I’m a firm believer in reading ravenously. Every poem is an opportunity to step within a new perspective, to enter in conversation with another poet. The wider one reads, the more voices bounce with verve across the landscape of your mind. It’s a healthy thing – to enrich your poetic environment.
There’s a neuroscience concept called environmental enrichment, which applies to reading habits and the writing process. This is more of a metaphor, since environmental enrichment matters more for babies, kids, and teens – but the general concept still applies. Namely, a more stimulating environment results in a whole host of good effects on the brain: resiliency, healthier and more robust connections, and better aging.
Doing crossword puzzles or other complex cognitive tasks can help prevent the onset of dementia! I would argue that engaging in a variety of poetic forms, voices, and subjects can make for a highly stimulating environment. Besides the literal health benefits, active reading with an open, curious mindset will help melt away the shackles of writer’s block.
Lately, I have been wandering in my verse. Writing half-baked villanelles or observations, mourning my lack of metaphors or meaningful emotion. Whenever I start to get existential – when I do that sadistic comparison game, and obsessively read the publication lists of more esteemed poets than myself – well, that’s when it’s time to get curious. That’s when it’s time to read someone new, a fresh voice to set me back on my heels into a state of awe.
The most recent episode of the Poetry Magazine podcast, with Leila Chatti and Sharon Olds, did exactly that, the exhilarating readings inspired me to keep writing. So many good quotes in this episode. At one point Sharon Olds said that she writes because (paraphrasing) her “need and curiosity outweighed [her] fear”. Let’s take a look at her poem, Wonder as Wander:
At dusk, on those evenings she does not go out, my mother potters around her house. Her daily helpers are gone, there is no one there, no one to tell what to do, she wanders, sometimes she talks to herself, fondly scolding, sometimes she suddenly throws out her arms and screams—high notes lying here and there on the carpets like bodies touched by a downed wire, she journeys, she quests, she marco-polos through the gilded gleamy loot-rooms, who is she. I feel, now, that I do not know her, and for all my staring, I have not seen her —like the song she sang, when we were small, I wonder as I wander, out under the sky, how Jesus, the Savior, was born for, to die, for poor lonely people, like you, and like I —on the slow evenings alone, when she delays and delays her supper, walking the familiar halls past the mirrors and night windows, I wonder if my mother is tasting a life beyond this life—not heaven, her late beloved is absent, her father absent, and her staff is absent, maybe this is earth alone, as she had not experienced it, as if she is one of the poor lonely people, as if she is born to die. I hold fast to the thought of her, wandering in her house, a luna moth in a chambered cage. Fifty years ago, I'd squat in her garden, with her Red Queens, and try to sense the flyways of the fairies as they kept the pollen flowing on its local paths, and our breaths on their course of puffs—they kept our eyes wide with seeing what we could see, and not seeing what we could not see
Now, a quote in juxtaposition, from another Confessional poet, Sylvia Plath:
“Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far so fast in such a small space; you’ve got to burn away all the peripherals.” —Sylvia Plath
What I love about Sharon Olds is that she tends to reorient “the peripherals” in the context of human desire, or the human body. Compared to poets of the past, who excised the “I” from their poems, Olds plants herself firmly as a limited observer / speaker of her subject matter. It’s amazing to see her work progress from 80s, where she spoke quite assuredly about the nature of her parents, into something a little more mystical. Her philosophy now seems to be, yes, poetry is about honest truth: but can we ever know the truth of another person, except through the lens of our attachment to them?
Indeed, in reading a diversity of other poets, and in treasuring the array, we understand the labyrinth pathways of our own identity a bit better. Every reaction, every moment, spent “in conversation” with a poem can become something like a mirror. The famous quote “Write what you know” should always be paired with the Delphic maxim: “Know thyself”.
To write about others, write about yourself.
Every poem can be a prompt, a stepping-off point for new directions. One never knows where a blank page may lead, or rather, the first half of a sentence / stanza. Exploration is the zest of poetry, finding joy in word-play as well as finding the deepest hurt within us.
So keep reading, create a library of words that doubles as an “enriched environment”. Your brain, and your poetry, will thank you.