Available March 31, 2020
This anthology of twenty-four classic poems is set apart by the artwork used to convey the illustrator / anthologist’s view of each poem. The poets are all virtuosos, including: Dickinson, Angelou, Cummings, Langston Hughes, Auden, Seamus Heaney, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Poe, and Eliot. The poems are sometimes, but not always, among the most anthologized of the respective poet’s work. I would say that most poetry readers will probably find something that they haven’t read, but – even if not – it’s worth re-reading them as you enjoy the artwork.
The illustrator, Julian Peters, makes a bold decision to use the widest variety of artistic styles in an attempt to more aptly capture the tone of each poem. I recently reviewed a similar book, Chris Riddell’s “Poems to Live Your Life By,” and that book used a consistent style through out (which isn’t to say that tone and reality / surrealism didn’t change.) I’m not an artist, and don’t really have a vocabulary to describe the various artistic styles employed, but will attempt to give one some insight. There is the obvious shift between monochrome and color strips, but even within each of those categories there is great variation. Some monochrome strips were mostly gray, while others were exclusively black-and-white. Color works ranged from shocking dayglo to subdued pastels to dominant single color (e.g. blue) pics. Various poems were represented by a modern comic book style art, an old fashion comic strip approach, those which looked like paintings, those that were highly realistic, those that were surreal, those that were retro-chic, and even one [for Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”] that was in a quilt-like style.
I enjoyed this work tremendously. Most of the poems were short works, single pagers, and the fact that I’d read possibly all of them before wasn’t a problem because these are the kind of poems that should be revisited. Only the postscript poem, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was of substantial length.
I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers, particularly those interested in are of imagery and how it’s conveyed and perceived.
As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.
My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])
After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:
Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…
So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.
However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)
It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from?
You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”
But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.
In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.
I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.
Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?
Taken in Almaty in July of 2019.