I gave a reading October 14 to a lively group of participants at a Waking Down in Mutuality retreat. The audience had been immersed in a deep process of self-inquiry for three long days, and they were very receptive to the deep transformative channel poetry can guide us in to. I picked three poems that related in one way or another to the explorations in which the group had been engaged. I could have chosen a dozen, but the situation demanded only a glimpse or two.
I started with ALL THE WRONG PLACES from my third book, Letters to Sophie. It’s a shocking poem in several ways, as it considers our very human preference for looking the other way when we encounter the darker facets of existence. The poem came out of a meditation on what I might be missing when I am attracted to familiar and culturally-validated forms of beauty. I started looking the other way and found that most of what is around us, and in us, is overlooked, and rarely considered. I began to visit that, and found it worthy.
Next, WAITING ROOM. I think part of why the poem is so funny is that it brings awareness to a feeling many of us have as we make our way through life. I actually began the poem in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, where my father and I were awaiting his checkup. The core of the poem is built around something a friend said to me years ago. I had said to her “I feel like I’m waiting for something, but I don’t know what it is.” She wisely said “So what do you do while waiting.” Could be we’re all filling in time, with more or less passion, while we wait.
I hadn’t noticed before how that poem fits in with SECOND NATURE from my second book, Natural History. The poem is about the way we practice, practice, practice routines, in order to be always ready to put them to use. Maybe that’s what the juggler, shopkeeper, and reporters are doing in WAITING ROOM. Nothing is happening, so they practice their forms, get something going. In SECOND NATURE the designated form is poetry, and the poem names some of the practices I find essential to the form—but it could be anything from sports, to assembly-line work, to ballet.
In this world we have to adjust quickly as new conditions and technologies overtake us with greater rapidity than we have been accustomed to. What we know at the core has to be ready to morph quickly to embrace or take advantage of unimagined situations and means of transmission. We no longer have the easy grace of thinking we can learn one skill and let it support us into retirement. In effect, we can’t know what we’re getting ready for, so we follow our passions into unknown lands, and practice essential skills in order to be ready for whatever we encounter there.
At least, that’s what I get out of these poems today. Read them aloud. What do you hear?