As a young, unknown poet, I used to live with a curious phenomenon: I felt as if I were walking down a city street, partly in fear, partly in excitement, anticipating that at any moment something good could come from around a corner and suddenly change everything for me as a writer. Maybe it would be a publication. Maybe an agent, or a book deal, or a prize or award that would bestow upon me all I felt I lacked in the cycle of submission and rejection I felt myself locked into without a key.
It was as if I were Emily Dickinson, but instead of being trapped in a room in New England, I was stuck inside my own head, which was constantly living in the future, making me blind to the present ground over which I walked and from which would, ultimately, spring my best writing.
In Adrienne Rich’s brilliant essay about Emily Dickinson, she writes, “consciousness – not simply the capacity to suffer, but the capacity to experience intensely at every instant – creates of death not a blotting-out but a final illumination.”
In keeping with the metaphors of seasons and growing that we have been exploring in this column this year, I was, as a young poet, more concerned with the blooms than the roots.
I thought that it would be the bloom of acceptance, publication, and recognition that would make me a poet. In the forward-thrusting fantasy of something appearing just around the corner, I was in fact keeping myself back from the deep work of digging in the dirt of where I was.
Adrienne Rich goes on to say, “The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me – and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson – a twofold nature. Poetic language – the poem on paper – is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, clarified, and integrated in the act of writing poems.”
Ironically, by separating the poems I submitted (created mostly from mind and thought) from those I wrote only for my journal (my deepest fears and feelings during pregnancy and early motherhood), I was actually keeping myself from the very blossoming I so desired. When I published my book of mothering poems, The Pomegranate Papers, it had taken decades for the poems to mature – digging their deep roots – before blooming in the world.
The poems elicit shock (“Does your daughter read them? What does she think?”), which speaks to the gravely enforced silence we impose upon mother writers. One hundred and fifty years after Dickinson, it is still the poet’s job to speak against this silencing. Rich writes, “But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who – for whatever reasons – are less conscious of what they are living through.”
When I coach my writing clients now in the process of writing their poetry, I often see this split that I suffered from as they attempt to write “good” poems at the same time as they feel pulled under by overwhelming emotional currents. I teach them to write through these storms, to make the rain and the flood the body of the poem itself, for this is what nourishes the roots and provides insurance in times of drought.
As Rich puts it, “It is as though the risks of the poet’s existence can be put to use beyond her own survival.”
Adrienne Rich herself did this, as she cracked open the silences about motherhood in her book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published in 1976. I see this book as paving the way for the next generation of mother-poets, such as Sharon Olds, whose poetry, from her first book, Satan Says, published in 1980, tells the dirt-root truth about mothering.
Like Rich who turned to Dickinson to find a legacy, Olds followed the lead of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, with whom Olds took a poetry class in the fall of 1976 – the same year Of Woman Born appeared.
Olds writes that Rukeyser taught the budding poets to do this rich root work, as well. She recalls Rukeyser telling the class, “’What I’m telling you…is very important. It is not something learned or taught. It is a matter of consciousness, of bringing your whole life, your whole attention, to the moment of the poem. Everything. This is the secret.’”
The way to do this, I would suggest, is through pruning. I’m not talking about editing, or cutting on the page. What I mean is a kind of decapitation from the thoughts and mental fantasies you are carrying about your writing. What is your hope? Cut that. What do you think your writing will accomplish? Abandon that.
Pruning as a writer comes when we allow ourselves to be fully connected to the muck and dirt and roots of our daily lives. The poems we admire – from the “Brain and Bone” of Dickinson to the “jerky sexy child’s joke dance of self” in Olds – take our breath away with their everydayness. There is no anticipation of the moment coming around the corner – there is only here and now.
Though we may fear it, the unification of our writing with our life, when it comes, is actually a relief. As Rich writes, “It is an extremely painful way to live – split between a publicly acceptable persona, and the part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self…”
By pruning the persona, by cutting away the branches of someday and if only, we land upon the fertile ground of our being, from which all good poetry comes.
It is then, as Olds tells us Rukeyser described it, that a poem “’is given from the whole person to the whole person.’”
Olds, Sharon. “A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser” in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade (Graywolf, 2000): 331-363, pp. 352-353.
Olds, Sharon. “The Month of June: 13 1/2” in The Gold Cell (Knopf, 1992), p. 86.
Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade (Graywolf, 2000): 33-60, pp. 51 and 57.
In the tradition of the poetry of Dickinson, Rich, Rukeyser, and Olds, I invite you to submit a poem that prunes away the hopes and fantasy and false projection and instead comes from the rich roots of your whole self, as it is right now, in all its mess and dirt and imperfection. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by December 2nd. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 5” in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.