Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Beginning of the Beginning (TMI)

Benign Neglect

by Sandra Leigh

My sister who quips
she could kill
a plastic plant
has nothing on me.

Mozart and tea,
violins and steam
whistles the kettle I
really must attend to.

Loyal Rooibos,
of all the gentle teas
my favourite, is the
perfect tea for me.

Ignore it if I please,
all day if it suits me
and it may turn cold but
It never grows bitter.

I just found this fragment in my Documents file, and I'm trying to remember exactly what prompted it (particularly that strange second stanza). Though the specific incident escapes me, I certainly remember how I felt when I wrote it. I'm afraid that that is my relationship to poetry, in a nutshell. I write poems to work through what I'm feeling. That feeling may not be a lasting one - or, as in the case of this fragment, it may point to some trait I see in myself, something I may not be proud of, but that needs to be acknowledged. It's all terribly self-indulgent.


This has been a stressful week. After a few days of feeling as if I'd been caught in a whirlpool,
I happened upon René Wing's Yes is Red entry for June 1, "Poetry is for Everyone". My first reaction was something like embarrassment - René was asking me (no, not just me, but isn't it all about me?) to talk about the beginning of my (poetic) beginnings, as if that weren't last Tuesday, or maybe a few years ago when I wrote some trite/maudlin/bitter/... attempts that I've long since thrown away or buried in a drawer.

But when I thought it through, I realized that my relationship to poetry really does go back a lot farther than that.

If I may digress for a moment, I'll try afterward to make my way back to the subject at hand.

Also in my Documents file is a (working) biography of my mother, who died when I was seventeen. When it's finished, I intend to make copies for my children, and also for my sisters - who have been helping to fill the gaps in my memory. René's question inspired me to have a look in that biography for a memory that I had set aside. I found a couple of them. First of all, there's this:

She had very strong likes and dislikes in that area. She said Dick Haymes had a voice like chocolate ice cream – and she loved chocolate ice cream. Her judgment of Paul Anka’s songs was severe – “Moon, spoon, croon, June”, she would snarl. And G. reminds me that when Anka sang “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” in "Diana", Mom would say “Sounds like somebody goosing him all the way up the stairs!” Sammy Davis Jr. suffered similar criticisms. About Marilyn Monroe’s kisses, she asked “Does she serve towels with her bath?” But she swooned over Orson Welles’s hands, and could listen all night to Edith Piaf singing.


Another time, our entire Thanksgiving dinner ended up dribbling down the wallpaper when Mom threw one dish after another at the wall. That was the time that my father had made a recording of himself reciting “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (from Sonnets from the Portuguese) and played it in front of everybody, including Aunt R’s family. He was apparently the only one in the room that didn’t know Mom was about to leave him, or maybe he was trying to change her mind. If so, it didn’t work. By that time, Grandma had died and there was nothing to keep Mom there.

How about that? The first passage tells me that I came by my discomfort with rhyme in the most natural way. It was my mother's fault! It also shows that I apparently inherited my tendency to cross senses (not synesthesia as such) from her. I remember the first time I heard a counter-tenor sing. I said he sounded like dry sherry. And yes, Dick Haymes did sound like chocolate ice cream.

The second passage is probably more telling, in that it reminds me that my difficulty in expressing strong emotions comes from seeing far too much acting out when I was a child (I was under eight when the Thanksgiving dinner incident happened, and it was just the climax of a very long melodrama.)

Many years later, a friend of mine brought home a Bette Midler video. I don't remember what number Miss M was doing, but she ended up writhing on the floor, wailing, seemingly in tears. I remember commenting that people paid good money to get psychiatrists to listen to that stuff, and here this woman had got us to pay her for the privilege. "Nice work", I said. I have since become a Bette Midler fan, though I still get uncomfortable when she goes over the top - and going over the top is, of course, her forte. Maybe what I like about her is that she makes me uncomfortable.

Oh, and apparently I was exposed to the Brownings at a tender age. ;>)

Now. I did say I would get back to the point, didn't I? I have established that I learned early that the safest course was to keep those pesky emotions under control, and that any necessary emoting had best be, if possible, in disguise. Maybe that's why I have always loved music, why I have always sung. That's a safe sort of emoting, especially if your favourite kind of singing is Tudor-era Anglican chant (and madrigals, which, as Anna Russell said, are very square indeed).

Poetry, then, is my attempt to find my way out of that box I constructed for myself a long time ago. It is my way of stepping out of the safe zone. I have always written poems, but I have seldom shown them to anyone else. Posting poems on the internet is a Giant Step out of that safe zone, because once they're out in cyberspace, I can't change my mind. The same applies, of course, to this story.

Thank you, René, for your thought-provoking post. I'll stop talking now, before I end up writhing on the floor. I'll leave you with a bit of the Divine Miss M's work (no writhing):


Tracy said...

What a thoughtful much here, thank you for sharing! The writing of poetry is a vulnerable thing, I think. So much can be expressed and exposes in but a few line of poetry. Even self indulgent poems are part of artistic development though. :o) Great to catch up on your recent posts. I'm just back from a two-week trip...good to be in blogland again!

John Hayes said...

Really great post-- I liked "Benign Neglect" quite a lot by the way.

It seems to me that one can level the charge of self-indulgence to a great deal of art-- I certainly could to my poetry as well, which always is very "personal" & examines my emotions. But I think more than self-indulgence, it's about connection & communication-- & your writing, both prose & poetry-- does this.

I also grew up in a household where strong & even violent emotions "erupted" on a regular basis, & my struggle with the consequences of this has had a great deal to do with my writing.

Thanks for sharing this-- I'll be posting my response to you & René on Saturday.

kimmirich said...

A meaningful and well written post!

This: "Poetry, then, is my attempt to find my way out of that box I constructed for myself a long time ago. It is my way of stepping out of the safe zone."

How true for so many, but I've never heard it said so beautifully!

René Wing said...

Thank you Sandra, I thoroughly enjoyed that post (and the tea poem, as I sip my tea:). I am surprised to hear that you didn't consider yourself to have much of a relationship to poetry (maybe until now). You have such a facility with words. I think you are just a natural. And being able to come at emotion a little roundabout can be a great advantage in writing. But you raise such an important point there, the feelings. And how we handle, feel, express, or avoid them. No wonder writing, or not writing poetry is such a big deal for so many. We could talk quite a bit about that! sometimes I wish we could all just sit down and have a cuppa tea.

Loved the video of the Divine Miss M. Isn't it wonderful when someone can go over the top while keeping their feet on the ground?

Here's one of my favorites: Mary J. Blige performing No More Drama at the Grammy's.

(Sorry, I'm not sure how to embed a link in a comment, but it's worth a copy and paste if you like soul and yes, some drama. :)

Sandra Leigh said...

Tracy - Welcome home (Isn't the internet great? Here I sit in Canada, welcoming you home to Norway.)I think all writing is risky, as it is all self-revealing, but with poetry there are no characters to hide behind. It's just you.

John, thank you, especially for your comment about connection and communication. That is what writing it all about, and I think it may be what life is all about.

Kimmi, thank you for your supportive words. It's so good to see you back from your travels.

René, I would love to take you up on that cup of tea. I can't remember where you are. California, maybe? If so, next time I'm headed south, we should try to arrange it. Oh - and I watched the video. Wow. Very powerful performance - and yes, it still made me squirm a little. ;>)

♥ Braja said...

Nice to meet you Sandra Leigh; and I loved this post...I'm just about to leave, it's 5am here....see you again soon...

Poetikat said...

"No, not just me, but isn't it all about me?" (I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way--I often think I mention (see, I'M doing it now!) myself far too often. Funny thing is, in person, I'm the most unassuming, nay meekest type you could meet - at least with strangers.

I thought Benign Neglect was utterly charming. So many phrases were so skilfull (that doesn't look right).

I really must practice more of that pseudo-synesthesia.

The memoir will wonderful if it's all like this.


Sandra Leigh said...

Hi, Braja - thanks for stopping by on your way to Calcutta. Get well soon.

Kat - Thank you. Hmmm. I checked Skilful or Skillful (chiefly Brit.)If you stare at them long enough, they all look right, and they all look wrong. ;>)

Pseudo-synesthesia? I like that. It's a mouthful, but it works.

The memoir has been in a state of half-finishedness for about two years now. I really must get busy at it. I'll be visiting my older sister in about six weeks. That's likely a good time to work on it. We can brainstorm.

SandyCarlson said...

I enjoyed your poem very much, and I am glad you joined us at OSI. Come back!

Sandra Leigh said...

Thank you, Sandy. The Web is so full of a number of things...

Mairi said...

I've just started reading Mary Kinzie's "The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose" and she says, in her introduction, something that resonates with your attempt to find your way out of your box. "As far as I have been able to see, there is no theory apart from practice in the task of soul-making to which the poet is called." It's one very sharp box cutter you've called to your aid. Thanks for sharing your introduction to it.

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