Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 47, November 2014)

Sunnylyn Thibodeaux
Off with the Head: What’s Primary in Poetry

The poem needs to remain primary, in that it itself needs to remain in control, not us, the ones scribbling, trying to write a poem. We have no business here. Our responsibility is in the ear (internal and external) and transcribing the signals. Our responsibility is to never let this antenna lose its ability.

The self as tale-teller, writer, craftsman needs to be shed and should only function as a host, letting anything and everything in. Poetry is cosmological, universal, magical, political. But it isn’t ours. In the Vancouver lectures, Spicer states, “I think that the first thing of becoming a poet is a kind of spiritual exercise. It’s emptying yourself as a vessel…” (232). Once we empty ourselves we are then no longer primary for this cause/moment.

This doesn’t mean we don’t ever enter. It’s impossible. We, through life experiences of all sorts (grief, joy, tastes, touch) filter out the messages received. The signals can lead you to collage messages with what the universe has delivered to you as personal experiences – that which has been absorbed. And so we each then spin a different web, through a different voice, but the head, ah, he should never be in control. I would say then to use the poetic verbiage you’ve gathered to write editorials, art criticism or such, if this is your quandary. There is much beautiful writing in the world, but that which is of a poet is truly that of the universe. I specifically choose not to use the word “poetry” in this statement because so much of what has been listed as such I am unsure as to what genre it truly belongs. It’s as if a new genre should be used, something that has to do with purpose and scheme. For me poetry’s purpose is never equivalent to the poet’s purpose. The poet’s purpose has ruined many pennings.

Often I lose the ability to know what I am doing when it comes to writing a poem. This is because I am not doing it. The poem instead is using me as conduit and there’s no argument on my part. I have no intention of withdrawing. Don’t get me wrong, I still try to get too involved sometimes and that’s when the work fails. Awareness = consciousness = the head. The head has a lesser role than it thinks (or wants) in art. The head’s role is for everyday living: our awareness of the world and in the world, how we relate to the world. This is a major filter for the poem, but should never be the conductor. We, as poets, are sensitive, in-tune, alert and intuitive. Often we (as the head) want to take those traits and apply them to the page. But those are just the skills needed to gather the ingredients (the awareness of experiences) for what the poem will dictate.

In one of many conversations about tapping in and scribbling out, Duncan McNaughton said to me, “There is work to do.” It seemed a simple enough and truthful statement. I felt like I knew what he meant. I thought about how to tend to the work that he was referring to – read more, write more … I wanted to be in control, to be the one doing the work. But then I realized that the work wasn’t going to get done by me, but get done through me and this is when I started to lose the ability to “know” what I am doing when I write a poem. An understanding that had nothing to do with narrative or craft, nothing to do with form or worse, audience, but more in receiving from the universe that which is meant for the universe. In knowing that as poets, we are receivers. This becomes the work to be done, to get out of the way because the universe is trying to write a poem.

So as the world tumbles and crumbles and rumbles around us, we can find our voices in making waves, making peace, making gestures grand, but when it comes to this pen to page art with words, let the poem do its thing. Let yourself take the ride she’s calling you to go on. All of your voicings may find their way in at some point or another, maybe even a decade or so later, but it surely isn’t for us to choose. After all, the greatest pennings, often we learn, were actually receivings transcribed when we were half-awake.

Works Cited

Spicer, Jack. “Excerpts from The Vancouver Lectures.” The Poetics of The New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973: 232.