October 27, 2009

And Speaking of Teachers...

This was forwarded to me by a fellow alum from my MFA program. It's Dorianne Laux speaking about Philip Levine and using the style and voice of Merwin. And it feels like a direct echo of "Finding a Teacher."


after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
Pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours

October 20, 2009

I Could Tell That His Line Had No Hook

Warning: I'm breaking my own rules here with a slightly longer post...

Finding a Teacher
In the woods I came on an old friend fishing
and I asked him a question
and he said Wait

fish were rising in the deep stream
but his line was not stirring
but I waited
it was a question about the sun

about my two eyes
my ears my mouth
my heart the earth with its four seasons
my feet where I was standing
where I was going

it slipped through my hands
as though it were water
into the river
it flowed under the trees
it sank under hulls far away
and was gone without me
then where I stood night fell

I no longer knew what to ask
I could tell that his line had no hook
I understood that I was to stay and eat with him

~W.S. Merwin

There is something about the simplicity of the exchange in this poem that says volumes to me about teaching at a spiritual level. When I think of my most significant teachers, I think of gestures, manners, cadences, moments of insight, and about a feeling I had in their classrooms and in their presences.

Ultimately, these were the teachers who found some way to create space for me to discover truth -- about myself and about life. It’s hard to be sure that there was a neat relationship between what they hoped I would learn and the lessons that rose to the surface for me. They gave me reason to wait and to let my questions hang in the air. They allowed me to feel safe enough to let my guard down and invite the arrival of unexpected discovery.

In some cases, I have found these people in the classroom. In other cases, these encounters have been more coincidental. Regardless, I think that finding a teacher requires a sense of openness captured by this poem.

The speaker of the poem sees that his friend’s line is not stirring, but he waits. It is not entirely logical, but perhaps he knows -- consciously or unconsciously -- that this time spent together will be of value even if no words are exchanged.

I love the way this poem deals with the dailiness and simplicity of teaching and learning. Real teaching and real learning are unfolding processes which require abundant patience. The idea that this encounter between friends can be boiled down to standing together quietly watching a loose line linger in the water is magnificent.

It feels to me like a gathering akin to a Meeting for Worship in which no words are spoken but the silence is so rich that when it is over friends shake hands and are in some deep way replenished. You can feel the quality of centeredness when everyone stands and stretches and begins to walk out of the Meetinghouse with intention. Good teaching, like good art and good worship, has the capacity to leave us changed -- both teacher and student -- in quiet and unnamable ways.

October 17, 2009

Instruments and All

I remember asking Mr. Blauvelt, my favorite high school English teacher, about whether or not I could call my favorite hip-hop songs poetry. He wasn't so interested in that possibility. He loved music. I know that he was a record guy. He once played us Simon & Garfunkel's "Richard Cory" when we read the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson.

I'm sure I asked him because I was starting to frame my own theories and wanted to test his sensibilities. No doubt mine were more inclusive then than they are now, but I still see the overlap. More than anything, it's the language play, the bending of words and their taste in the mouth that keep lines of hip-hop angling for space in my brain alongside the poetry. It's also the possibilities of any song. Catch me at the right moment and I can get moved by Ray LaMontagne, Beth Orton, or Mos Def just like I can get struck dumb by Wislawa Szymborska, Larry Levis, and Jack Gilbert. But they're different. A poem has to generate all of its power through the words. They sit on the page alone. No accompaniment. None of the aggregation of force that Billy Collins talks about in his "Man Listening to Disc."

October 15, 2009

He Takes Off, Last of All, The World

In Randall Jarrell's "Field & Forest" -- definitely one of my all time favorites -- he offers a luminous image at the end of undressing, both physically and mentally. I didn't hear this poem until I was several semesters deep into my graduate program, but I think it offers a unique and haunting account of quieting down, turning off, and slipping into deep, self-forgetting solitude. The entire poem is wonderful, but this is the image that gets me every time...

At night, from the airplane, all you see is lights,
A few lights, the lights of houses, headlights
And darkness. Somewhere below, beside a light,
The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth:
He doesn’t eat now. Takes off his spectacles:
He doesn’t see now. Shuts his eyes.
If he were able to he’d shut his ears,
And as it is, he doesn’t hear with them.
Plainly, he’s taken out his tongue: he doesn’t talk.
His arms and legs: at least, he doesn’t move them.
They are knotted together, curled up, like a child’s.
And after he had taken off the thoughts
It has taken him his life to learn,
He takes off, last of all, the world.

October 5, 2009

The Gift

I lifted up her chin so she could look me in the eye while I told her about the scarecrows and what her grandmother said. She winced. She looked down to see her mother's fingers pushing at the splinter. I lifted her chin again and kept on about the scarecrows.

When she looked down again the splinter was out, and I was left with Li-Young Lee's words in my mouth: "to pull the metal splinter from my palm / my father recited a story in a low voice... I can't remember the tale, / but hear his voice still, a well / of dark water, a prayer."

Who knows whether she'll remember this splinter or not. But the kindnesses we give her are our way of "planting something... in [her] palm." All we can do is give and hope. The rest is up to her.

October 2, 2009

This Being Human

The last few days have left me short on sanity and patience, and clinging to some of my favorite lines by Rumi from his poem, "The Guest House." "This being human," he says, "is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival." Later, he says, "Welcome and entertain them all." Even "a crowd of sorrows .... may be clearing you out / for some new delight."

Today, the delight has been my family. This morning when I asked my three year old how she learned to dress herself, she told me, "Mommy taught me how." I told her, "your mommy is one smart lady. That's why I married her!" Tonight, that same smart lady oriented me to her system of organization and time management. Already I feel more prepared to meet the next arrivals "at the door laughing and invite them in."