Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Beauty, Truth, and Where We All Stand (Part One)

John Keats ends his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, written in 1819, with the couplet:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This post is not yet another academic dissertation on those famous lines, but rather, in this part one of a three part article, an account of how the concept of “truth” has influenced me, both as a poet, and, more broadly, my take on the world.  Part two will be on “beauty”, and part three will bring the threads together.

I hope that this may be of interest, in that we all have, I believe, whether we are writers or not, a standpoint, a worldview, on beauty and truth, be it a conscious one, or an implicitly assumed one.

For many years, when I was asked about my poetry, I used to reply, simply, “I tell the truth”.  And what I had in mind was these lines of Keats.  That “truth” is my personal one.  It is not a religious or spiritual truth.  It is not a literal truth.  (Over the years my poetry has been at times fantastical, absurd, and surreal.)

My “truth” as a poet is to, as fearlessly as possible, without any regard for fame, fortune (it goes without saying that the words “poetry” and “fortune” in the same breath are to all intents oxymoronic), getting published – any ulterior motive – write according to the promptings of my imagination.

I’ll put my shingle out in cyberspace, and say that my concept of the “imagination” is a mystical one.  Some of you may roll your eyes, but for me, everything is meant, and part of a mystical whole.  Mystical not religious or spiritual, though for me the concepts are not mutually exclusive.  How do words enter my head?  The mystery is an abiding one.

It is also my “truth” to, as conscientiously and assiduously as possible, endeavour to improve my technique and technical skills as a poet.  Even at age fifty-two, as I write this, I try to keep a learning mentality.

Years ago, as a fledgling poet in my twenties, I hung out with other poets, and tried to absorb wisdom from my wiser, more experienced peers.  I also read, and read, and read all sorts of poetry.  In terms of improving my technique these days, it is mainly through reading, and continuing to conscientiously experiment with form and structure.  This leopard may have well defined spots, but to mix an animal kingdom metaphor, this increasingly old dog is still learning new tricks.

I choose to almost always write free verse.  Robert Frost likened free verse poetry to playing tennis without a net: it might be fun, but it “ain’t tennis”.  While holding Robert Frost, and very many other poets who chose, and still do choose, to write formal verse, in high regard, I gently and good humouredly disagree with him.

Poetry is, for me, distilled reality.  This is my “truth”.  Robert Frost’s distillery produced fine verse in rhyme and metre, my distillery produces a different drop.  It’s all a matter of personal truth.

This may be contentious to some, but I believe that true poets – I abstract from other writers – are born, not made.  In saying this, I immediately, almost breathlessly lest one single reader doubts what I mean, to return to the animal kingdom, a born poet is like a born baby turtle, with innate instincts and DNA, but the conversion rate of baby turtles to mature turtles is low.  There are lots of hazards, obstacles, which get in the way.

And so it is with poets.  To be a poet takes effort, perseverance, and perhaps, if not luck, then a splash of divine providence.

So, in finishing this part one of the post, as writers whatever our genre, we must, I sincerely believe, just must, follow our personal truth, as unfailingly as a baby turtle homes in, little flippers flapping, for the ocean.

More to follow.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Don't Sleepwalk Off a Balcony, Write with Awareness

Most of us sleepwalk through life, most of the time. I was reminded of this recently when I visited a good friend’s waterfront apartment. I stepped out onto his balcony, and was taking in a stunning view of the calm harbour, with yachts moored. When my friend joined me I commented on how lucky he was to have such an exquisite view. “I just don’t see it,” he replied.

Isn’t it true that we most always become so used to our familiar surroundings, we, like my friend, are asleep to their beauty? We take expensive holidays, go half way around the world, to do, if truth were known, what we could do at home, were we but able to see our familiar surroundings with freshly minted, open eyes.

As writers, it would be immensely helpful, I believe, to wake from that slumber as often as is possible. And though that might seem a laudable, yet elusive goal, there are ways to do it.

I remember a poet friend of mine telling me years ago about his experience attending a Buddhist retreat near Sydney. For some days, he did not speak. He ate vegetarian meals, and contemplated. The result of this was that, among other good results, his senses became heightened. The grass became vividly green for him. He was more awake.

Now before you immediately say “I’m not a Buddhist, I like my steak too much to go vego, even for a few days, and I’m certainly not going to stay silent while my kids are running amok,” let me reassure you, there are other ways to achieve a similar outcome.

One good way is brain exercise. OK, for those of you who immediately baulk at the “e” word, let me reassure you it’s as easy as trying to brush your teeth with your opposite hand, or getting dressed with your eyes closed. (You’re allowed to get the clothes out of the wardrobe first, if you wish, in case you’re worried about odd socks.) An informative, useful article on the subject by The Franklin Institute is at:

Another good way is cultivating the habit of listening to people. How many of you are people watchers? Hands up. Most of us are, if we care to admit it. But, as soon as a person begins to talk, we begin to make definitive judgements about them, and in conversation with them, soon most of us are not really taking in what the person is saying, rather we are waiting for a chance to talk ourselves, usually about ourselves.

If we try to listen, intently, to what the person is saying, without interrupting them, we engage more fully with that person’s story, and as writers, grist for our creative mill is there to, later, be reflected on.

Lastly on this, though I could offer more suggestions, try, as writers, to cultivate a sense of wonder. A way I did this while living in Canberra was to, each morning I travelled on the bus, not bury my head in a book – there is a time for that – or a newspaper, but, instead, take in the scenes, inside the bus and out. There is an especially beautiful lake, Lake Burley Griffin, there, and when the bus travelled over the bridge, in the colder months often there was a mist on the lake. The stuff of stories, myth, legend, ethereal beings, perhaps.

Let us return to my friend’s balcony. Can I remember any specific details of any of the yachts? No. Not now. An opportunity lost? Perhaps not, because when I opened myself to the view, my subconscious, the storehouse of all I experience, took it in, and, some time in the future, when composing a poem; possibly, even, without conscious recollection; a name of one of those yachts might find itself in the poem.

Mull on all this. See your own water, your own yachts. Write with awareness.