“Now I Become Myself”

I have been dissolved and shaken / Worn other people’s faces” — May Sarton

My early introduction to May Sarton‘s work was through her diary, Journal of a Solitude. I was new to personal writing at the time, and I admired how Sarton gracefully shared her private and public worlds — her beloved garden; domestic life in New Hampshire; her conflicting needs for solitude and companionship. Reading more of her work over the years, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.

“Now I Become Myself” first struck me as a song of elder wisdom, a declaration of authentic power. Feeling her “own weight and density,” the poet has outgrown the petty insecurities of youth — including its sense of urgency. Yet the poem speaks to readers of all ages. I gave it to a friend on her 70th birthday and was thrilled to learn it is now one of her favorites. My friend was especially moved by the line, “Now there is time and Time is young.”  Which lines speak to you? –CL

Now I Become Myself
By May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before –”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

— Reprinted from Selected Poems of May Sarton edited by Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Brynes; W.W. Norton & Company; 1978–

–Top photo: Detail from “Book of Shadows,” an altered book, by Cindy La Ferle —

This post is part of a weekly poetry appreciation series.  To read more, please click on Poems to inspire in the CATEGORIES column at right. As always, I welcome your recommendations, too.

“Against Hesitation”

Make music of what you can.” — Charles Rafferty

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid, I perched in the gnarly apple tree in my backyard and scribbled my own adventures in a ruled notebook. In college I majored in English and journalism, but it took years before I found the courage (not to mention the income) I needed to begin a real writing career.

The long path that led me here was marked with detours and littered with excuses. The poem below is the wake-up call I needed 25 years ago — but Charles Rafferty hadn’t written it yet. Today I keep it in my back pocket and read it whenever I need a creative kick in the pants.

What dream would you launch if you had all the time in the world? Where would you travel if you knew the road was wide open? What’s fueling your hesitation? –CL

Against Hesitation
By Charles Rafferty

If you stare at it long enough
the mountain becomes unclimbable.
Tally it up. How much time have you spent
waiting for the soup to cool?
Icicles hang from January gutters
only as long as they can. Fingers pause
above piano keys for the chord
that will not form. Slam them down
I say. Make music of what you can.
Some people stop at the wrong corner
and waste a dozen years hoping
for directions. I can’t be them.
Tell every girl I’ve ever known
I’m coming to break her door down,
that my teeth will clench
the simple flower I only knew
not to give … Ah, how long did I stand
beneath the eaves believing the storm
would stop? It never did.
And there is lightning in me still.

Reprinted from A Less Fabulous Infinity, by Charles Rafferty (Louisiana Literature Press; 2006)

–Photo: detail from a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle —

This post is part of a weekly series of poetry appreciation.  To read more, please click on “Poems to inspire” in the CATEGORIES column at right.  I welcome your recommendations, too.

“The Poet”

Let her have a chair, her shadeless lamp, the table.” — Jane Hirshfield, “The Poet”

The place in which we work — an art studio, a home office, a spare bedroom, or the corner booth at the local diner — is essential to our creative lives.

I often hear would-be writers and artists complain that they can’t practice their craft because they don’t have a studio or a home office. But if we really want to write or paint, sculpt or sew, we’ll find a way to make a space for it. My friend Debbie, for instance, makes no apologies for keeping her sewing machine set up in the living room while she’s working on her projects. And nobody thinks she’s messing up the place. Her visitors are inspired by the cool things she’s creating.

An evocative portrait of an unknown poet’s writing room, this sweet poem, below, always tugs at my heart. It’s a universal image — the writing desk with a single lamp — but Jane Hirshfield makes it intensely personal. She also reminds us that the support of family and loved ones is just as essential as having a room of one’s own. –– CL

The Poet
By Jane Hirshfield

She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb’s
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not, she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair —
Let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

—Reprinted from The Lives of the Heart, by Jane Hirshfield; HarperPerennial; 1997

This post is part of a new weekly series of poetry appreciation. To read more, please click on “Poems to inspire” in the CATEGORIES column at right. As always, I welcome your recommendations, too.

–Top photo “My Desk Chair” (copyrighted) by Cindy La Ferle–

“The Journey”

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of developing a “voice.” Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s truly essential to us.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

THE JOURNEY
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo “Journey” by Cindy La Ferle —

Poems to inspire

You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.” — David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

I often read favorite poems aloud in my writing workshops. I do this not only because I love good poetry, but because I believe everyone will benefit from exploring it. The right poem can work magic, and even change a life.

Typically, I select poems that remind us to honor our true nature — or encourage us to keep working even when we’re blocked or discouraged. Some, like David Whyte‘s poem, below, ponder the loneliness of being an artist or a creative outsider. Others, including a Billy Collins poem I’ll share later on, offer writing advice with a sense of whimsy and humor. My students seem to enjoy discussing the poems — even the ones who claimed they never cared much for poetry — and many ask for copies to take home.

It’s important to read a poem several times, listening for new meaning to reveal itself.  Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” is a longtime favorite of mine. But after rereading it in the new year (with middle-aged perspective) I find that different lines touch a chord in me now. This time around, the poem reminds me that life is short. It urges me to fill my days with non-toxic, supportive people — and to get on with the work I was meant to do.

Today I’m excited about launching a new series for this blog. Every week or so, I’ll post a poem here that speaks to the creative process, or inspires me in some way. At the end of each poem I’ll include the name of the book in which the work originally appeared — in case you’d like to read more of the poet’s work. I’ll save all of the poems in a new category titled “Poems to inspire.” I promise they’ll be accessible — and appeal to everyone who dreams big and deep. — CL

SWEET DARKNESS
By David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

–Reprinted from The House of Belonging, by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press); 1997

— Top photo, “Winter Sky” (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —