September 12, 2014

The Arrival

The Annunciation, 2010

"How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"

I've been enjoying a correspondence with a young poet of late. There's nothing like writing to someone else who shares your interest in an arcane subject to draw out your own thoughts or reflections on that area. He recently finished a long work in which a number of formal issues regarding sestinas and sonnets arose. He asked for help on these problems and I agreed to help. Not because I know more, but because I've seen more.

For those who don't pay a lot of attention to the technical aspects of poetics, I can only assure you that if you commit yourself to a long poem with a number of its elements cast in classical forms (instead of just spewing your immediate issues across the page and breaking the lines at an arbitrary point), the job of "getting it right" increases exponentially. The only poets who do not know how hard this is are those that have never attempted it. And they are legion in this blighted age of writers' workshops and writing an inchoate slab of feelings down the bones.

The poet in question had finally come to the first end point of the work, submitted it to a publication, and was burned out. This is not uncommon. This morning he wrote, "May it be months before I ever write another d**m poem."

If only it were that easy. When you permit yourself to seriously attend to this faded art, you'll find over time that you are only finished with poetry when poetry is finished with you. That does happen. Sometimes for months or even years. This I know.

Then, after an unknowable amount of time, it returns -- usually at an inconvenient time and an incovenient place where it is not expected, not expected at all -- " a corner, some untidy spot." I've taken to thinking of these moments as "The Arrival" -- something that I've never actually written about before.

Why not? Because so few people are interested in the serious practice of this art, and because to write about it brushes up against the mystical. I am always suspicious of things that travel "into the mystic." Especially so when it involves my own experience.

But something in his tone made me want to overcome this; a regrettable impulse to both warn and instruct. So I wrote back to the young poet who prayed "may it be months before I ever write another d**m poem," with some thoughts of my own after many such prayers.


You beg for months off and you may get them. Then again, you may not. Frankly, you don't have a lot to say about it.

I think you'll find, or perhaps have already found, that the poems you'll end up liking best of all your work tend to arrive first and are written after. They don't come up out of the page, or out of an immediate experience. Instead they always tend to appear almost unbidden out of that state that Wordsworth captured when he wrote, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

I've come to think of this experience as "The Arrival." It doesn't happen often but you know it when it does. The latest experience with "The Arrival" that I've had happened about three years ago.

It came on a Wednesday evening towards the end of first New York winter after 9/11. I'd worked late and taken the subway home from Penn Station. In an almost empty car I rode down along the spine of Manhattan, dipped deep under the East River, and rose up the long slope to the platform seven stories beneath Clark Street in Brooklyn Heights.

I took the elevator to the surface walked out of the Clark Street subway into about 2 inches of fresh snow collecting on cold sidewalks with more swirling down along the face of the wind. It was late and there was nobody else out on the two blocks I had to walk to my apartment.

In New York City during heavy snowfalls, the streets grow quiet. That evening was no exception save for the whoosh of infrequent cars on the boulevard off to the east, and the random humm of trucks on the expressway that ran along the river. Every so often, a car leaving the Brooklyn Bridge behind me would hit a steel plate in the road for a muffled, faint clang of metal on metal. There was a slash of wind above the roofs on the protected side of the street that kept the stronger wind off the East River from getting to me. These slight and distant sounds -- none so loud that I couldn't hear my steps moving across the snow -- merged into a kind of metronome of footsteps, tires, faint engines and wind, all with a distinct slow beat way down below.

At the end of the last long block, I had to turn right on Pierrepont Street towards the river. This brought the whoosh of the cars on the expressway up just a notch. The chill wind got an edge on it too as I turned into the swirls of snow, and my steps, slipping a bit in the shallow drifts, made a slight syncopation against the beat of the gusts. The snow was almost granular on the concrete and it gave my steps the sound you hear when tap dancers shuffle on sand.

Then as I passed under the streetlight I heard something say, "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know..."

This was not 'said' so much as sounded -- a kind of echo under the wind at the back of my mind. Yet it was so distinct that I jerked around thinking someone was behind me, but of course there wasn't anyone there at all. It was just a phrase I had heard in the mind alone against the soft sounds of tires, wind, my own footsteps, and blowing snow.

I stopped, listened again, and it came back one more time, soft and distinct but with no whisper to it: "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know..."

But what did I know? I knew, at that moment, no more than that single phrase, but having had the experience of "Arrival" at rare moments over the years, I recognized it for what it was.

I stood there for a several minutes straining to hear what the next phrase would be. But nothing else came. I was just standing by myself on a Brooklyn corner in the snow.

I remember thinking, perhaps saying out loud, "Okay. I hear that, but what, exactly, is it that I know?" No answer. There never is. It's not there for a conversation. It's come for a visit. It will talk to you on its own terms and in its own time.

Gradually I became aware that all I was doing was standing alone in the snow and getting colder. Not really a plan. I cut across the street, went up the stairs to my door, beat some of the snow off my coat, and went inside.

The first thing I did was go to my desk, grab a single sheet of paper, and write "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know" across the top. Then I put it in the center of my desk and stared at it as if willing some secret, invisible writing to appear beneath the phrase. Nothing came up so I shrugged and went on to other more sensible things. As noted above, I'd experienced "Arrivals" before. I've learned not to push the moment if nothing else seems to be offered at the time.

Instead, I got out of my work clothes, took a long hot bath, changed into robe and pajamas, made a bite to eat and had a glass of reasonably good Bordeaux. Then I retired, watched some movie for an hour or so and fell asleep a bit after midnight.

At around three in the morning I was woken up by the experience of something that began as a dream but, as I woke, continued as that rare but not unknown form of waking dream where the room you are in can be seen clearly while the dream images cascade over it in a kind of superimposition. This lasted, as they always do, only about 30 seconds, then faded out and then I heard this:

"Within the smoke their ash revolves as snow,
To settle on our skin as fading stars
Dissolve into pure dust at break of day.

At dawn a distant shudder in the earth..."

That was it, but it was enough. I got up and went to my desk and wrote those four lines down underneath:

"Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know"

Then my mind stopped. I sat still and looked out the two large windows in my front room that opened onto Pierrepont street.

The wind had calmed while I slept and all had become even more silent than before. The snow was still swirling across the windows in the gold street light, building up on the branches of the trees, collecting along the ledges and window sills of the buildings across the way. I looked out at it for an indeterminate time and, in the silence, I listened very hard. And then I heard the rest of the poem arrive in order, pretty much as it stands now in:

The Missing

The poem has, of course, been planed, sanded, tweaked, waxed, dusted and buffed on and off over the years. I am not ready to, as they say, "abandon it" just yet.

At one point, Eugene Volokh convinced me to remove about 5 of the central stanzas for a collection of poems about 9/11 he was putting up on the web. At the time I agreed with his reasons and cut them. But over the years since, those cut stanzas have, one by two, come back in. It as if they insist on their rightful original places in the poem. I've come not so much to agree with them as to quit resisting them. They can be very assertive.

To make poems, I've found that it is possible to put yourself into a 'composing' state just by going to the work on a daily basis for three to six weeks. It's a dogged way of kickstarting the process and you'll waste a lot of ink, paper and time along the way. But it does work and that's the best thing that can be said for it. And I think that, once you are in the flow of the zone, a lot of respectable work is done that, with care and thoughtful revision, can become more respectable still. When you finally 'abandon' these poems you aren't sorry to have written them.

"Arrivals" are a different sort of beast entirely. They come when you aren't expecting them. They stay until they are finished with you. Then they leave.

Arrivals are very irritating to have around since they command all your attention to their needs and their mission. Simply put, their needs are not yours. You are, for the duration, the host and they are rude and demanding guests. You sleep when they let you. You eat fast and rather poorly at that. You consume a bit too much alcohol and far too much caffeine and nicotine.

Arrivals do not clean up after themselves and they depart without a word of goodbye. One moment they are there, the next moment they are gone in less time than it takes to see a spark. The strangest thing is that, when they do leave, you are not only sorry to see them go, you can't wait for their next visit.

Posted by Vanderleun at September 12, 2014 10:48 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The Muse is a terrible tennent
They pay the rent but wreck the place

Posted by: David C McKinnis at January 5, 2010 12:51 PM

Arrivals could be similar to hallucinations or seizures. Or the echo of God.

Posted by: Fred at January 5, 2010 2:05 PM

Gerard, this is as perfect a representation of my own experience as I could have written. When you say, regarding your moment under the streetlamp, "This was not 'said' so much as sounded..." your phrase is exactly right.

My own first experience of having words "sound" came in 1956, when I was riding in the back seat of my parents car. We were driving through the Iowa countryside in winter, on our way to my grandparents' home. Glancing out the window toward snow-covered cornfields where impassive cattle stood, I heard the phrase "cattle, punctuation marks in the sentences of the hills."
That was it.

I carried that phrase with me for decades, never forgetting it. Eventually it found its home in a poem entitled "The Grammarian in Winter". I read it often, simply because it makes me so happy.

You can see what 53 years did to the phrase here, if you like.

Posted by: shoreacres at January 5, 2010 2:32 PM

So true. Love the picture, too. I watch and motherishly fret as the child of mine who is a poet hears and waits for such arrivals, or bewails their absence, or gets up in the middle of the night, etc. And give motherish lectures about getting enough sleep, doing schoolwork, etc. And read and comment on her endless revisions. Both awed and unnerved that they cut into her work time, etc. Only to do the same thing myself with my own scribbles or projects.

Just as dreams are messages from God, creation is a kind of wrestling with and feeding and pruning of something that grows either with or without our help. But better with. Like an ungainly rose bush sometimes, one of those heirloom varieties with the wicked thorns that reach out and touch us when we try to walk on by without tending to them.

Posted by: retriever at January 5, 2010 4:37 PM

I am a lawyer. I write. I have to. It is technical writing for a demanding deadline. In my law writing I have experienced times when I know what I need to say, and it just flows out of the fingers. When that happens, I say 'my muse just talked to me'. Better than forcing it along, which I also do.

I have also written prose. Just for enjoyment. There was a time, a year or so back, when the stories just flowed out. They aren't now, and I am waiting to see if the muse returns.

It is interesting, and the only thing I can liken it to is home improvement - where I have long known something needs to be done, then suddenly I see what needs to be done, and then I do it. And what I 'saw' I then see.

Getting something, like a sentence or a paragraph right, and knowing when I finish that it is right. It is exhilerating; it is being present at the time of creation, and looking at the creation and saying 'this is good'.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at January 5, 2010 5:07 PM

Arrivals are very irritating to have around since they command all your attention to their needs and their mission. Simply put, their needs are not yours. You are, for the duration, the host and they are rude and demanding guests. You sleep when they let you. You eat fast and rather poorly at that. You consume a bit too much alcohol and far too much caffeine and nicotine.

Arrivals do not clean up after themselves and they depart without a word of goodbye. One moment they are there, the next moment they are gone in less time than it takes see a spark. The strangest thing is that, when they do leave, you are not only sorry to see them go, you can't wait for their next visit.

Amen. When the muse comes to call, she does not brook any others to be present. She is very jealous, isn't she?

Posted by: Mikey NTH at January 5, 2010 5:15 PM


Thanks again for your help and encouragement on that "damn" poem. I still write, but not nearly like I used to. Still, occasionally I jot something down. Here's the most recent "serious" thing I did - it's only a couple of years old, and written when I was was feeling less-than-enchanted with poetry-with-a-capital-P. I'm over it now - I just don't write the heavy stuff anymore:

Peeking Over the Edge of the Nest

Water and fire consume in Little Gidding;
Larkin’s postmen call from door to door;
Hall’s sad peonies topple towards the west;
Yeats’s Cuchulain weaves humble shrouds.
Poets in their dreamings sing a theme,
Grasping or denying – words on words
Caroling opaque heavens, blurry hells,
Life or death made death or life or naught:
Prophets to their walking congregants.

Eager hatchlings stretch their new endowments,
For it must be flown to; what is sought
Never could be gained within their shells.
Flocking, wheeling, tasting word-strewn yards,
Flying up again to flee this dream,
Singing with throats of birds, but in the clouds,
Until they land, softly, to their rest
Far beyond the doctors’ post-mortem care,
Past all pyres, to waters ever flowing.

Cameron Wood

Posted by: ccwbass at January 6, 2010 11:36 AM

A gift having a life of its own. Yes.

It reminds me of this poem, spoken in a story about how a healers gift would take possession of her:

When last comes to last,
I have little power:
I am merely an urn.
I hold the bone-sap of myself,
and watch the marrow burn.

When last comes to last
I have little strength:
I am only a tool.
I work its work; and in it hands
I am the fool.

When last comes to last,
I have little life.
I am simply a deed:
an action done while courage holds:
a seed.

Yep... A life of its own...

Posted by: Cond0010 at January 6, 2010 5:31 PM

It is like unto an epiphany, when the muse arrives. And when she leaves, you can never call her back. Halfway through a sentence she ups and goes.

That is my experience with the bitch that is my muse. But I love her when she arrives. It has been a few months since I last knew her, and I have put down a few starting points.

Again, my writing is for fun, but I would like to close down some of what I have written; not see a new path to hare-down.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at January 6, 2010 8:10 PM

'Arrivals' as you call them, truly are an experience to be savored.

Posted by: pdwalker at January 6, 2010 8:15 PM

I'll throw out there this little ditty I wrote years ago, thanks to The Muse. Who knew I was channeling an image of Obama?


Bullshit is the gentle art,
By which one does dash and dart,
On all topics far apart –
Without meaning from the heart.

". . . I can only assure you that if you commit yourself to a long poem with a number of its elements cast in classical forms, . . . The only poets who do not know how hard this is are those that have never attempted it."

No, they don't. Incredibly difficult. Like trying to 'do' the alphabet.

A Primer

A brisk chill does evoke fanciful games,
Hidden in January’s keen light.
Many nuances often play quietly, rapidly,
Sluiced through undercurrents,--veering wistful,
Examining yesterday’s zeal.

Posted by: RickZ at January 8, 2010 3:47 AM

It doesn't matter, really, how good you do; just respond to the Muse.

Just keep no illusions about your response, and respond.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at January 8, 2010 5:09 PM

The Muse is always on the loose, wraithlike ripening the fruit, birthing the perfect bud to perfect flower. And you, you are the heart and soul strangely magnetic, attracting love to love.

In this 'bleak midwinter' give thanks for another form of Muse yearned for: awake, seething, slowly seasoning, call it the Hot Tea Party for America's ReBirthday Party. It's breath is the Muse's, welcoming indomitable life in a newborn's first cry.

This, perhaps apropos, from a more peaceful time:

A wisp of mist goes wandering
Pauses here and there
To hug its mother, Earth.
Caresses rock and tree
Nurses new-born
Blades of grass.

And into deep, calm refreshing sleep
Go those who know some truth.
While God, like Owl with wise old eyes,
Tunes the world with love and grace,
And moonbeam lullabies.

Posted by: FamouslyUnknown at January 9, 2010 12:46 PM

In Poeternity

When all man's borrowed poetry is spent;
Returned to atoms and reclaimed by time;
Dispersed ad lib throughout the firmament:
A minor verse in God's Gigantic Rhyme,

What then of poets and their agony;
The insight of the ancients and the modern bards
Who plucked the choicest fruit from wisdoms's tree
And lulled us all with their benign canards?

Will they survive in some eternal dream?
Is there a Poet's Corner beyond Heaven's Gate?
Or is there silence at the far extreme
Where poets all must come to terms with fate?

Posted by: Frank P at May 31, 2011 4:54 PM

Very good that.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 31, 2011 6:26 PM

Twenty-five years or so ago, during a lull in my life I found myself dwelling on the Sussex Weald in southern England, adjacent to the site of the Battle of Hastings, Already in semi-retirement after 30 years of metro-cosmopolitan strife preventing, detecting and prosecuting crime - and later in a second career as a TV journalist-researcher reporting the international aspects of it, I was salving the psychological ravages of a wasted life by wallowing in a period of bucolic bliss.

Around that time, long before AGW aka Climate Change became the world’s biggest- ever scam, noxious smells from Continental Europe were beginning to waft into our rural regions and dire warnings of possible mass annihilation by pollution of fouled air and acid rain began to permeate the consciousness and fears of ordinary folk.

So much so that I was driven to primitive verse in the small wee hours one night and thus submitted to ‘The Arrival’ cited above by Gerard, looking forward fifteen years to the fin de siécle – 2000 AD:

* * *

A Dark Vision of Sussex 2000

It seems God may have sentenced us collectively to Hell
As the south wind from the Continent, beyond the Sussex hills
Brings the suffocating, nauseating, harsh sulphuric smell
Of the Continental factories - more ‘dark satanic mills’.

No more the sweet pervasion of the evening scented stocks
Enhance the soft persuasion of the trysting lover’s plea;
No more the babbling brook flows freely over time-worn rocks,
Arousing youthful senses to the height of ecstasy.

Those halcyon days are sadly gone, the perfumed breeze no more;
The putrid stream congested with detritus left by man
And oil polluted waves now lap the once idyllic shore,
Then safe for happy children as they bathed and skipped and ran.

Wake up! Ye Sussex denizens of influence and power,
Heed the warning signals and Nature’s plaintive cries.
Make the right decisions in this final fleeting hour:
Protect the Earth and cleanse the seas, then purify the skies.

* * *

Circumstances eventually drew me back to the ‘The Smoke’ for unfinished business in the Met. Since then, a bosky at heart, I have drifted northwards to Norfolk and am now experiencing what is perhaps my final lull, in the under-populated, tranquil and gentle undulations of the north-west of the county of my forebears (and those of many Americans also, I guess).

Last month I returned to Sussex to visit my daughter. who had remained there and reared her family. We drove around the places that had inspired my muse to misanthropy in the mid-Eighties. The fears were unfounded. Sussex is still a beautiful county; the air was crisp and clean, the babbling brook still babbles on and the English Channel by the Seven Sisters is still a place to bathe and skip and run. William the Conqueror’s invaders would probably still recognize it.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. And the fears of simple folk are so easily exploited – as always. Having said all that, I thoroughly disapprove of our disgusting habits. Fouling one’s own nest is egregious. But Gaia could give a shit! She’ll roll on long after we have run our course and the coalescence of lard that was once Al Gore and Michael Moore has dissolved into a transmogrification of inert useless gunge – much like their earlier existence.

Posted by: Frank P at June 1, 2011 7:20 AM

So it goes out like a net ... . That is interesting.

I dropped by wondering if "it" will arrive as this next chapter is written. Will American poets give voice to emotions concerning bin Laden's departure? It's a curious process.

Posted by: DeAnn at June 1, 2011 11:32 AM

So many grandmas ended in the jaws
of this old wolf, shot by the hunter's gun.
If only we could get Red Riding Hood
out of his belly, back to play and run.
But Cinder's mother rests in ashenwood
And blood within the shoe won't make loss good;
And thorns and fire cannot be denied
Until the Prince arrives to kiss His Bride.

Posted by: Maureen at June 1, 2011 10:29 PM

Then as I passed under the streetlight I heard something say, "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know..."

I experience this visitation from time to time. I write poetry and paint. Sometime the phrases whisper to me, sometimes images of completed paintings, or parts thereof, appear before my mind's eye. Currently there seems to be a writing entitled "Tapestry" working its way through my subconscious which deals with the collective experiences we share in this life. Parts of it have been revealed as words, phrases and even images of said words and phrases. It will let me know when it is ready. Until then I can only wait.

Posted by: cchoate at September 12, 2014 12:14 PM

Beautiful for awhile, and forever lovely.

I call them 'Insistencies' and 'Invitations.' As I wait or engage, words fall into alliterations and rhymes driven by some kind of yearning to communicate thought and feeling. So be it.
I'm insincerely sorry that I lack the desire to learn appropriate poetic structures; too many less important, less rigorous things to do.

Posted by: Howard Nelson at September 12, 2014 3:54 PM