I’ve always wanted to write an essay about the poetics that ground this writing project but it’s never come together, ha ha. I’ve been writing daily since I was about sixteen – forty some odd years now! – and while I love theory and criticism, love analyzing writing and speech and stories generally, I’ve never been especially effective at applying critical thinking to the craft as I live and practice it.
Here is the thing: writing saved my life without telling me, and it did so by keeping me close to you. I was in my fifties before I understood that the function of writing in my life had been survival and that – most critically – it involved others. Writing is relationship before it is anything else. It is communion. When you realize this, it creates a responsibility in you that is a joy to uphold.
When I met Chrisoula, I fell fast, hard and deep into a living metaphor that has the name The Country of Turtles
, of which Chrisoula is the Queen. I wrote about fourteen hundred poems for her in the first couple years of our relationship, outlining all of my hopes and fears and dreams et cetera. She received all of it but was mostly interesting in how it cashed out in action. Chrisoula has always understood that the level of the body is both utterly meaningless – a shimmering illusory reflection – and also the only game in town because it is the text – it is the site – in which Love both reveals itself and cries out for revelation.
She is a Buddhist who believes in angels.
When I say “poetics,” I really mean “poiesis,” and what I mean by that is close to what Plato was getting at in his third example in Symposeum: poiesis is the creative work of the soul as it cultivates in and of itself virtue and knowledge, which together are Love.
Writing is poiesis, it is learning how to be coherent, it is learning how to be helpful in a context where help is needed.
Readers help by telling you what works and asking you for more, or by showing you what does not work, and nudging you in a different direction. And here is a critical thing in the poiesis of this writing project: I, too, am a reader. We are all readers and all authorship is rooted in our shared reading. The cosmos publishes us, not the other way around. You can only be so serious.
Of course, taking myself too seriously is the subtitle of my autobiography, as the many therapists, counselors, sponsors, teachers et cetera who have helped me over the years would be only too happy to tell you. It was a great gift to learn that taking things seriously was not a problem, so long as I do not also take them literally. That’s the part that lets you get creative and playful, because you know none of this is real. That is another thing writing does, it lets you lie in a way that makes clear to you what the truth wants, which is to say, what you want.
“Only truth is true.” I feel like I read that somewhere once.
Long before Chrisoula and I grew our own food and began integrating in sustainable ways with local agriculture and local economies, I was reading and writing about it. I am still writing about it because I still have a lot to learn. But that is okay. The important thing is that the writing gave birth to a practice, it said “this is the way” and then it gave me courage, hope and strength while I began taking faltering steps, hand-in-hand with Chrisoula.
Be a student of your own writing. Give your writing to the Teacher who knows the Author of the Cosmos. Take it seriously but not literally. Don’t sleep with anybody who isn’t actively trying to help you give birth to what is beautiful and true in you. Befriend them, yes, but don’t fuck them. I’m not sure how that relates to poieisis but it does.
I’m kidding. I know how it relates.
Writing and sex are adjacent practices in my life, flowing in and out of each other in instructive ecstatic ways. I had a girlfriend once who commented – complained? – that I’d rather write about a blowjob than receive one, which was – and is – true. I mean I like blowjobs of course, who doesn’t, but writing really is . . . exquisitely communal in ways that sex is at best a poor approximation of.
Which is to say, I believe writing is a creative practice by which we bring our living into alignment with Love, in which we seek coherence with that to which the word “God” has always pointed. Chrisoula would talk about harmony and rhythm here. I would counter with “coherence, cooperation, and communion” to which she would gently reply, “yes those are all nice words Sean, to what do they point?”
She means that the more abstract the language becomes, the harder it is to have it cash out in a lived practice. “Rhythm” and “harmony” point to the day, the body, the season and the earth. The garden doesn’t weed itself! She is interested in the praxis that any poetics brings forth, and poiesis is for me – as her husband, her helpmeet, her half-assed lover – a way of letting the writing direct me to the garden. In this paragraph, “garden” is synonymous with Life and Love.
Poiesis seems to require one have a magick, the “k” indicating that we aren’t talking about anything supernatural or chaotic or tricky, but rather what is deeply powerfully natural while also dwelling mostly outside the domain of what can readily be languaged. If you don’t have a practice that takes you away from words, then it’s hard to be a good writer. Orgasms can do this but magick – for me it is Tarot – is a kind of ongoing low-level orgasm one can access at any time, without obscuring (by wanting more of) the healing message ecstasy is designed to extend. In other words, sex always wants more of itself for itself but magick wants to give itself away. I’ve tired out a lot of lovers over the years, not because I’m a stellar lover – I’m a cheerful and clumsy lover – but because I can’t stop talking – and writing – and asking questions – about life and love. Sapiosexuals of the world unite, indeed.
Pace yourself, says Chrisoula. The heart never fits the journey, says Jack Gilbert, my brilliant elder brother. Together they help me breathe and do what’s in front of me, rather than dream about what once was or what may yet someday be. ACIM’s holy instant is no joke.
In my early twenties, I read an interview with Robert Bly in which he said that the point of writing poetry was not to publish or have a career – those were distant and unremarkable secondary effects – but rather to be healed of fear and hate and the belief in differences, et cetera. Like a windblown mustard seed in the mouth of Jesus, this landed in and blossomed in me, and has guided me by becoming me ever since. I don’t say it’s correct or true or helpful for anyone else but I do know a lot of well-known writers who are selfish and miserable, covet the accomplishments of others, et cetera. Are you happy, in a natural serious way? Because nothing else matters. Really.
My mother read a lot of poetry (among other things) to me when I was a kid; she loved the Romantics in particular. She also loved John Denver, which still does not seem strange to me. I take both men seriously as artists. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t. Wordsworth’s insights about happiness and love are not different than Denver’s. There is only one heart!
Anyway, my mother was my earliest language teacher, which was both good fortune and also nearly destroyed me, and may yet. Children who are asked to enter the forest in order to die never truly leave, though many do survive. I remember a therapist saying to me once in exasperation, you have this facility with language which allows you to take anything I say and turn it ever so slightly away from the light. Who taught you how to hurt yourself and others this way?
The answer of course is my mother, but if you think that means she is the wicked stepmother or the witch or even a bad mother than you have lost the only thread that matters. She is also Gretel, the one who saved me. (Side note I wish I could develop better: both my parents asked me to save them, to “fix this,” and I did not understand this as a cry for love until I was in my early fifties). My mother’s love of language and poetry, which was not separate from her incredible rage and destructiveness, or from the vast body in which all destructiveness and creativity lived, and which – like all mother bodies – we never truly leave, was the means by which I at last realized she was the same as me, that we were equal in our pain and suffering, and that there was a way to be healed, and held, that was not forbidden but allowed, encouraged even, and that this healing pleased – by harmonizing with – divine order.
That reminds me of something I am not allowed to say, and won’t, save to say that we cannot write effectively – as healed healers – if we do not know and honor in a real – a tangible, embodied – way the One Who Cannot Be Named.
I’m with Frank O’Hara on the technical aspects of writing. If you buy a pair of pants, you want them to fit well enough that others want to sleep with you. Same with poetry. Does it awaken in the other a desire to heal and be healed? Rhyme, meter, theme, symbolism, et cetera. I mean, yeah, that stuff matters but it’s more intuitive than not and the measure of our facility with it is not what some poetry teacher or journal editor concludes but whether we are in the deepest sense of the word coming in and with others.
On the other hand, form does help constrain what we are allowed to say, and since nobody is beyond the trickery of ego, some relationship with form matters. You can write a lot of shitty poetry by thinking that because you can write it you should write it. The limit of twenty sentences (thanks Harry Matthews (and later the paragraph, thanks Hayden Carruth)) became vital ways of letting ego know I wasn’t available for simply venting toxic bullshit. You have to make a room for the Lord to visit, you have to make a space in which the spirit can come, literally and figuratively. Read Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, everything else is a fucking footnote.
Everybody says that writing is a form of order – or of bringing order to what is disordered. That’s too grandiose. We aren’t situated or constructed to evaluate order in the divine or even the cosmic sense. What works in your living to make people feel a little safer, a little happier, a little more willing to create with you a world in which living is just, equitable, merciful and joyful? Nothing else matters, truly.
I am not saying I am that guy! The guy who’s got it figured out, the guy who’s living the dream, the guy who heals because he’s healed. I am saying that writing reminds me I am sometimes that guy, and being more and more that guy is a good thing. The metaphysics don’t interest me even though I’m relatively facile with them. Am I hurting people less? Am I helping people more? Which nearly always means, just get out of the way.
So that is the other thing writing does. It gets me out of the way and leaves a big space for you to do what you need and want. You can read or not read, you can take it to heart or not, you can be in relationship with me or not. You can be guided in your own writing and living or not. It doesn’t matter. The writing is offered because in my fucked-up way I love you and the world so deeply it terrifies me. I can’t stand what we do to the earth and to each other. Writing for me aims at truth – not literally true like will it stand up in a court of law. On that level I’m a liar and a cheat and a thief and I mostly always will be.
But at another level – more abstract, deeper down or further out, up high in moonlight, whatever – it is possible to love, and to extend love in gentle ways that are inclusive and instructional, bringing more and more of us (broadly defined to include sunflowers, blind horses, vexacious neighbors etc) into the Circle of Light, which is just the same old fire before the same old cave. All we want is to sit with each other, gaze into the flames, tell some good stories over a shared meal, then lay together to tell with our beautiful bodies a quieter, older story. At its best this writing project is a way of sharing with you that older, quieter story. In it, we complete each other, and in our completion the whole cosmos – its gods and goddesses, its maths and philosophies – come gently home to rest in us as one.
In other words, here is my battered and broken heart, open for you, best as I am able. Thank you, always, for helping me find a way back to the light.