Not a perfectionist

My late mother-in-law, may her memory be for a blessing, spent much of her last decades gardening. I learned a great deal about flower gardens from her, and we discussed cultivars and shade-loving plants and pest control with the sort of enthusiasm that avid gardeners well know. She enjoyed landscaping her place with colors and textures, carefully tracing expected bloom times as well as plant heights and spreads so that the beds produced an ever-changing canvas to delight the eye.

hail and roses

Hail: One of Nature’s curveballs

Except: Nature is always throwing curve balls. My mother-in-law’s gardens were beautiful, but she always eyed them critically. It is true that most gardeners notice what isn’t thriving, where the weeds are, or what has not grown out or bloomed as hoped. That comes with the territory. But the process of gardening is so much more enjoyable, even soothing, when one is not a perfectionist.

Not being a perfectionist myself, I find that time in the garden acts as a meditative oasis. It is part mindless physical labor, part problem-solving, part mindful awareness of the environment. This year, I’m making it even easier by planting fewer vegetables and fruits and more blooms to attract pollinators; I’ve a smaller variety of produce but am experimenting with some new (to me) seeds–a melon from the Caucasus, a few heirloom tomatoes, black beans as well as green ones.

I learn as I go–as I cull and thin, inspect insect damage, note responses to growing conditions. It occurs to me that this activity bears a resemblance to the writing process, particularly when putting together a collection for a chapbook or longer manuscript. In that undertaking, I’m also not a perfectionist; and I should not be quite so quick to gainsay the need for the perfectionist attitude when creating one’s art (as long as it does not lead to fruitless caviling).

But I’m just not constitutionally ordered towards that sort of purist idealism. The best I can do with my poems is similar to the best I can do with my gardens: devote mindful attentiveness to the “product” and try not to worry about eventual outcomes.

“Write a little each day, without hope, without despair.”  —Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen]

See what grows.

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By July–who knows?

 

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Trees

The catalpas are blooming, really putting on a show this year–huge crowns full of white blossoms. I suppose the climate this year contributed to this show somehow, but my research says catalpa speciosa is drought resistant and requires little water compared to other tree species.

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catalpa in bloom

Eastern Pennsylvania has not had drought lately, and two wet springs in a row have meant burgeoning iris pseudacoris and particularly floriferous honeysuckle vines in my yard. The river birch seems happy with its feet all wet; the firs–though in a slightly less waterlogged area of the yard–are, by contrast, miserable.

~

I’ve been thinking about trees because I’m reading Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book The Hidden Life of Trees. The text reads like a friendly forester inviting readers to learn what he loves about trees and their encounters with us, with the environment (soil, air, sun, water, pollutants, pests, fungi), and with one another. I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical about the scientific veracity of his source material, but I do enjoy his warm enthusiasm for his subjects and his reminders that we humans don’t know even the smallest fraction of what goes on in the planet’s interconnected and unplumbed depths.

Although some critics object to what they see as too much anthropomorphism in Wohllebehn’s book, his use of the analogy of the human and the tree “bodies” makes his information about how trees and forests work easy to grasp.

For science nerds, there are other texts. The Hidden Life of Trees is meant to make the less scientifically-inclined reader more aware of his or her environment, to convince the average human being to consider plant life more consciously.

~

I take many photos of trees; and they appear in my poems pretty regularly, not as main characters but in supporting roles–not symbolic, but actual. Wohllebehn’s book may influence my work somehow…possible inspiration? But then, the trees themselves, especially the oldest ones, are inspiration enough.

sycamore

This 200-year-old sycamore resides at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia

 

 

Repetition

Repetition, the foundation of rote teaching and memorization, is a style of learning at which I have never been particularly successful.

Nonetheless, repetition has been useful in my learning process. Close observation reveals small differences in repeated events and refrains of all kinds; what I learn through repeated experience is that each time I see or do “the same thing,” I notice something new. Repetition permits me to analyze, and that is how I learn best.

Here’s an example.

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Plants, particularly flowering plants, fascinate me. Every year, I find myself heading out to the yard, my camera in hand, to take photographs as the flowers unfold and the insects arrive to pollinate them. Every year. Yet a closeup of a bumblebee in a redbud blossom from 2005 looks pretty much the same as a bumblebee in a redbud blossom in 2019. Or a monarch on a tithonia–one year similar to the next. Why bother? What urges me out when the dogwoods bloom to record yet another photograph of flowering dogwood? How redundant. How unnecessary.

Yet I have learned much, gleaned much, from the process of noticing the buds and blossoms and insects as the days lengthen and then shorten again; the cycle of life a repetition. Each routine event of spring seems new to me after the winter’s rest.

~

The only types of poems I have managed to have some recall for are poems with refrains, and some song lyrics (also with refrains). The ones I have memorized are the ones I have heard and sung along with most often, such as the calls and responses of church rituals and hymns, the record albums I listened to over and over when I was a teenager. Each time I listened, I felt something new happen inside me. It’s the same with my walks in the garden and the woods and hedgerows and the meadow: each year the same, each year new. That kind of teaching, while repetitive, is far removed from rote.

 

 

 

 

The takeaway

ampersand

so, I did what I set out to do: I exercised the necessary discipline to draft a poem a day during National Poetry Month, and I pushed against my “comfort zone” by publicly posting those drafts as they came to me. Usually I do not share my initial drafts with anyone other than fellow writers in my writer’s group or a few poets with whom I correspond. This was an interesting experiment on the personal level, therefore, a sort of forced extroversion as well as effort in productivity. I now have 30 new drafts to reflect upon, revise, or ignore.

It has been years since I came up with that much work in four weeks’ time. For the last decade or so, my average has been closer to six or seven poems a month. And I would not have posted any of them as they “hatched.” I would have waited until I spent some time with them and figured out how best to say what they seemed to want to say.

That’s not an unwise approach in general; I see nothing wrong with letting poems stew awhile. And quite a few would have ended up in the “dead poems” folder. Nevertheless, trying something innovative tends to prove valuable. The takeaway is that I am glad I finally managed the NaPoWriMo challenge. A few of the poem drafts you may have read here stand a chance of evolving into better poems. Maybe some will end up in a collection (years down the road). That result feels good.

The takeaway is also the realization that I no longer worry about how others judge my poems, the way I did when I was starting out and discouraged about having my stuff rejected by magazines. Not because there’s less at stake–indeed, I feel as invested in my writing as I ever was. The difference comes with the kind of investment, the ambition to write something meaningful or beautiful, and not viewing the poems as results waiting to be determined as valuable by someone more authoritative.

I’m 60 years old and well-educated in poetic craft, style, purpose, analysis. I’ve been writing poetry for over four decades. At this point in my life, that’s authority enough.

~

Self in the World

Goose stands sentry in the dew-strewn meadow.
Blackbird browses dry grasses woven along embankment,
emerges, slim stems clenched in its beak.

Under the footbridge, polliwogs gather,
backing into its shade–hawk overhead,
bluejay screaming territory! the crows respond–

Sun halos the water-strider’s shadow,
making a cluster of coronas on submerged stone
where wood frogs squeak and leap into stream current

surrounded by bedstraw, henbit, dandelion,
Amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard, stiltgrass,
invaders all. Except the frogs, who found the stream–

itself new to the landscape, gouged here in the 70s.
What do I notice, then? That some of the living adapt?
What do I make of myself in this world?

~

canadian goose on grass field

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

~

Finally, to close the month of April, here is a lovely tribute to Mary Oliver by her friend and fellow poet, Lisa Starr.

Thank you for reading, and for the support of readers and poets this month.

How-to

What prompts a poem, really? Probably differs from writer to writer to such a degree that discussing inspiration can be an intriguing discourse among fellow poets but not a method to instruct anyone “how to.” A poem, or any work of art, can be interpreted or reconstructed through analysis, but simply following someone else’s instructions is unlikely to lead to meaningful results.

Among my Best Beloveds are a few people who are excellent how-to writers. They can write about how to build a boat, debug a software program, light a face for photographic portraits, construct a Windsor chair, use a beading pattern to make a bracelet. This sort of work is surprisingly challenging to write well–think of how many times you’ve been frustrated by a poorly-written manual for one of your digital or mechanical devices. Good, clear, concise how-to writing requires intelligence, accuracy, awareness of the reader’s skill level, critical analysis, and a clarity of style the unpracticed writer lacks. And by unpracticed writer, I mean most of us!

After 25 days of writing poetry drafts, I cannot suggest to anyone how to write a poem. Perhaps someone with more experience in the process (such as Luisa Igloria) can weigh in on how to write a poem (she teaches creative writing, after all, at Old Dominion). At the end of this month, I will resort back to my usual process of intermittent drafts; though it’s possible that this month of discipline will stick–maybe I will be more productive for awhile. Mostly what I will need to do is to REVISE! Because with 30 drafts to work on, I can stay busy tweaking and reworking (and giving up, occasionally) on poems for months to come.

~
Lilacs

Because I had early morning errands,
because I had to change my route,
because creek’s tributaries are still swollen,
the brief commute
took an ambit unexpected
through small towns, over the rutted bridge,
delayed by schoolbus signal flashers, waiting
for foot-dragging kids.
Pollen drifted on the windshield
because it’s that time of year,
because two days of rain and spells of warmth
have settled here.
Because I decided not to worry,
because no one would mind if I were late,
because I opened the car window, I saw lilacs blooming
beside the cemetery gate.
~

 

lilac

 

Three days

I took a short journey north, during which there was a great deal of rain; and when I returned, the redbud trees had bloomed and the goldfinches had molted into their bright yellow plumage.

So I have three days of poem drafts to post.

~

Passover

The first holiday without,
grief burns like anger.
Irritant. Tough fibers
scraping at skin raise a rash,
sore during celebration.
Empty ritual this year.
Empty place at the table–
bitter, bitter herbs.

~
~springblooms
Visual Trick

Along tree line’s haze
of new growth, the blur–
lichen-covered boughs,
white-flowering branches.
Sky’s cloudy, grass strewn
with petals might almost
be snow, but goldfinch
perches yellow on beech’s
recalcitrant twigs.
Not snow but Spring.

~
~

photo of windshield during rainy weather

**

The drive isn’t always pleasant:
too much traffic, too much rain,
too many miles between friends,
but I will accompany you.

Mutual miles, mutual acquaintances–
though much impedes marriage,
true minds admit true friends into
the equation, complex and contradictory,

at which we work consistently;
they are our common denominators.
~

 

Tending, clearing

According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, between now and the late April rains one should tend to the graves of one’s ancestors. This period goes by the name 清明, or qīngmíng, and the weeks are designated “clear and bright.”

In my part of the world, we experience a mix of rainy and clear; but the days are warming and the grass greener. The annual winter weeds pull up easily, and the tough perennial weeds emerge before the grasses. The moist, newly-thawed soil makes levering those weeds less difficult now than later in the year.

I, however, do not live anywhere near my ancestors’ graves.

~

Clearing

Clear the patch that yields
to memory
clutch the hand hoe
and the trowel
disturbing early spring’s
small bees and gnats
beneath the plum’s
blossoming branches

Weeds encroach here
grasses grown too high
a nearby stone
toppled and broken
tells us about
forgetfulness

Insects surround
the quiet morning
active each year as warmth
moves into earth
the newt that curls
under last year’s leaf
finds sustenance

As do we
in our earnest effort
clearing as skies clear
each handful of chickweed
representing thanks
to those whose efforts
and accidents
brought us into
the world

~

getPart-1

photo by David Sloan