I've gone to Yaddo many times, I've worked at the Rockefeller Foundation's Center for Scholars and Artists in Bellagio. That these are places of beauty and of changed landscape is helpful - but far more important for me is that they offer what I feel as a monastic luxury: undisturbed time.
At another level, though, poems can craft an eraser - we can't revise the past, but poems allow us some malleability, an increased freedom of response, comprehension, feeling. Choice, what choices are possible for any given person, is another theme that's run through my work from the start.
At some unnoticed moment, I began to understand that a life is written in indelible ink. What I've chosen, what's happened unchosen, can't be unmade or redone. Poetry, though, is a door that only continues to open. Even the unchangeable past changes inside a poem. Not the facts, but the feeling, the comprehension.
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I write because to write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery. A thought was not there, then it is. An image, a story, an idea about what it is to be human, did not exist, then it does. With every new poem, an emotion new to the heart, to the world, speaks itself into being.
The secret of understanding poetry is to hear poetry's words as what they are: the full self's most intimate speech, half waking, half dream. You listen to a poem as you might listen to someone you love who tells you their truest day. Their words might weep, joke, whirl, leap. What's unspoken in the words will still be heard. It's also the way we listen to music: You don't look for extractable meaning, but to be moved.
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I thought I would love you forever""and, a little, I may, in the way I still move toward a crate, knees bent, or reach for a man: as one might stretch for the three or four fruit that lie in the sun at the top of the tree; too ripe for any moment but this, they open their skin at first touch, yielding sweetness, sweetness and heat, and in me, each time since, the answering yes.
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Standing Deer As the house of a person in age sometimes grows cluttered with what is too loved or too heavy to part with, the heart may grow cluttered. And still the house will be emptied, and still the heart. As the thoughts of a person in age sometimes grow sparer, like the great cleanness come into a room, the soul may grow sparer; one sparrow song carves it completely. And still the room is full, and still the heart. Empty and filled, like the curling half-light of morning, in which everything is still possible and so why not. Filled and empty, like the curling half-light of evening, in which everything now is finished and so why not. Beloved, what can be, what was, will be taken from us. I have disappointed. I am sorry. I knew no better. A root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.
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Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World If the gods bring to you a strange and frightening creature, accept the gift as if it were one you had chosen. Say the accustomed prayers, oil the hooves well, caress the small ears with praise. Have the new halter of woven silver embedded with jewels. Spare no expense, pay what is asked, when a gift arrives from the sea. Treat it as you yourself would be treated, brought speechless and naked into the court of a king. And when the request finally comes, do not hesitate even an instant- stroke the white throat, the heavy trembling dewlaps you'd come to believe were yours, and plunge in the knife. Not once did you enter the pasture without pause, without yourself trembling, that you came to love it, that was the gift. Let the envious gods take back what they can.
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A Blessing for Wedding Today when persimmons ripen Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song Today when the maple sets down its red leaves Today when windows keep their promise to open Today when fire keeps its promise to warm Today when someone you love has died or someone you never met has died Today when someone you love has been born or someone you will not meet has been born Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace Today, let this light bless you With these friends let it bless you With snow-scent and lavender bless you Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days
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When Your Life Looks Back, When your life looks back- As it will, at itself, at you-what will it say? Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool. Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from. Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many. Your life will carry you as it did always, With ten fingers and both palms, With horizontal ribs and upright spine, With its filling and emptying heart, That wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return. You gave it. What else could do? Immersed in air or in water. Immersed in hunger or anger. Curious even when bored. Longing even when running away. "What will happen next?"- the question hinged in your knees, your ankles, in the in-breaths even of weeping. Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in. Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face. No back of the world existed, No unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for. This, your life had said, its only pronoun. Here, your life had said, its only house. Let, your life had said, its only order. And did you have a choice in this? You did- Sleeping and waking, the horses around you, the mountains around you, The buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts. Those of your own kind around you- A few times, you stood on your head. A few times, you chose not to be frightened. A few times, you held another beyond any measure. A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure. Mortal, your life will say, As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy. Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.
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Immensity is always there, but we so often become numb to it, or deceive ourselves into thinking our own lives and selves are what's large. Step into the ocean or walk on Mount Tamalpais, and that kind of amnesia and self-centeredness isn't possible. Enter the natural world at all, you see existence emerge, ripen, fall and continue, and you can't help but feel more tender towards self and others. That summoning into the large and the shared is what poems exist also to do.
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I once was asked to contribute to a mushroom poem anthology. I didn't have anything, and so instead ended up writing the introduction. I think that request made me more alert to mushrooms, and now they've cropped up in my work, the way mushrooms themselves do after rain, quite a lot. But I've only just now taken up mushroom hunting, after going to a class offered at my local library.
Art keeps its newness because it's at once unforgettable and impossible to remember entirely. Art is too volatile, multiple and evaporative to hold on to. It's more chemical reaction, one you have to re-create each time, than a substance. Art's discoveries are also, almost always, counter to ordinary truths.
I require silence to write the way an apple tree requires winter to make fruit. Being with people is intimate and joyous, but at some point, I'll wander off by myself. The paradox is that what began in childhood as an act of necessary solitude has led me straight to a life with others, in which I fly to China or Lithuania or northern Minnesota to read my poems and talk with other people who love language made into a lathe on which a life can be tuned and be turned.
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Poems offer us counter-knowledges. They let us see what is invisible to ordinary looking, and to find in overlooked corners the opulence of our actual lives. Similarly, we usually spend our waking hours trying to be sure of things - of our decisions, our ideas, our choices. We so want to be right. But we walk by right foot and left foot.
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Isn't the small and common the field we live our life in? The large comes into a life through small-paned windows. A breath is small, but everything depends on it. A person looks at you a single, brief moment longer than is necessary, and everything is changed. The smaller the clue, the larger the meaning, it sometimes feels.
Each poet probably has his or her own cupboard of magnets. For some, it is cars; for others, works of art, or certain patterns of form or sound; for others, certain stories or places, Philip Levine's Detroit, Gwendolyn Brooks's Chicago, Seamus Heaney's time-tunneled, familied Ireland.
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A poem makes clear without making simple. Poetry's language carries what lives outside language. It's as if you were given a 5-gallon bucket with 10 gallons of water in it. Mysterious thirsts are answered. That alchemical bucket carries secrets also, even the ones we keep from ourselves.
Poems give us permission to be unsure, in ways we must be if we are ever to learn anything not already known. If you look with open eyes at your actual life, it's always going to be the kind of long division problem that doesn't work out perfectly evenly. Poems let you accept the multiplicity and complexity of the actual, they let us navigate the unnavigable, insoluble parts of our individual fates and shared existence.
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Evolution tells us how to survive; art tells us how it's possible still to live even while knowing that we and all we love will someday vanish. It says there's beauty even in grief, freedom even inside the strictures of form and of life. What's liberating isn't what's simplest; it's the ability to include more and more shadows, colors and possibilities inside any moment's meeting of self and world.
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Any artist, in any field, wants to press deeper, to discover further. Image and sound play are among the strongest colors available to poetry's palette. For a long time, I've wanted to invite in more strangeness, more freedom of imagination. Yet music, seeing, and meaning are also cohering disciplines. They can be stretched, and that is part of poetry's helium pleasure. But not to the point of breaking.
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The ability to name poetry's gestures and rhetorics isn't required to write or read them, any more than a painter needs to know the physics of color to bring forward a landscape. The eye and hand and ear know what they need to know. Some of us want to know more, because knowing pleases.
Creativity itself is a joyous unlatching. The act of creative imagining, inventing, saying differently, crafting a metaphor or image, then crafting another metaphor or image when you go further or when you revise - all these take whatever you think "is" and make clear that other possibilities exist as well. The sense of possibility, the amplitude and freedom that sense of malleability brings - for me, that cannot help but be joyous.
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