To mark the online launch of my new book Taliesin – recovering the poetic self I would like to share an excerpt from this work that is written not only for writers but for anyone who wants to develop a more poetic relationship to the world. The book is now available in paperback and kindle format through amazon.
The passage below explores Taliesin’s relationship with his environment, his ability to summon the wind, i. e. work with nature rather than against her. The passage includes a number of exercises that can help writers know their environment more intimately.
The River in all Rivers
To begin with we see a river the way we see everything else. As something out there and therefore separate, in the stasis of everything tainted with thought.
A river is in constant flow. Film it and it becomes flat. Photograph it and it becomes fixed. Think it and it becomes abstract. Observe and it comes closer. Recall it vividly and it comes to life. The river out there begins to flow in you. Intensify this experience and your mind overflows into the greater river, the river not seen, not thought, but imagined.
This greater river is its whole catchment, a web of tributaries narrowing into creeks, rivulets, trickles, wells and temporary springs; it comprises all moving water and all water patiently waiting in puddles, swamps, ponds and stagnant lakes; all the waters washed over granite and sucked into limestone, seeping through the gossamer of sand, soaking into the spongy earth, accumulating in underground aquifers, circulating through the arteries of rock.
This expansive river holds every drop that has run over tarmacs and trickled down rooftops, raincoats and cars, that has skimmed over boulders, wetted every rock, touched every grain of sand, that has dripped from rain-soaked trees and slid over every kind of leaf, stem and bark;
And this greater river is linked to the river system of plants: the myriad slow-motion rivulets rising from root to stem, the column of water slowly moving at the speed of growth, every leaf a slow-release estuary feeding moisture into the vertical river, the invisible spirals of humid air that rise above us like imperceptible trees whose canopies are the visible clouds.
This river beyond the river bed extends into everything wet, moist, fluid; it hovers in fogs, falls in a drizzle, and condenses in dew. We are at all times surrounded by it: we walk inside this invisible river, sleep in its subtle eddies, are carried by currents we cannot see. The same ubiquitous river spouts from taps, gathers in pots, pools in kitchen sinks, steams in baths tubs, churns in washing machines and wears polar icecaps in freezers and fridges. It extends into our bodies, mingles with our blood, flows through arteries and veins, pools in our organs and keeps the brain buoyed inside our heads. Inundated by this greater river our mind becomes more fluid, and our understanding pictorial and therefore poetic: the result is a beholding that is both thinking and seeing at the same time.
Exercise 2 Imaginative contemplation
Choose an elemental force such as wind, cloud, rain, sea, thunder or drought, or a landscape feature such as a desert or a lake. Then contemplate it in all its manifestations like Taliesin does. Start with what you see or know or remember and expand from there. Water it with your imagination. Hear the thunder in all its tonal variations, observe the sea in all its changes, variations, moods. Attempt the biography of a raindrop, the genesis of a thunderstorm, the forming and reforming of clouds.
If you find this exercise difficult, follow Taliesin’s example and address an imaginary audience by using an entry phrase like ‘Know thou the rain…’ or ‘Consider the thunder…’
Have you considered the emerging of colour as the light softly beams into day, the growing lushness of green vegetation, the burnished pindan earth. Have you considered the moment of subtle shift, of the awakening world to hope. Have you considered the light that warms from the night’s chill. Have you considered the candle flame that opens the dark mystery?
The light in the window welcoming. The light of the stars remembering.
Have you considered the light of the epiphany of the new idea?
Have you considered the warming, hopeful creature that embraces the world, longitude by longitude, fondling the great planet in its generous, open palm, turning it slowly, moment by moment? Dale Irving
Memories Immediate and Delayed
Now it is time to write about the river down the road, the clouds in sight, the rain that is falling right now, the lime-tree in front of you. You can do this either through direct experience in the present or by remembering such an experience at a later date.
In the first case observe what is before you in great detail and then write about what you have just seen, heard, sensed, and felt. The more attentive you are, the more fully you can immerse yourself in your surroundings, the more senses you involve, the more satisfying will be the result.
The second option starts in the same way but reserves the act of writing for a later time. Wordsworth called this ‘recollection in tranquillity.’ Through sustained practice memories that appear faint at first can in time become uncannily intense. You may hear a long forgotten frog splash nearby, feel the cool breeze on your cheek, or see a black swan gliding inconspicuously in the shade of a boathouse. Sensations you hardly noticed can come to new and sometimes unsuspected life. And this life can lead to feelings that resonate deeply with the riverine world.
Here, of course, it is important to distinguish self-referential emotions from feelings that inform. If for instance, you dislike the water because you resented swimming lessons you are experiencing a self-referential emotion. Behind such emotions exists deeper, more receptive and highly resonant layers of feelings that can tell you how the brackish water lapping at your feet feels rather than how you feel about it. These layers subtly imitate whatever you see, hear, and experience. Becoming aware of layers means to be reddened in the presence of red, lifted into the flight of gulls, widened by the thin horizon skirting the sea, quickened by waters tumbling over granite boulders. The qualities of rock and river, weather and wind, lake and sea will begin to shape your writing. A slow flowing river will steady your rhythms, wet your page with watery consonants and pool the right vowels in the right places. A rugged mountain range will toughen up your prose, the size of a pond determine the length of your poem and the staccato of sedges inform the meter of your verse. Your language will become more artistic and onomatopoeia will occur of its own accord.
So will synaesthesia. You will begin to sense the colour of cold, hear the high pitch of yellow, see the sharp contours of precise thought. Awake to this layer you will start to experience the velvety texture of indigo skies and the soft touch of cobalt blue lining the horizon. Living into this ‘language before words’, you will start to sense the personality of the river, the individuality of the storm that stopped you in your tracks or the being of the landscape you live in.
Exercise 3 Mining Memories
No matter if you work with immediate experience or pictures drawn from the past you will need to recollect them in the act of writing. Do this using as much detail as possible. See and hear again what you have seen and heard. Excavate obvious and not so obvious experiences and become aware of the sensations accompanying them. What matters is that you shift from reactionary feelings to feelings that inform as you enter into a dialogue with more than yourself. Allow the cloudscape to shape your feeling and the river to pour through your pen.
The example below captures an experience with the Derbal Yerrigan or Swan River at Heathcote near Perth, Western Australia.
The River - June Solstice
The river, fat with sky
waits for us to arrive;
as we step
out of the car
it breathes out.
A solitary plume of vapour
hangs above the water
close to the shore
moulding and re-moulding
a shape without sides
turning the morning
on its floating axis.
The body of mist
leans into space
it opens to reveal
a swarm of droplets,
ecstatic in first flight;
they spiral up
scaling the light,
and we find the river
is standing before us
like a snake standing
on its tail
and we wait
on the shore
of the year
for the sky
its own skin.
The next step is identification, becoming one with. The aim of identification is to know something the way you know yourselves. This requires a radical shift of perspective, a thorough transformation of the self into another by dint of will. And though this may be far beyond your scope, it is not beyond that of Taliesin, your poetic self. This self already knows the ‘who’ of the river, the numinous presence that makes the Wye into the Wye, and that distinguishes Danube from Don.
Exercise 4 Becoming one with
With this in mind continue with the same topic and stretch the poetic imagination to the point of identity. This means not just describing the river or bushland, but becoming it.
You can attempt this artistically by using the ‘I am’ form, giving river or cloud or wetland your voice. Doing this, the ordinary self may be stretched beyond its comfort zone, but the poetic self will be right at home for it has never left. It is the river and will gladly speak in its tongue. So rather than speak about the river, let the river, the beach, the open fire, speak through you. Give the wetland, piece of bush, patch of coast, your voice. Trust that your attempt will make the river, lake or pond incline toward you, become your muse, someone to write with rather than write about. Instead of being a lonely writer squeezing poetry from dried-up pen you might find yourself inundated with ideas….