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Don Riggs
Making Things out of Words
by Don Riggs

“The Inventio of Poetry”

Where, and how, to start? That is one of the first questions that confronts me after I’ve already dealt with “Wouldn’t you rather just skip today and not try to keep up this meaningless quota?” Actually, many of my better poems come out of the careless lines simply thrown on the page to get that daily sonnet out of the way. I’m not really sure how this happens; perhaps I don’t have a heavy need to write on a certain subject or for a certain occasion, so things can slip in, unnoticed by my taste.

David Galenson distinguishes between artists who must plan everything out to the finest detail before setting pen to paper and those who just plunge in and find out where they’re going by writing; I have come to identify myself with the second group over the years, partially as a result of Beat era poetics I read in the ‘seventies. However, the question remains: how to start when the pen first hits the yellow pad?

Ancient rhetoric had a whole gallery of topoi, or topics—“places,” literally, in which the orator would store an image to indicate talking points: a leash for the neighbor who was walking his dog at 1 in the morning and saw something, a glove for something with the victim’s dried blood on it, found in the suspect’s car. Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” is a very beautiful example of a common place that is an archetypal source for him, and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” similarly gives her a place to start and a pathway down into a personal and possibly collective depth. Here, I reflect on the use of such a place in my own process:

What to write about? There are ways to find
topics for poetry, places to go

as art students go to the studio
where a naked human being lies down
in a position easily maintained
for forty-five minutes.
                                          Muscles relax
and bones shift until gravity opens
the body into a landscape that breathes
the model’s mind into an alpha state
and the eyes vibrate behind drawn blinds.

Just like the art student, the poet’s hand
trembles a simulacrum of the sea
bottom with geologic shifts, shipwrecks;
tentacles and anemones drift in slow motion.

One of the most topic-conscious poets I’m familiar with is that old curmudgeon of American Not-Quite-Modernism, Robert Frost. My father having been born in Dorchester, raised in Roxbury, and educated in Medford, I was raised on the knowledge that Boston was the “Athens of America,” that Ralph Waldo Emerson was our foremost philosopher, and Frost our National Poet, reinforced by his reading at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. As a sonnet writer, I have been additionally confronted with Frost, who wrote sonnets, some of them quite good, from his earliest volume on. I could envy Frost his proximity to Nature, his seeming ability to spend long walks in woods and fields, and the opportunities this proximity provided him for opportunities to read thematic significance into commonplace natural occurrences. Here is an entry for the Poetry of Envy:

Robert Frost, really, must have had it made.
All he had to do was walk out the door
and there he was, walking across the fields
and meadows, through abandoned towns, and woods,
where he could hunker down in the deep shade
and see the shadows on the forest floor,
assessing every movement for its yields
in poetry, rather than store-bought goods.

And who was the genius who took his book
and mass-produced it for men overseas
in the army and navy, World War II,
so while in Mindanao they could look
and recognize New England, like a tease
for death-familiar fighters: you come too.

Of course, this reflection on how I, living in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, do NOT have it made; I can walk out my apartment door and watch the traffic on Ridge Avenue leaving the city for Manayunk, or returning from Manayunk—“where the bear drinks”—to Center City, contemplate buying a slice of pizza from the pizza place next door, or watch the bikers and rollerbladers and power walkers on the asphalt path along the Schuylkill River several hundred yards away. Or, if I wanted to take the trouble, I could catch one of the buses to the Wissahickon Transfer Center and walk along the Wissahickon Creek, and attempt a Robert Frost-Henry David Thoreau communion with Nature. With my yellow pad in my pack, of course.

Again, I can be true to my own material context for writing poems: my bathtub. This is realism in its most concrete, direct form:

Before I step carefully into the wet
heat from which I feel the steam rising
beside me, I lean into the ball point
of the pen for one last bit of writing.
Undoubtedly, I will pick up the pad
once more when I have settled in the bath,
but I want to write down a final word
before the heat of the water has crept
through the skin of my legs and all the nerves
leading, like railways on a map of France,
directly to that control booth, the brain.
Perched there as in the Elysée Palace,
I will observe my extremities’ pain,
the only counter to which is patience.

Dreams also provide a spur to write; for one thing, if I can recall a dream in the morning, I use the daily sonnet practice as a way of ensuring that I write it down, whether it makes for a good poem or not. Sometimes, as in this example from a few days ago, poetry itself enters into the dream:

Oneiric Accompaniment

His poetry was experimental,
which was all right with me, my own practice
notwithstanding, but I craved something more
musical in terms of experiment,

so I started rubbing against my shirt,
creating a leafy susurration
very subtly underneath the word sounds,
aleatory as the meanings were.

Soon some others, sandpapering also,
created complicated counterpoints
against my motion, not cacophonous,
but more like the whispers of sifting dusts.

We were all dreaming, in different places,
but we’d recognize each other later.

What had happened is that I was teetering on the edge between waking and sleeping through much of the dream, so that, on the one hand, I was aware that I was actually rubbing my bedclothes across my chest for a certain rasping sound, and that, on the other, I knew there were other people sleeping elsewhere who were joining me in this activity, a musical ensemble of isolated soloists simultaneously improvising. This kind of musical happening, by the way, I first experienced in the Modern Music Ensemble brought together in my college by Malcolm Goldstein, who now lives in the Vermont woods, taking the path less traveled by.

A final example of a poem’s instigation, this time as a response to another poem. Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, starts with the sonnet titled “Into My Own.”

Into His Own

Even in his thirties, he realized
the pines and maples of Vermont ended
somewhere, by a river or at a field:
something there was that made the darkness yield
to daylight before the old wood blended
with night. How pitiful the urban park
with its sycamores surrounded by streets:
extravagant nature economized,
day’s simulacrum of sodium lights
mitigating the density of the dark.

He merely had to close his eyes to find
a remedy against the constant clearing,
the virgin forest’s ceaseless disappearing:
snow sifting through the midnight woods of mind.

I can see, after going through these pieces, all done over the past week or two, that I tend to go over some fairly predictable, fairly repetitive concerns obsessively, writing from life, even if that life is circumscribed by a bathroom, writing from other people’s poems, gleaned in part from memory and in part from stacks of paperbacks next to my bathtub, from traditional commonplaces, and from my own dreams – or lack of remembered dreams – and sometimes I go over these themes, or topics, or concerns, or questions like a dog gnawing at a bone, knowing that what is on the surface has been already cleaned to a shine, but sensing that, if I can only crack it open, then there will be some truly rich treat for me to savor!

April 7, 2009