Reflections on Sacred Poetry
Greetings all. I'm honored to provide some food for thought in this December seminar on writing poetry. I'm 61 years old now
, and have been writing poetry for about 50 years. Some of you will remember I started a poetry writing forum in the first incarnation of this Board a number of years ago. I've been a Druid Member of OBOD for almost seven years now. My first novel, The Apple and the Thorn
, coauthored with Emma Restall Orr, is in print, and available from Thoth Publications in the UK. A second novel, done alone, is due out from Thoth in 2009, titled Marsh Tales and Other Wonders
. You can learn more about both at http://www.theappleandthethorn.com
There once were quite a few of my poems on the OBOD Board, but they've faded away over the years.
So, there follows a brief sketch of what I think poetry is about, including a couple of my own works. Hope you enjoy it, and that we might have a good discussion!
There are eleven (at least) steps in the writing of sacred poetry, all of which are necessary. True, you can write poems without these steps, but they will be some other kind of poem. The steps are:
The first six steps bring the poem to you. The second five steps take your poem to the world. Note the actual writing of the poem (in first draft) is only one of eleven steps, yet for many people that is the only step ever taken. Having an inspiration and writing it down in a first and only draft is not being a poet, for poetry is not a flight of fancy, it is hard work. The trick is pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a poem, and have it emerge as though it were totally spontaneous!
1. Life Experience
There is a saying among bagpipers: "It takes seven years to make a piper, and seven generations before that." It takes a lifetime to make a poet, and a heritage. You begin by looking at your family heritage and your every waking moment with the eyes of a poet. Every tale you hear and every image you see becomes a part of your poet's soul. Write down the stories of your ancestors as they are told to you. Keep a journal, and at the end of the day make a note of everythhing you experienced that day worthy of a poem. Pick one or two of these, and write a poem about it that you will never show to anyone. Train yourself to see poetically, to think poetically.
2. Specific Experience
As you go about step one, from time to time something you experience with your senses or your thoughts will cry out for closer attention. Focus in on that. Experience it fully. Don't start writing right away, for you have not had the full experience yet! Observe in a disciplined way, involving all the senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Do not even make notes at this point. I used to ask people not to take photographs during wedding rituals I conducted. "But how will we remember it?" they would ask. I would reply, "How about really, really paying attention?" At this step you are developing, training, and then using your attention.
This is when you process the experience or thought that started you off. Turn it over in your mind, explore the experience again. If you've gone off into the forest and had an inspiring exerience, wait until you return home before reflecting. "Seeing again" is another kind of "second sight," and it is vital to the creation of sacred poetry.
Note that you have written nothing yet! Out of the reflection, if you have done well to this point, "something" may jump out at you. Or it may not. If not, let the experience simmer at the back of your mind, and go on with life. Perhaps it will call you back later. But if it does, look at it in your mind. In the large cloud of the experience, inspiration is the one bright point of light. It's more than your subject, it is the seed or egg of the poem, the thing in itself which you are moved to write about. Note how this inspiration makes you feel, for that will help determine what sort of poem you will write.
This is the crisis point, fraught with potential and with danger. Some people can sit down at a piano and zip off a brand new melody without thinking. But those people are rare. Most of us trying to do that would produce only noise. Why do we think writing poetry would be any different.
There are key concepts to any poem. And a sidebar to your life experience must be the learning of these concepts. The two most critical are: Rhyme and Metre.
But other things such as length, physical structure, use of language and phrasing, are also important.
"Oh, I can't be bound by such things," you say. "I just like to write free verse." Art is inspiration put in order. Sometimes that "order" may be elusive, even absence, but if it is art it is there.
There is a year of teaching in this step, but a few brief, important points must suffice:
a. Once you pick a mtere or ryhme scheme, keep it! Don't change it in the poem unless there is a really good reason the story demands it! Abandoning a rhyme or metre scheme because you can't make it work in the sixth line is not poetry, it's laziness.
b. Don't poetically invert words just to make the rhyme work. It stands out like a sore thumb. e.g. "I saw a bear outside my tent/but off into the forest it went."
c. You don't have to rhyme just at the end of the line. Internal rhyming can be powerful:
I saw a bear outside my tent
where the forest stood,
when off she went
into the winter wood.
Sometime alliteration is as good as rhyme, but don't overdo it!
Don't try using free verse until after you have experience crafting rhymed and metered poems. Otherwise your "free verse" will sound like a prose paragraph that simply has been broken up into shorter lines.
Your poem will not be good after the first inspired draft. It may look very promising, it may be moving, it may be inspiring. But it won't yet be good. Look at the difference in the Bear Poem in 4b and 4c. The first was an inspiration. The second was a rewrite. Look at what you've written. Does it say what you wanted to say? Does its timing, its sound, convey the feeling you wanted? How can you make it better. This is the step where true poets are made or destroyed?
You've had your inspiation, written it down, and revised it. It may have taken a day, a week, a year. Now is the "yes" moment. The moment you realize it has all come together, and you write it out in a neat and finished form. You get the personal feeling at this point that inexperienced poets try to get at step four! But even at this step you are not finished. Let it sit a bit. It may become real all by itself, or you may need to recycle several of the previous steps and return here all over again. You now have a completed poem ready to make its way into the wide world.
Some would argue this is the step where a personal set of thoughts finally becomes poetry - when another person experiences your poem for her/himself without you as an intermediary. You have had your experience, done your reflecting, been inspired, crafted your poem. Now you set it free, and it becomes what it will. If you have done a good job, you just might communicate what you wanted. If you have done a superb job, you will communicate that and much more that you haven't yet imagined. If you have been lazy and slipshod in your writing, that is all you will convey.
Every poem is reborn in the mind of every reader. The reader now interprets your message for him/herself, bringing to it a wealth of life experiences and ideas that have nothing to do with you! Have you taken an audience into account? For whom were you writing? Did you try to touch their experience with your own? A poet lives in community, not in isolation. At least at this step.
10 & 11. Incorporation & Influence
If you've done your job as a poet, someone will incorporate your message into their own life. If you have been truly inspiring, they will do more than that: lives will be changed, and people will think or act differently because of what you wrote.
Why is this "sacred" poetry? Because you have put your own heart and soul into it. It is more than simply reporting. This is reporting:
"I saw a man upon the stair,
a little man, who wasn't there;
I saw him there again today,"
The fourth line makes it sacred:
"Gee, I wish he'd go away."
It's not the gods that make poetry sacred. It's the poet.Poems by OakWyse:
Here's one of my favorites, "Sunreturn at the Lake." Note that in this poem there is no real rhyme scheme, and no regular meter. But the rhythm flows in such a way that the poem seems more structured than it really is. The phrasing is very simple, just enough to convey the image.You may recognize that it is based on the Fox in the Druid Animal Oracle. I drew that card once during a morning meditation. Later in the day, after the card had been put away, I wrote the poem. It is about the fox, but a central image is the candle in the window, suggesting the person who stis inside. Note the several contrasts, the repitition of the word soft, and the slowly increasing light from candle to hearth to sun.Sunreturn at the lake
A single candle
in the darkness of the cottage glows.
Out and about the soft white flakes
of gentle snow descend.
As above the soft, cold
gray of cloud beneath the sky;
So below the hard, cold
gray of winter's ice upon the lake.
but for the soft, soft sound
of falling snow.
And the candle's light.
Across the frozen water,
a bright splash upon a barren shore,
in silent wisdom a fox stands, still . . .
candle-flame reflecting in his dark eyes.
And he senses warmth,
and will not trust the ice.
Quietly, beneath the snow,
around his soft paws the infant snowdrops wait.
It is Imbolc.
A single candle in the darkness of the cottage glows,
and the hearth brightens,
and the Sun will return at last.
(c) 2001 W. William Melnyk (OakWyse)
Here is another, written four years later on Iona, about the Great Fairy Mound on the road to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. The rhyming is tighter here, and more disciplined, yet still does not follow a specific scheme. Rather, it is used in different ways to highlight ideas. For example, repeating the same rhyme for the last three lines (and indeed the same words in the final two lines) gives the sense of slow-moving eternity that the thought itself conveys.The Same Old Hill
Whatever name the people used
it always was, I suppose,
the same old hill
and is so still,
not nearly so confused
in thoughtless soil and sod
as those thinking folk who toil
to champion their chosen names
In the golden days of Lugh
when clan chiefs raced
their horses against his chariot,
sunwise around the grassy base,
‘twas Sithean Mor, Great Fairy Mound,
this place: Home to an ancient godly race.
And when Columba prayed upon its crest,
he a different heavenly host addressed
and called it Hill of Angels,
so to call it blessed.
In truth, it was the same hill all along,
no matter what the words
of prayer or sacred song.
‘Tis only human, I suppose, to ask
if angels or if fae enchant the hill,
but it rises from the rocky land
the same earth, still.
And always will,
and always will.
29 April 2005
And finally, a couple of stanzas from an epic poem, "The Finding of the Serpentine." Here the rhyme and meter follow a strict pattern, but not at all a conventional one. The proper formatting for these lines is for them to be centered, not left-justified:
Then out at sea in the foaming waves,
in the crashing and heaving swells,
a great form from the sea-bed rose,
and mounted in the Ovate's sight
from height to height in great magnificent display
the Sea itself,
as in the churning waters did appear
the mighty form of Manannan Mac Lir!
Out Oak strode into the sea,
around his ankles broke the chilling waves,
while high above the towering cumulus
was white against the sky;
and high, and high again Mac Lir did rise
above the waves.
Sea-plant was his clothing, hair, and beard,
a gleaming emerald trident in his hand.
(c) 1999 W. William Melnyk (OakWyse)
It goes on for 62 stanzas. The pattern is rough and not slavishly followed, but it is there. The tale is based upon an experience had on Iona at Beltaine of 1999. It was written down the following November. It is part experience, part reflection, part flight of fancy. The whole text can be found here: http://www.fritx.ukshells.co.uk/stuff/OakWyse/finding.html
A final note for those who share their work: I recommend you not post it on the internet unless you are willing to let it be stolen. It's just too easy to do online, and a (C) at the end will not protect you unless you constantly scour the 'net and have enough m oney to initiate lawsuits! Still, it helps sometimes, and it is a good idea to use a notation like one of those I've used above.
So there it is. I hope you've enjoyed it, and let the discussions begin!
19 November 2008