I awoke stiff and sore from hoeing the weeds from the corn yesterday, and heard the sound of rain on the roof. I had mixed feelings. The rain will allow some of the weeds to re-root. But also the rain means I don’t have to weed. You win some; you lose some.
There is something very soothing about the sound of rain on the roof. (Unless, of course, the roof is leaking). I lazed and thought about composing a sonnet about the sound. But as I drifted back towards sleep my mind went in an unexpected direction, as happens when dreams start to mix with waking thought.
You win some; you lose some. When you write a sonnet it is a bit like swinging at a fastball in the game of baseball. You obviously can tell if you connect with the ball or miss it completely, but you also can tell, by the “feel”, how solidly you connect. Oddly, when you can really feel the connection, and the hit feels so solid that your hands sting, it often isn’t a very good hit. When you barely feel the connection, and you only feel a sort of effortless “snick”, you know you’ve hit with “the sweet spot”, and the ball is going for a ride. It is then that sluggers stand at home-plate and, rather than hustling to first base, just watch the ball with an ear to ear grin as it soars off over the fences.
The same seems to be true with writing a sonnet. You know when you’ve hit a home run. And you know when you’ve stuck out, or hit a foul. But, if you are attracted to the sport of sonnet-writing, flubbing a lot doesn’t make you quit. You just tell yourself Babe Ruth set records for striking out, as well as for home runs.
Also poetry is a form of self-expression, and the simple fact of the matter is that sometimes the “self” you are expressing isn’t the “self” at its best. Some days the “self” is more like a strike-out than a home run. Therefore a terrible sonnet might be an excellent self expression, if you are in a terrible mood.
When a baseball player is in a slump he usually still wants his time at bat, and dreads being benched. In like manner, a sonnet-writer usually would rather write a dreadful sonnet. It is a bit like “it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”
Ball-players are notorious for turning to superstition to explain the difference between a slump and a hot-streak. The difference between a home-run and a pop-out is a matter of millimeters, and when you are timing a 100 mile per hour fast ball, this difference encroaches upon the limits of measurement. It trespasses beyond the borders of control into the landscapes of intuition and instinct, so of course superstition arises.
One ball player hammered a cobbler’s tack into his shoe, before a good game, so the next day he tacked another nail into his shoe, and had another good game. It was the start of a thirty-game hit-streak, and by the end the poor fellow could barely walk, he had so many cobbler’s tacks in the sole of that shoe. In the thirty-first game he was limping so badly he struck out four times. (Moral? Don’t over-attack the soul.) So we laugh at superstition. But this is not to say there aren’t subtle Truths our intellects can’t grasp.
Writers aren’t all that different. They speak of stuff difficult to measure or give scientific credence to. They speak of “the flow” and of “channeling” and of “muses”. Of course, I would never indulge in such guff and fiddlefaddle in polite society. But, in the company of other writers? Or, when half-awake with rain drumming on the roof?
As I fell back asleep this morning my mind slipped from composing a sonnet to thinking about the source of sonnets. There does seem to be some sort of well-spring, and when you tap into it you simply “burst into song.” The music appears already-written, as it does when a musician is improvising well. When a musician is improvising he is not reading a score someone else wrote; he is tapping into spontaneity.
In a manner of speaking, the artist at this best is getting-out-of-the-way. Rather than the source he is the conduit. Then, when his self-expression produces a rotten sonnet, it is because he can’t get out of his own way. Like a slumping ball-player, he is clumsy, or just clumsy enough to miss a hundred mile-per-hour fastball. He is perhaps getting too much advise from all sides, and forgetting the source. He is not quite keeping his eye on the ball.
It is tricky, being a conduit. There’s a hair’s breadth of difference between flowing and being blocked. This morning it seemed very logical to me that, when the flow stops, I should go to the Source.
Good morning, my Master. I turn to You
Rather than art, for I know where things start.
You’re the Creator. I’m just the kazoo
You’re playing, moving my stubborn old heart
Towards saying things I could never think of;
My graying head’s too slow; I cannot know,
Using my thumbs, the gushing springs of love,
Nor engineer cramping dikes to aim the flow
Of sparkling poetry. Men credit muses,
But what are they? Just angels of Your will.
I like Your servants, but what man chooses
The cups over the Wine-pourer? I thrill
At the thought I’ve received Your invitation,
And rush to the Source of all inspiration.
Get out of my way, you who think it wise
To stifle; you traffic cops of nonsense.
Do you think you can stop the wind? Use your eyes,
You regulators of laughter. On fence
I shall sit, as you seducers recruit
Foolish youth. They march about demanding
Spontaneity be sized like a boot,
As if Love obeys their commanding.
Is that how we work? Use your foolish brains
To see math has its place. Does it belong
Beyond its scope? Gardens need soft rains,
Not budgets. Do any burst into song
Because song is scheduled? You create thirst.
Robotic song is but song at its worst.
Be still, old brain, and let the first bird praise
The dripping dawn. Turn your pillowed face
From the wet window, for you do not raise
The covered sun, nor can your commands chase
The clouds from the sky; yet keep your ears alert
To the rain on the roof, for that drumming
Is like the beat of your heart, and all hurt
Can be soothed by such sounds, and coming
to your senses can lift lids in a new way.
Listen to the sighing of the summer rain
And hear the thankful leaves begin to play
Their songs of quenched thirst. Where is the strain
Of starting a day by staying in bed?
The heart becomes full when there’s peace in the head.