Several years ago I was in a poetry workshop with Tony Hoagland. During a one-on-one meeting about my work, he noted all the noise and disruption in my poems—all the feedback and chaos—and said “Here’s what I want you to do: write a calm poem and call it “Calm Poem.” Make every line a line of clarity and tranquility.” He said that, or something like it... Anyway, his point was that I was garbling what I wanted/needed to say, clouding the issues in a lot of unnecessary roughness—sabotaging myself with fireworks—which are maybe thrilling for a few minutes, but don’t last very long. Somehow I needed to find a way to keep the lights on in my work, even if what it illuminated was completely weird and chaotic.
Here’s the poem I wrote:
Of all the calm poems I've written
This calm poem
is definitely my favorite.
It came at the end of a calamitous day—
I couldn’t remember what to say
during a lecture.
I cried while reading
a philosophical preface.
When I looked in the mirror
I saw pieces of a bluejay
and the world turned
in the gathering dust.
Forget it, said the poem.
Now you’re safe at home.
Many people love you.
No need to create a scene.
No need to punctuate
the roar of the page.
Go to sleep and dream
you’re a giant paper snowflake.
There is nothing to be afraid of.
What’s interesting to me is that traveling around giving readings and teaching workshops, I often hear people expressing a desire to make their poems wilder, stranger, more surprising and dynamic. Almost never have I heard someone wishing to make their poems calm down and behave. And yet, aren’t there occasions when staying calm is the most surprising and weird thing of all? As a result of this exercise, I have come to believe, even though I’m not always capable of acting on it, that to say a thing plainly and deliberately with clarity—with calm—is among the most poetic (i.e. surprising, strange and depth-charged) ways of saying anything.
With this in mind, I’ve adapted Tony’s assignment to me as one I sometimes use with my own students, especially when they’re being weird for weird’s sake and seem to have more on their minds than mere weirdness. This is how I put it to them:
Write a Calm Poem. In fact, use Calm Poem as the title, so that when we gather round the table next week we can survey the varieties and vagaries of calmness. Is calm merely the opposite of calamity? Is it a warm bath? Is it listening to Coltrane (the early stuff) with the lights down low? Is it chicken soup and sickness and clouds overhead? For some of you it may be soccer, and for others, a Sunday Stroll. For still others, what’s calm is a hardcore band for breakfast. I don’t have any particular designs on calmness (I’m barely calm at all). I’m looking for the truth; I’m looking for a world to kick back in, some place to have myself a bottle of wine, some place with a view of the ocean. Remember, too, that what’s calm in a poem may have nothing to do with its content. Calmness may be the result of purely formal maneuvers—the lengths of your lines, the kinds of stanzas you use, the way you arrange the words (and the white spaces) on the page. Pacing may be everything. What does calmness mean to you and/or how does it go down in language? Be steady, breathe easy, take yourselves away. Nobody panic. Stay as steady and calm as you possibly can. There are a million emergencies to contend with, and someone has to feel at home in them.
TWO MORE CALM EXAMPLES
Here’s one by my friend Nate Pritts that’s incredible for its steadfast attentiveness to the moment and also for the way it manages chaos—that’s what calm is in a sense managing chaos in the moment:
It’s November 15th, 2009, & I’ve never been
Nate Pritts today. I’m 35 with about two months
tacked on & I’m taking your advice. Early
morning & there’s a halo of helicopters
harrowing the blue, sending word through the
static about the crowded intersections—
all that crosstown traffic—& I stepped
right in front of the car. I knew the speed.
I don’t care if it’s calm. It’s okay if it’s calamity.
Early morning & the buzz is circling my head
like a certainty. Three or four times a day,
I feel like I’m about to get shot out of myself,
like there’s a vibration approaching catastrophe
& I need to run. I’m thinking of language
like it’s something delicate I can hold in my hand.
I’m worried this might break. Early morning
& I don’t care if it’s starless. It’s okay that it’s
endless but full of endings. It’s November 15th,
it’s 2009, it’s me taking your advice because I’m
left without my normal faith in talk, that I could
fill a room with voice & tip the scales.
So hard to get through to you isn’t something
I’m saying but something I feel & the you isn’t
you. I don’t care if it’s indeterminate. It’s okay
that it’s not referential. Early morning & sun
gathers slowly in the clouds. November 15th
& I’m Nate Pritts right now more than ever &
the trees are already empty. It’s not fall
in Syracuse. It’s not fall; it’s fell. It’s exquisitely
dark. It’s this terrible. It’s this fierce destructive.
It’s the end of my favorite season ever & the beginning
of my dark poetry & I don’t care if it’s dark
as long as there’s light. It’s okay that I’m on my knees
to restart the fire as the damp wind whips
tumultuous & elegant. My faith is that more & more
will outweigh the less & less, that an I & a you
accumulates. I’m trying to be calm with the bomb
in my hand because it seems right to pretend
I don’t hear it counting down to one from two.
And this one’s by a former student of mine, Scott Dennis, who of course found a way through the assignment to something marvelously SCOTT DENNIS:
These are the tricks that make us calm:
The last bits of light
burn images of peace
into my skin.
I dream of dream-catchers
and of things salvaged.
I dream of things primitive
and of communication.
me to my grave,
where the shaman takes me
and helps me survey the wreckage,
where my hands will not reach
my weaponry and my
face melts off my skull.
The only thing you have to lose in an exercise like this is pretense and the chains of expectation, but what you have to gain is something clearly and radiantly yourself.
Matt Hart is