Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dual Purpose Poems

Work has become its own beast lately, with a steep adjustment curve to new paradigms and programs.  In an attempt to cope, I've started to memorize a poem a day, hoping to divert the obsessive part of my mind from continually rolling down the grooves of irritation, which with repetition, will only become deeper, the negative reactions more entrenched, more intractable. I felt that if I could interrupt the process, I could block the high hits on the Stress-O-Meter and halt the accompanying rise in cortisol. Plus give myself something pleasantly literary to think about. And liven up my little grey cells.

So when I feel the anxiety rise, I resort to the poem, reciting it under my breath like a verbal amulet or a Spell for Protection.  It seems to be working; I don't feel so wound up in the morass of a SNAFU which is not of my making and which I can not change. Recalling the poem is sometimes all I need to regain a more tolerant and reflective state. Or at least get me though the next half hour without incident, embarrassment or name-calling. 

There have been some unintended (though welcome) consequences of this practice: getting this close to poetry and language is firing up my desire to be swimming in the deep end of writing and literature. (More on that later.)

Because I so love her work and because she is one hella tight poet, I've started with poems by Kay Ryan.  I'm enthralled with her imagery, rhythm, metaphors, the way her poems cinch right up at the end.  There is never any doubt that you've landed at the end of a Kay Ryan poem. Doesn't hurt that they are often short; my old gray brain just ain’t what it used to be. And oh, yeah, the poem-a-day quickly became a poem-a-week. 

So here’s the first poem, which has already stood me in good stead several times so far:

A Cat/A Future

A cat can draw
the blinds
behind her eyes
whenever she 
decides. Nothing
alters in the stare
itself but she's
not there. Likewise,
a future can occlude:
still sitting there, 
doing nothing rude. 

Such plain-song, everyday language -- except for the tight arrangement, the rhythms, the internal and sprung rhymes: blinds, behind; stare, there; eyes, decides; occludes, rude. And except for the word occludes, which captures our attention at once: it is the mystery door into meaning.  To occlude means to obstruct, shut off, block.  The future is occluded, hidden from us as if by blinds; we can’t really see it -- we can only imagine it. It sits there, merely one second, one day, one year away, but unknowable, blocked off from us until it happens.

And in another way, the future itself occludes: our tendency to plan for the future can sometimes prevent us from noticing the beauty of the moment, the realities of now.  We are so focused on the future, we become blind to the present.  We project our imagined future in front of us, as if on a screen, but a screen that hides the only known future that awaits us all: the inevitable, unknowable end of our tunnels. That future is definitely there - but not there, because we prefer to (or need to) ignore it.

By the end of this poem Ryan has layered meaning onto object; has melded the cat and the future, both “still sitting there/doing nothing rude.” Sweet!


  1. This could be the only poem you need sometimes.


  2. yeah, you're right.
    But I'm already working on the next one. It's kinda fun.

  3. Perfect way to divert attention away from the grind. Great post.

  4. thanks, ND! ...for some reason, the poems will command my attention when other things don't... like counting to ten, thinking of my quiet place, breathing... After a few more Kay Ryan poems, I'm thinking I might look up some of Deborah Digges work.


Noise makers!