I think it was the short-story writer Alice Munro who said that she is always looking for a place to hide in the house, a place away from children, the phone ringing, chores to be done, the sociability of neighbors, a place to sit and stare at a blank wall, a place to get on with her real work, waiting for necessity to speak.
And eventually necessity does speak, although often in subtle ways. Sometimes a poem begins in the recognition of an oddity of language, something read or overheard that catches the poet off-guard by its metaphorical promise. For example, the French word for time, le temps, also means weather and season, implying that our sense of time is not an abstraction, but something primal that can be experienced through the senses. Another example of how abstractions are traditionally related to our sense of the body occurs in English: the word testify is related to the word testes, going back to the ancient custom of men swearing oaths while placing a hand over their testicles, swearing on their manhood, so to speak — implying of course that if they lied they would be castrated. These primal correspondences, proto-metaphors, echo with possibilities. After this initial recognition, like finding a fossil in a rock, the challenge is to use one’s sense of craft to carve the poem, make it whole, bring it to life. As Jean Cocteau calls it: teaching a statue to walk.
Sometimes a bit of language will stir the poet’s metaphysical sense of connectedness, the feeling that trees, animals, and even rocks share our struggle to live. My wife grew up in the Siegerland, a region of Germany rich in folk tradition. Eva remembers when she was nine years old her last visit to her neighbor Marianne Krebber before she died. The old woman was sitting at the table drinking tea while she told Eva that the night before a truck had hit the old linden tree in front of her house knocking off a great limb. She said she rushed down and stood in front of the tree. She could feel it suffering. She went into the house and looked up the remedy in her book Blumen die Durch die Seele Heilen — “Flowers that Heal through the Soul.” She found the recipe for “rescue remedy”: star of Bethlehem for shock, rock-rose for fear and panic, impatiens for stress and tension, cherry-plum for despair, and clematis for the feeling of being far away that often appears before becoming unconscious. She mixed the essences in water, dipped a towel, then wrapped it around the wound in the tree. She claimed the tree stopped bleeding and began to heal. She could feel the easing of the tree’s pain.
In the book, a violet that grows in wet soil is called Wasserfeder — water-feather.