. The surface of the poem (say, the subject matter) says very little about its depth. And if in that depth, my associations of spring and rebirth appear time and again, then so be it. Perhaps in the act of saying one thing and meaning another, poets stumble through a linguistic landscape only. But in that linguistic landscape, poets surely find shadows of the real, even if those shadows are cast by words.
O for a muse of fire,