Monday, February 2, 2015

once intoxicated

Dreams and Poetry

by Hu Shih (1891-1962)

It’s all ordinary experience,  
All ordinary images.
By chance they emerge in a dream,
Turning out infinite patterns.

It’s all ordinary feelings,
All ordinary words.
By chance they encounter a poet,
Turning out infinite new verses.

Once intoxicated, one learns the strength of wine,
Once smitten, one learns the power of love:
You cannot write my poems
Just as I cannot dream your dreams.

I began every morning last week sitting in the chair in the corner of my study, sipping coffee, with a candle lit. I read poetry and wrote in my journal. And throughout the day, I did keep up my 'low-internet' goals for the most part. When I went on Facebook, I noted the time. For long stretches I used my 'self-control' app to block those sites I find particularly addictive. 

By the end of the week, I can say that I felt calmer, that I'd been more productive and felt more creative. 

Basically, I'm just trying to use the internet in a way that's more conducive to living creatively. 

A habit of mine, which I'd really gotten away from, is before attempting to write something, I take old favourites off of my bookshelf, I leaf through them, read this and that. I'll jot a line down from my readings into my journal and spend time with that single line. I did this last Monday, and afterwards, wrote the rough outlines for three poems. So, this told me that I was probably on the right track. 

Every possible day, I want to be waiting, open, for a span, for that chance encounter. For when the ordinary things intoxicate. Those things that are there before us but need to enter and move through that dream space to become poems. 

Part way through the week, I came across the Penguin books blog and read this intro to an article by James Wallman:

"Newspaper comments sections are filled with tidings of doom about how technology is hindering our minds; shortening our attention spans and depersonalising our relationships. James Wallman doesn’t agree."

And it's true, I've been reading all sorts of articles and comments about how our attention span is dwindling, and how technology is turning our brains to mush. You've heard me talk about my Facebook addiction, and this is what Wallman has to say:  "But for all its faults, I think Facebook, and all other social media, is good for us: because not only has it made it so much easier to keep in touch with people, it’s also changing how we express our identities and get status."

I feel like Facebook is at times a big out of control wedding, where family and friends and co-workers are all dancing to different tunes. Throw in the un-met friends, the writer friends, and that person who friended you five years ago and to whom you later realized you didn't have the slightest connection. Some days it's fun and interesting and you learn cool stuff. It's good for me, as Wallman says. At other times, it's simply exhausting, draining, and even demoralizing. The problem isn't Facebook, or the people on Facebook, who are generally genuinely nice, decent souls expressing their identities. The problem is, I think, mainly, the addiction aspect. So, I want to enjoy FB from time to time, and just not feel that constant pull toward it. 

The thing I need to do is re-jig how I use the internet at all. As a result, I suppose you'll be hearing my thoughts on this as I carry forward this little experiment of mine. 

There is nothing more indispensable to this experiment than books of poetry. I'm lucky enough to have a couple of bookshelves of poetry collections. 

Returning to a poet you love, certain poems, early in the morning, before you've done a single other thing: this is restorative. 

Okay, so last week I made myself small goals. Be on the internet less. Read more poetry, be more mindful. Conveniently, also on the Penguin blog was an excerpt from a new book by Christophe André, titled "Mindfulness: 25 ways to live in the moment through art." Worth a read when you have time. 

A quotation from the article:

‘Never forget that every mind is shaped by the most ordinary experiences. To say that something is ordinary is to say that it is of the kind that has made the biggest contribution to the formation of your most basic ideas.’

- Paul Valéry

And words from André himself:

We need to love things that are ordinary and banal. We must look at them and respect them. We must open ourselves up to the density of the everyday world. Mindfulness does not need any special environment in order to happen. True, some surroundings can be more helpful or favourable, but mindfulness can come to us anywhere. As long as we make a little effort. As long as we remain awake and present.

Well, let's begin by looking at a leaf:

Reply to the Question: "How Can You Become a Poet?"

by Eve Merriam

take the leaf of a tree
trace its exact shape
the outside edges
and inner lines

memorize the way it is fastened to the twig
(and how the twig arches from the branch)
how it springs forth in April
how it is panoplied in July

by late August
crumple it in your hand
so that you smell its end-of-summer sadness

chew its woody stem

listen to its autumn rattle

watch it as it atomizes in the November air

then in winter
when there is no leaf left

invent one

These photos were taken on a single morning. There had been a slight fog, a slight frost. The light was exquisite, emanating from a grey sky.

The Work of Happiness 

by May Sarton

I thought of happiness how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day,
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work,
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours,
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone.
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room,
A shelf of books, a table, and the whitewashed wall -
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done.
The growing tree is green and musical

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life's span in a single place;
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness.
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

Sarton's poem spoke to me especially this week, as I sought to re-cultivate a particular inwardness, a particular calm.

I was absorbed in taking all these very many photographs, when I heard a yip-yipping. Ace had positioned himself at a perfect distance from me, and was calling to have his photo taken. When I started clicking, he went into a profile pose. Very noble. And when I was finished, he came right away for his biscuit. 

I'm going to leave you with these photos from another day. More leaves to contemplate. And some I took home with me.

Oh, and one very last thing, a bit of a brag, and also one of the nice things about the internet, and Facebook, where this was originally posted by the wonderful John Delacourt. A review of Asking in The Ottawa Review of Books


  1. I plan to put this into practice this week. I have a book to finish, and it's not going to write itself. Lovely to have you back. xo

  2. I've recently begun the same morning routine of reading and absorbing a poem before writing my own. I find it sets a tone and pace for my own work, like opening a door and settling in to a still, quiet room.

    I've just recently found your blog. What a delight. Thank you.

    1. Glad you found CT! Thanks, Drew. I agree totally - sets the right tone and mood.

  3. Such beautiful frosty images, gorgeous light and detail in each. And Ace, how funny is that? As for the internet, I have such a love/hate relationship with it. I try not to hang out on FB for long stretches of time and mainly check it like I check my emails. But I have to say that I have met many amazing people through social media...including you and I'm so happy for that! A big congrats on John Delacourt's review of your book, so wonderful!!

    1. I know! There are so many fantastic things about social media. I'm not willing to give it up :) But it is pretty amazing how much it occupies my mind....I guess it's all in the approach.

  4. Oh wow, Shawna, I feel as though I could come back every day over the next week and find something new to comment about. How about I settle on: Congratulations on the lovely review! Thank you for the gift of your wonderful, meditative images - good "being" prompts - and for the new-to-me poems, that one by May Sarton really gets to me (in a good way). I too share the mixed feelings about social media, my decision to step away from Instagram has proven to be a very beneficial one for my inner calm though, in the same breath, I can also honestly say I miss seeing what everyone is up to and the happy chatter and liveliness of the forum. Wishing you a most lovely, dream-productive week ahead! xo

    1. Oh good! That was sort of my goal! Thank you. And good wishes for a dream filled week for you too.

  5. Images, poems, insights -- so beautiful, Shawna! I was particularly moved to see the May Sarton poem...don't know if I've mentioned, I've been primarily housebound for two decades. In the beginning of what felt like my descent, I found great solace and direction in poems like The Work of Happiness...."the tree is lifted by the inward work..." Yes! So I wish you the time and inner space to continue in the rhythm that nourishes you most. Thank you for your generous offerings. I read Delacourt's review...made me SO happy for you. Congrats! Rose

    1. Rose - you'd not mentioned how housebound you've been. That must be a challenge and at times a difficult blessing. Thanks for all your lovely words.

  6. Dear Shawna. You help me open up my world. Thank you thank you thank you. Jacqueline xx

  7. Hi Shawna,

    You are right - the internet can be both a blessing and a curse !

    While it has some incredible sights ( like your photos ) and sounds such as some wonderful music, it also has Facebook and cat videos specifically designed to suck time from our lives that we will never get back.

    I find that the creative process is often hindered by the distractions of the internet - at least it is for me and it would appear that it is for your too on occasions.

    Recently, I have been living on the edge and when I know that I will be creating something I turn the internet off for 30 or 60 minutes. A self imposed internet blackout helps me as it gives me a short time based goal to complete X or Y or Z before I turn it back on again.




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