Storm clouds gathering over Maine

"Samurai Song" by

Robert Pinsky

When I had no roof I made

Audacity my roof. When I had

No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.

When I had no ears I thought.

When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made

Care my father. When I had

No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made

Quiet my friend. When I had no

Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made

My voice my temple. I have

No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune

Is my means. When I have

Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment

Is my strategy. When I had

No lover I courted my sleep.

Watch Pinsky recite this poem

The other night, I saw Robert Pinsky (poet laureate of the United States, 1997 -2000) talk about poetry on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Charming, engaging and passionate, he talked most particularly of his love of music and the importance of rhyme and tonality in poetry. As well, we saw a clip of Pinsky reading his poems with a live jazz band – his voice like another instrument riffing right along with the clarinet and the saxophone.

Pinsky says “I think the rhythms in a lot of my writing are an attempt to create that feeling of a beautiful, gorgeous jazz solo that gives you more emotion and some more and coming around with some more, and it’s the same but it’s changed, and the rhythm is very powerful, but it is also lyricism. I think I’ve been trying to create something like that in my writing for a long time.” (The Progressive)

I hear the music in Pinsky’s work. Notice Pinsky’s repetition of “When I” at the beginning of each paragraph. Read the poem aloud and you will see that this powerful and lyrical language, this repetition pulls you into the poem. It’s what Jack Grapes calls “a sung verse… public voice, meant to rouse and inspire.” Mary Oliver uses the same voice in How Would You Live Then? --repeating “What if” and achieving a similar reaction in the listener. Read the poem aloud and you will feel the effects of the rhythm of repetition of What if.”

How would you live then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks

   flew in circles around your head?

What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and

   became your advisor?

What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all

   you needed to do was ask them and they would fill

   the bowl?

What if the brook slid downhill just

   past your bedroom window so you could listen

   to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?

What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves

   began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang

   from its painted branches?

What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver

   of money?

What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day

   and every day --- who knows how, but they do it ---were

   more precious, more meaningful than gold?

Exercise: Repeating the phrase "When I "' or “What if” build a series of sentences that, due to the repetition of “When I” or “What if," become an incantation. Vary the length of the sentences. For example, "When I think of gin, I grin. When I think of gin and grin, I reach for the bottle.” Or, “What if I wrote the poem that’s been living in me all these years. What if it got published? What if I had to go the publishing party and I had no dress. What if I went naked” Of course, I am trying to be funny to lighten the burden here, but this is serious and valuable stuff.

Think of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. He repeats the phrase many times, varying the length of the sentences.  You can go serious with your tone, like Oliver and King, or be light-hearted, talking about chocolate ice cream for example. It's the exercise that counts. It's the rhythm and tone of your writing that will be the incantation

And so the storm passes.