Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Expanding Experience

One of the things I do when I write a poem is to take a small image, something that impresses, that catches my attention with the emotional response it calls forth, and expand on it. Not always. Often the image that touches my perception can stand on its own and becomes a haiku. If it elicits one specific response, it will often become a tanka. But for a more expansive poem, the initial experience becomes the beginning of something else, something greater. Building a poem becomes an act reminiscent of constructing a cairn.

It’s not that the first impression has little or no intrinsic value. What happens is that I make connections to other events and emotions, and feel the need to bring them together. Often the first attempts will sound and feel over-sentimental, like a juvenile diary entry. Like building a cairn, shaping a poem takes time and effort.

Let me illustrate with an example – no, not the finished poem itself, but the layer-by-layer construction of it.
Sometime ago I was driving through wooded farmland on one of the four-lane divided highways toward sundown when I spotted some deer drinking from a creek several hundred meters away. Several factors impressed that sight in my mind: the evening light, the distance, the contrast of the natural (creek, deer, woods) and the constructed (highway, automobile, rushing humans), as well as my inability to stop and become a small part of that scene even though I wanted to do so.

Over the next few days that image would not leave me. It became connected to several other things. I was reminded of the creek on the farm where I grew up. I remembered also seeing and tracking deer in that area when I was young. The flowing water reminded me of a young lady I knew who loved to walk beside flowing water and stop to sit with her feet in the flowing water as a way to relax.

All these items came together in one unit, like different shaped stones in a cairn. Had the young lady, while sitting with feet in the running water of a creek, ever been surprised by deer coming to drink? She would be careful not to disturb them. Would she envy their freedom? I remembered that she now lived in a small city, married to a long-distance trucker. I wondered at the emotion she would feel, left alone so long so often. Would she go looking for flowing water to soothe her spirit? Would she remember the deer (the ones only my imagination provided)? Would she wonder if the deer remembered her?
So you see how the glimpse of deer drinking at sundown becomes a totally different thing, with the initial image remaining as a corner stone for the whole construct. My own emotional reactions, even my rational reaction, play only a secondary role to the imagined emotions of a young lady who is not part of the original.

And all that, as poetry, is as valid and real as deer beside a creek beside a highway.

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