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Poetry In Ocean

August 21, 2011


The sky is coloured by the open veins of the poet.

I don’t know where I first read the above line, whether it was in a poem, an article or novel. I immediately jotted it down in the first page of a notebook which was supposed to be the place where I would write my own poems. This was at a time near the start of my obsession with calligraphy, and so I wrote the line in a spidery script full of ascending and descending flourishes.

Many months went by and the notebook remained blank except for that first page. Because whenever I opened the stiff cover and read that line, I deeply and instinctively knew that I would never write anything as beautiful.

Most poets start young. They were once an eleven-year-old with notebooks (note the plural) of ballads, sonnets, odes and free verse, and the history of most poets relate early exposure to the craft. While I always had a love of reading and of trying to write stories, for me poetry was another world, as alien to me as a doll’s tea party.

The analogy is apt for therein lay the first problem. It was obvious that poetry was for girls. While you could write stories packed with enough guns and rugged detectives to withstand the scrutiny of even the most illiterate bully, if you were to write a poem about a rugged detective and his love of guns, well that was a certain path to enduring endless taunting at best, and frequent casual beatings at worst.

It was only during the final year of high school when I took a poetry elective, (based solely on the overwhelming proportion of girls taking the class, girls who at that age one was prepared to risk frequent beatings for) that I realized that perhaps poetry was not to be confined to the pink journals of high-strung girls but might actually be something that might reward further inquiry in its own right.

I even remember the moment. The teacher had passed around copies of some of J.K. Baxter’s poems, and while I assumed that this was only done because he was a New Zealand poet, I flicked through my sheaf, mentally noting that I would have to take out and re-staple the pages later as the angle was horrendously nowhere near a crisp 45 degrees, (I believe I have previously mentioned my charming obsessive ways) and stopped when I got to Ballad of Calvary Street.
The mix of colloquial New Zealand english and heavier themes was exactly what I most responded to in fiction – tackling the big issues in un-pretentious language. I read it again and this time the rhythm of the verses jumped out at me, they seemed almost to at once push and pull you along with it as you read, savouring the language. I read it once again and this time it was the narrative which enchanted, and just how each stanza builds up to that massive ending, struck me as being as good as a full-length book.

J. K. Baxter. Never mind the bard. Check out the beard

But it was when I turned over the page and read his poem A Family Photograph 1939 that I was confronted with undeniable lyrical seduction:

I, in my fuggy room at the top of the stairs,
A thirteen-year-old schizophrene,
Write poems, wish to die,
And watch the long neat mason-fly
Malignantly serene
Arrive with spiders dopier than my mind
And buid his clay dungeons inside the roller blind  

Like many authors, I considered myself a tortured genius. While perhaps never descending to the depths of clinical depression, suicidal thoughts or schizophrenia, nonetheless the image of a thirteen-year-old spending hours writing and feeling out of step with the world was one that resonated with me strongly. And the language – ‘malignantly serene’ – it was the first of many poetic phrases that once absorbed, can never be extinguished, they henceforth reside as naked truth deep within your primal brain.

Other poems of his like Rocket Show had a delayed but profound effect on me, as I would one day stand on the same ash-grey Otago beaches and re-discover this poem all over again. Poetry was not some archaic text relating to distant myths but could be about the sand under your very feet.

I devoured as many Baxter poems as I could in that class, and turned in an essay on his poem Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife of such immense length and out-of-my-depth misguided bravado, that my kindly teacher ignored the fact that I seemed to have, after twenty pages, naively missed the point entirely about certain sexual themes, (which was ironic, seeing as exploring sexual themes was the only reason why I had taken the class in the first place) and took pity on me giving me an A for sheer enthusiasm, but more importantly also giving me a book to read over the holidays of the poems of one T.S. Eliot. In many ways I have not come back from that holiday.

But what about writing my own poetry? In the first flush of that year I turned out poems by the bucketload, and carried with me into university a bulging folder of what I thought would one day be regarded by my biographers who would come across them in a bottom drawer of my desk, as nascent signposts on the way to eventual published masterpieces, which it goes without saying, would be in the form of huge complex novels, not measly poems.

At university, I often skipped my science classes and would often attend English Lit. lectures for which I was not enrolled. Again, great teachers through their enthusiasm and patience opened up whole new worlds, but also, by showing us how the great poets achieved their mesmeric effects, cast merciful light on the fact that my own poetic works were, shall we say, not yet fully realized.

Another, more accurate way of describing them would be insufferable tripe. I quietly ditched the folder whose bulk now seemed a crime, into a bin and weighted it down with the empty glass remnants of my other university passion of alcohol, and stuck to overly long essays instead.

While these essays were usually over-ambitious and often failed the first ambition of being written in coherent sentences, I always felt on steady ground when I could hide in endless paragraphs. But when I ventured out into bare stanzas, the first thing that was exposed was the fact that I was completely lost when faced with the task of communicating a single thing in under 500 words.

This cycle would then repeat itself, I would amass a bunch of work, then in the cold harsh light of day, when the whisky had worn off, I would read them with fresh eyes and do my bit for the cause of the environment, recycling and sustainable forests. There are landfills in Dunedin, Wellington and Brisbane where the most overpowering stench comes from my biodegrading poetry.

Then came the Brisbane floods during our semester break while we were out of town, and the downstairs rooms of our flat got inundated. I remember almost having an anxiety attack thinking of all my books being soaked to a soggy pulp, but the guy who lived next door, for whom the legal considerations of breaking and entering was a secondary concern to that of being a good neighbour, rescued all of my books and all of my flatmate’s audio equipment.

Most of my poetry, consigned to the lowliest of manilla folders, were lost to the waters, but of that which remained, for some reason I could not bring myself to toss out, and I dried them out on our balcony, regarding them as survivors. Of those, a few I realized were not terminally and embarrassingly bad, and so I transferred them to the long forgotten notebook, and have been sporadically colouring the sky since.

Poetry is personal. Essays can be written in a sterile tone, and many benefit from doing so,  but any lines of verse you write either speak volumes of the things you reveal or by their omission, of the things you hide. And a sterile poem is really an ode-in-disguise to insecurity and cowardice.

Seeing as this blog has been intentionally left open-ended under the title of ‘minutiae’ allowing me to put in anything I choose to, it has long been a consideration of mine to put up some poetry. The anonymity of the web allows for such publication without the fear of whatever the adult version of casual and frequent beatdowns are.

However, as usual, if time stops for no man, it certainly does not even slow down a little for me, even if I am in its headlights. The list of things which I have to stay on top of,  easily and usually gets on top of me. And this from someone who only does what is absolutely and unambiguously necessary. So I am constantly envisioning new categories and ideas for this blog but never getting around to actually doing any of it.

But as anyone who has any done any writing knows, sometimes when you finally come up with something that you not only like, but even surprises you upon re-reading, then you don’t mind how long it took or how infrequently those happy pages stop by.

So my philosophy behind Viva Minutiae has always been to only put up stuff that I myself am, if not overjoyed by, at least happy with, however long the interval in-between posts that entails, rather than stacking up entry after entry of the first thing that pops into my already cluttered mind and relying on sheer statistical volume to ensure that something under all those words is worth reading.

I have recently been writing micropoetry on twitter, and find it difficult enough to achieve something worth some eyeball time in 140 characters. Those who wish to peruse my efforts can check out @sillionshine. There are so many great writers on there who produce amazing work (even doing so  with characters to spare) and it’s great to dip into the twitter stream for some quick poetry, and discover it is actually an ocean, and that whatever constraints you put on human creativity, it will not only defy, but make a virtue of them.

As for my longer poems, where to start? Because so much of my poetry was never intended for public consumption but more as a short-form diary where I can experiment with language to serve as a novel way of documenting my life, a lot of is quite cryptic and/or ultra specific to me and it would take too long to offer explanatory notes to decipher the mess.

So I will restrict myself to the most accessible ones. This is further complicated by the fact that not a lot of them have titles. First up is one written a couple of years ago. If there are two things that have the biggest impact on my day to day life, it is i.) my herculean feats of procrastination which I have touched on elsewhere in the blog, and ii.) insomnia, which has been my constant companion since sleepless childhood nights.

As a child, there really was no option but to lie there until I heard my mother wake and count off her footsteps as they came to ‘wake’ me up. But as an adult (and I use the term loosely) with my own place, I am free to divert these ‘extra’ hours into other areas, and it is during these times, usually from midnight to 3.00 am that I do most of my writing, (including as it happens this entry) and almost all of my reading.

So I once wrote a poem during these hours to pay tribute to these creative moments of clarity in the dead of the night. Come to think of it, that could be a good title for it, The Dead Of The Night, which without further ado, I present to you:

the clock
carves out time
and the minutes go by

the morning
is for someone else
I am a stranger here.
Before I can set a guiding hand
on the early promise

It is noon
the sun of Damocles
highlights all my differences.

The afternoon
is always loss
and regret
chasing their shadows over
the edges of gold-dipped fields

The evening twilight
does not recognise me.
My loosened tongue
can find none to tell tales to

All want to unravel
Just as I begin to gather
into a shape that feels like me

The night comes on
and we stare at one another
wary of previous
and we must prove ourselves
all over.

But once the midnight hour
and I
have been reconciled
the ticking clock
finally catches rhythm

In the small hours
which are really
larger than most can stand
I am at home.

This stillness
is a language
that I know deep within
my bones

and here
and now
the words come easily
having waited all the livelong day
and thoughts
come without
chains and fog

Without the attendant
of the daily human machinery
I am without doubts

I am not lost at sea
I am a better person
though there are none to witness
this shedding of the skin

and now
music sounds like the plucking
of loyal strings

and any words I read
like a heartfelt talk
with the minds of those
who wrote them

These are my
most productive hours
though what I produce
will not fit
into any other
time of day

but as long as
the clock allows
a daily season
where I can
sow and reap
my meagre harvests

I will be grateful

whether I am indoors
a false light
or walking deserted streets
in the pale wash of the moon


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