The sun of the imagination
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 17, 2019 - 12:00am

In the popular mind, to be a poet means to be somewhat strange. One is a doctor, or a lawyer, an accountant, or a stockholder. But to be a poet?

Such strange regard for writers – and for poets, in particular – seem to spring from their peculiar modes of behavior, most especially seen when they are writing. Literary lore has it that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” under the spell of opium, that Edgar Allan Poe could write better if he were drunk, or that Gabriel Garcia Marquez could only write if there was a pot of yellow roses on his writing table.

My early poems were written in complete silence.  One thing that still irritates me when I write is when someone else looks over my shoulder, seeming to read what I am writing. I simply turn my head to look at the person, blankly, and he or she would slink away. The critics can tear my poems when they are finished and have been published. But while I am writing those – dead to everything else in the world, struggling with words and music – they are mine alone. In this process, I am “like a plant, concentrating on developing in many directions, towards the warmth and light with its leaves, and towards the water with its roots, all at the same time.”

All these strange habits are meant to contain the noise and the distractions outside the writer’s space. But then, why does one become a poet? James Dickey noted that there is “a kind of poet buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison….”

When the impulse to write is there, I sit down and grab whatever ball pen and paper are at hand. Somebody is banging on the door, the room is caving in, the day is sliding into darkness: I do not care. At the very moment of writing, I am only aware of the words flashing before my mind. Dr. Gemino H. Abad puts it very well for me when he said: “When you’re writing your poem… you’re dead to all else except your treasure, you’re alive only to your poem…. you are isolated, cut off from the living; in fact, you have vanished, gone underground; you cast no shadow, you miss no one, and no one misses you since everyone sees and therefore thinks that you’re still above ground.”

It is a solitude alive with the hum of words, allowing the words to grow “from within, from the initial seeds of attention, until, as Rilke puts it: ‘All space becomes a fruit around those kernels.” The initial seeds of attention can be a word, a phrase, a line, or an image, what Paul Valery calls the une ligne donnee of a poem.  After this has been given to him, it is now up to the poet to let this donnee grow organically and acquire a life of its own.

Even if the poem turns out to be ugly or stillborn, as it sometimes happens to children and to poems, it is yours and you must keep it, in the same manner that a mother is more tolerant of the less-gifted child. For a poet, there is no joy deeper than the fusion of intention and finished poem. When there is a split, as in the atom, the poet wants to simply dissolve in his chair. As Carson McCullers put it “When work does not go well, no life is more miserable than that of the writer. But when it does for well, when the illumination has focused a work so that it goes limpidly and flows, there is no gladness like it.”

After writing down a poem, I revise it from three to four times, inserting a word or line there, deleting complete lines or even stanzas there, listening to the sound of the words, trying to make sense of it all. Then I stop, knowing only fully well that the poem is not yet finished. Afterward, I rise from my chair and reality stares at me again, like the glare of a flashlight in the dark.

Aesthetic distance is necessary in the revision of poems. I can classify my creative process into three kinds. First, the poems that seem to write themselves out, which is rarer than hen’s teeth. Second, the poems that are more or less finished after two or three revisions immediately after they were written, which is what most of my poems seem to be. Third, the poems that work by stages over a long period of time.

Usually, the poem is written as a mere skeleton upon which hangs the fragments of words. My poems have been triggered by my reading of other poets’ work, by paintings and photographs I have seen in magazines and museums, by sharp and vivid memories “recollected in tranquility” (Wordsworth’s definition of poetry), by dreams and reflections, by places like Boracay where I spent a Writers Retreat twice with faculty members from Ateneo de Manila University, even by student’s term papers and the papers I was required to write in graduate school at Rutgers University in the United States. In short, everything is grist for the writer’s mill.

In his poem, “The Insomniacs,” Dominador Ilio compared revision to “Hugging the fire of desire against the broad/Slap and hiss of winds from every hand,” in which “every hand” could mean every time the writer sits down to reshape the poem.

And one fine morning, in Gods’ own good time, when I wake up, or when I am busy doing something else, I would see the lines flashing before my inner eye. Thus it is time to pick up pen again and write a poem. After quietly undergoing a sea-change in the fertile darkness of the subconscious, the poem breaks the calm surface, like a fish alive and gleaming in the sun of the imagination.

* * *

This essay is part of the last chapter of my new book, “Poetry for Starters.”

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

DANTON REMOTO
Philstar
  • Latest
  • Trending
Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
X
Login

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

SIGN IN
or sign in with