Many poets turn to the other arts for inspiration. For painters such as William Blake, Cezanne, and the contemporary Dutch painter Leo Klein, the challenge is to capture the sublime, to visually represent the invisible, so that the painting becomes more than itself, more than an object, more than a picture of what is seen. The painter represents vision rather than sight. Similarly, the poet does not so much hear, as he listens. He does not experience sight, but insight, not landscape but inscape, so the language we use everyday, the language of shopkeepers and college students, transcends itself.
But a young poet may become confused about the source of poetry, thinking that because so many poets have drug and alcohol problems, then this self-abuse goes with the job. Perhaps the young poet even convinces himself that the source of poetry can be coaxed along by artificial means. Many years ago a Nigerian friend remarked that I had a “time-space problem” referring to my habit of mentally drifting off. The absent-mindedness that he saw as a problem I saw as a tool of the trade: poetry resides in the clouds, I reasoned, so I was always ready to let my mind wander. I used drugs and alcohol to disassociate my senses, taking as my models Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas. Self-loathing and an obsession with death called seductively to me as they had for Berryman, Plath, Hart Crane, and so many other poets. Poetry, I thought, was the music created by a tortured soul. I ignored the fact that there are many poets, such as William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye, who live sane decent lives with their families, and whose work brings a vision of light and wholeness to the listener. In recent years, these two poets in particular have taught me that poetry springs from a special alertness, a willingness to embrace the present moment.
Lea wants to change her name to Tina.
Her mother says she must think very carefully
because a name has to fit.
The wrong name can bind like someone else’s shoes.
Who knows where a name has walked,
dust of what roads, uncomfortable creases across the toe,
the heel worn down by someone else’s sorrow?
Her brother says the name Tina fits.
But if she’s Tina, he says, what happened to Lea?
The name turned down the wrong street, got lost,
fell off the edge of the mountain.
The sound of her name fills the river valley.
Everywhere it is nowhere, he says,
her name needs to come home.
Lea doesn’t want to be Tina anymore.
It’s just too much responsibility.