In a letter about his poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", which can be found here, Wallace Stevens writes that the poem “is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or ideas, but of sensations.”
The poem is made of up thirteen stanzas—thirteen sensations—each marked by a Roman numeral. Each stanza has the word blackbird in it.
I like the second stanza. Number II:
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
I also like the ninth. Number IX:
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
I like the way that each way of looking at a blackbird is distinct and complete unto itself.
I like the sense in the poem of worlds beyond the landscape of the poem itself—a blackbird marking the edge of one of many circles.
In his book, Writing With Power, Peter Elbow, who is also the author of Writing Without Teachers, suggests a writing exercise in which one follows Wallace Stevens’ example and writes a poem “that looks at or talks about the same thing over and over again.”
Elbow writes [p. 112] of how he did this himself with a cherry tree—looked at it in different ways and made this discovery:
I see now that it is about missing the house on Percival Street where we used to live. . . If I had tried to write a poem about missing that house, it probably would have been terrible. Being stuck with having to write tiny stanzas about that cherry tree did it for me.
The cherry tree gave him a way in to writing what he wanted to write—perhaps to what he was longing to write.
The thirteen ways gave him a way in.
Gave him more than one way in.
I tried this exercise once with a writing workshop I was teaching to women with cancer. I told the women they could choose to write thirteen ways about anything at all and they chose to write about cancer. They wrote as a group, taking turns, the stanzas coming fast, one after the other. They actually ended up writing sixteen ways of looking at cancer. Then one of the women who had been absent came the next week and she added two more ways and they ended up with a poem, “Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.”
What I noticed in that workshop when the women were writing those different ways was that knowing they were writing a lot of different ways had a freeing effect. They weren’t writing the only word on cancer—the last word on cancer. They were just writing one way of looking at cancer, and then another, and then another.
You could try it if you wanted. You could become one of the ones looking. You could write seven ways or sixteen ways or eighteen ways of looking at . . . what?
EIGHTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT CANCER
by Eleanor, Louise, Lydia, Nell, Rosetta and Sandra
I love my mother, my brother and my grandmother
But I’m not ready to go and be with them yet
What about my three children?
How are we going to proceed?
What is my chance of recurrence?
How did this happen to me?
Why am I even in this picture?
A lot of people think, “Why me?”
I never did go through, “Why me?”
Pure and simple fear
Fear of what?
Pure and simple fear of pain
Fear of the next thing, and the next
Sometimes you don’t recognize when you’re depressed.
There are some days when you just don’t want to talk on the phone.
I felt like a marionette
My strings being pulled in every direction
They want me to have this scan, and this test,
And this bloodwork.
Where do you want me now?
I left my body and the treatment
And the doctors--
I left them to the guidance of God
The whirlwind, the disruption
The chaos it created in everyone else’s life—
My husband’s, my three sons, their families, my friends, and mine.
Like a tornado had come through
It kept getting bigger
When is this going to end?
Where is the end?
Lost in this never-ending struggle or tunnel
The struggle is the tunnel
On and on
I want to say something about sickness
Not being able to keep anything down
Sickness on top of sickness
Complications of a weakened immune system
So much information
Overwhelmed with information
Three bulging grocery bags
(And you’re sick. When can you read?)
What’s a good night’s sleep?
Waking up exhausted
The lack of energy is indescribable
And more burning
So tired doing basic things
Will I ever be normal again?
With all of that you have to deal with generalizations
“Oh, you still have your hair?”
Other people’s insensitivities:
“We’re not talking about cancer.”
Other people’s kindnesses:
A bag of tomatoes
A rotisserie chicken.
[This piece was written at Cancer Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at a writing and healing workshop in 2004.]
Purple tulips in the window
A photograph of purple tulips in the window
A woman whose daughter has died, sixteen years ago, and, still, the grief, it catches her unaware—that raw fresh ache. This is more frequent in January. How do you do it? I ask her. I really want to know, how does she do it. I picture her getting up every morning, making breakfast, walking the dog—it’s wet some days and cold—and then there’s all that has to be done next. How do you do it? She says she knows that she will see her again. When she dies she will see her daughter again. She tells me this as if it is the most obvious thing.
Remembering to refill the bird feeders on a winter afternoon and then looking out the kitchen window—finches—swooping in to the feeder as if to some busy midtown diner, where inside it’s warm, there’s a waitress inside refilling coffee, and voices, that sound of forks against plates.
One of three places that I've come across Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, in the last month or so was as a kind of epigraph—before the table of contents—to the poetry anthology, Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley. The anthology, first published in Britain, is one I would recommend, and I’ll probably get around to writing about it more here on this site one of these days. Meanwhile, today, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular poem that I found in the anthology—a poem called “Sweetness,” by Stephen Dunn.
The poem is freely available on the web, this because of a project--Poetry Out Loud--which encourages high school students to memorize and recite poetry.
The poem can be found here.
(Incidentally, if you want to browse the poetry on their site you can click here. They have a fairly extensive online collection---)
But back to the poem, Sweetness—the first seven lines—
Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it. . .
The poem makes me think, among other things, of that bag of tomatoes and that rotisserie chicken in Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer. But any way you look at it, I think maybe he’s onto something-----
In his most recent book, Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene, a physicist with a particular gift for translating physics into plain language, tells about a game he used to play with his father, walking through the streets of Manhattan. It’s a game that may have uniquely prepared him to be a physicist, a game that involves shifting perspective. It’s also, I think, a potentially wonderful game for a writer—or for someone who is interested in looking at something—anything—in a new way. It’s like playing “I Spy”, but with a twist. In this game Brian Greene or his father would spy an object on the street, describe it from an unusual perspective, and then the other one had to figure out what was being described. For example, this from Greene’s book: “‘I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky.’”
An ant walking on a hot dog while a street vendor is dressing it with sauerkraut.
You can probably think of other examples.
Here’s one: I am repeatedly diving into a hard invisible barrier while an enormous four-legged white creature chases after me and makes high-pitched sounds.
(That’s a fly at the window while our dog—a whippet—tries to catch it.)
Greene says this game did two things for him. It not only stretched his brain to consider different viewpoints. But it also led him to consider each of these viewpoints as potentially valid.
Here’s another example: an ant resting on an ice-skater’s boot. To a spectator in the stands, it appears as if the ice skater, along with her boot, is spinning. But what about to the ant? And which point of view is more valid in regards to absolute space?
This is the kind of question that can give me a bit of a headache. It’s also the kind of question—having to do with motion and relative motion and absolute space—that physicists wrestled with in the early part of the twentieth century. And the key to beginning to resolve this kind of question, according to Greene, had everything to do with being able to ask a new question: what if? What if the way we’re looking at things now is not the only way to look? What if we look at things from a different perspective? And what if this new perspective is potentially valid?
I’d never thought about it in quite this way before, but this, Greene says, is what Einstein did. Einstein asked, What if? And he came up, among other things, with the special theory of relativity, which says, according to Greene, that space and time are “in the eyes of the beholder.” Einstein didn’t so much answer the pressing physical questions of his time, Greene says. He reframed them. And Greene describes reframing like this. p. 39:
Some discoveries provide answers to questions. Other discoveries are so deep that they cast questions in a whole new light, showing that previous mysteries were misperceived through lack of knowledge. You could spend a lifetime—in antiquity, some did—wondering what happens when you reach earth’s edge, or trying to figure out who or what lives on the earth’s underbelly. But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.
But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.
I have this inkling that sometimes, for some people, healing is like that.
There’s a poem by e.e.cummings—“who knows if the moon’s a balloon”
It begins like this:
who knows if the moon's
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky--
The poem can serve as a kind of springboard for making a list of questions that begin by asking: WHAT IF?
What if the moon’s a balloon?
What if the balloon pops?
What if the moon is a hot-air balloon and the Wizard of Oz gets into the balloon and floats away, and all of this before you can get into the balloon with him, and you have to find your way back home on your own?
What if. . . what?
Consider making your own list of questions. Write as fast as you can without thinking. Begin with a single question—with e.e. cumming’s question if you like—and then just keep going. Don’t worry about the questions making sense—or the questions being clever—or even interesting. Just write them. Try to write fast without thinking too much.
When you have come to the end of something—a pause—look back over the questions you’ve written. Circle the ones that you like--or that surprise you in some way. Save the questions—especially the circled ones. Who knows? One of them could become the beginning to a poem—or to some other whole new piece.
The thread this week (which, again, may or may not be apparent) is how looking at something in a different way can shift things. And perhaps one of the clearest instances I’ve seen of this shift happened with Emily, a young woman with anorexia who I’ve written about here before. She had severe anorexia, weighed only fifty-two pounds when I began seeing her. And she had, when I first began to see her, a definite point of view toward her body. She viewed her body as the problem—disgusting actually—a stance that only became accentuated after a meal. Her stomach would protrude a bit after a meal—and she would see and feel this protrusion as disgusting.
The body was seen as the problem. The body, in her point of view, was disgusting.
And the antidote?
It began with horses. Or some part of the antidote began with horses. Horses helped her reframe the story of her own body.
It started like this. Emily began to imagine a safe place where she could experience healing. She imagined herself at a barn among horses. Then, with time—and this was a surprise to me—something I didn’t foresee—she began to realize that it was easier to have a stomach when she imagined herself being around the horses. She felt freer among the horses. She felt free to eat a meal and have a small pouch of a stomach afterward. She didn’t feel so disgusted by her own stomach—so disgusted by her own body. And all of this had something to do with the fact that she felt the horses weren’t judging her. It had something to do with taking a respite, for a while, from human eyes.
It wasn’t that all human eyes that looked at her body looked upon it with judgment—but some did—and some had in the past. She’d had some shaming experiences as a child and into her teen years. And, perhaps because of this history, it seemed, at least for the time being, all human eyes were suspect. All human eyes put her at risk.
But the horses’ eyes. She felt safer with them.
This went on for a while, imagining herself at the barn among the horses. And as she practiced imagining herself the way the horses saw her she began to imagine that her pouch of a stomach could be a kind of pregnancy. The pouch she’d once perceived as ugly and shameful began to transform when she began to see it from a new point of view. She didn’t think she was literally pregnant. It wasn’t delusional like that. It was subtler, and more in the imaginal realm. She told me that she could sometimes hold onto the thought that the pouch of her stomach was a pregnancy, and inside it she was carrying some new kind of life, and, sometimes, she told me, this made her feel something like hope.
A pregnancy. New life.
She was beginning to imagine her body as nurturing—as potentially good. And it was one of those moments—I can remember thinking this—it was a moment that had the potential to change things. If the body is potentially good, then maybe, just maybe, it would be okay to nourish that body, to feed it, to offer it sustenance.
The moment, if truth be told, was just a glimpse really. The glimpse came and it went. But it also held this potentially life-altering point of view: the body as good.
And it began, like Einstein began, with the question of what if. What if things are not the way that they seem to be, or not only the way that they seem to be? What if the way one has tended to look at the world—and one’s body—is not the only way to see it? What happens if the frame of reference gets shifted?
And what might happen if one were able to do this in writing?
Just over forty years ago—on February 13 and 14 of 1962—John Steinbeck wrote some advice about writing to Robert Wallsten (a man who, it turns out, is one of the editors of Steinbeck’s letters).
Steinbeck prefaced his advice on writing this way:
Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
One piece of his advice seems especially relevant here to this notion of perspective—the possibility of reframing our stories (and perhaps our bodies? our lives?) in a clearer and somewhat kinder light.
That possibility of looking at our stories in new ways—
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.
It’s sound advice, I think. It also leads quite naturally to a couple of questions:
What does the nameless, faceless audience look like?
What does your nameless, faceless audience look like?
And say that you could address your writing to one particular person—any person in the world—alive or dead—real or imagined—who would you pick?
[Note: I found the above quotes by Steinbeck in Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others, p. 144.]
Peter Elbow, in his book, Writing With Power, makes a distinction between safe audiences and dangerous audiences. He proposes that we write more authentically when we’re writing for audiences that feel safe.
He writes [p. 186]:
First, a dangerous audience can inhibit not only the quantity of your words but also their quality. That is, if you are trying to talk to a dangerous audience, instead of finding yourself mixed up or tongue-tied or unable to think of anything to say [which, of course, can happen], you may find yourself chattering away nervously, unable to stop but also unable to say anything important. If, for example, I have to speak to a person or group that I find difficult, I might adopt a voice that hides my real voice and speak with, say, a tinny jolliness or an inauthentic pompousness. If, by contrast, I am with someone I trust, I may say less than usual but talk from my depths—
I may say less than usual but talk from my depths.
Maybe that’s how we begin to suspect we’re in the presence of a safe audience—when we find ourselves speaking from some depth. Maybe we only recognize a safe audience after the fact—when we realize what kind of writing or speech has become possible in its presence.
Elbow also makes a distinction between an actual audience—a person or group we know will actually be reading what we write—and the imagined audience—that audience that we carry around inside our heads, the one we tend to assemble from all our past experiences of speaking and writing.
Say it happens one morning—or perhaps it’s evening—say that we find ourselves writing something true—something that feels authentic. Say we write something that we didn’t even know that we knew, but then, after we write it, the words feel like they have this ring of truth. What has allowed those particular words to emerge? What does the audience for those words have to do with it? How much of it has to do with the outer audience? How much of it has to do with the inner audience?
More questions here than answers-----
Does the inner assembled audience change with time?
And what kinds of things cause it to change?
And does this inner assembled audience have anything to do with healing?
A patient helped me discover this writing idea. She uses imagery to help manage chronic pain. And one of the images she’s found helpful recently is to imagine that she’s falling asleep on a train and as she’s falling asleep she can hear the sound of the wheels on the tracks and the sound is very soothing and she’s lying very still—on a clean soft pillow—clean sheets--and she can look outside the window at the landscape if she wants—or not—and all the time she’s being carried to a place where the pain is becoming less and less and less.
One of the things she’s discovered as this train imagery has developed is that she can decide who to bring on the train. She can decide who to have outside her compartment, riding on the train with her—and she can decide who to invite inside her compartment—and when. She can decide who she’d like to have for company. She can decide who she might want to have available if something should happen—say if the pain becomes worse.
She can bring a person along on the train, for instance, who knows about massage. She can bring a friend—or a nurse. She can bring someone who plays music. She can bring someone who knows how to listen. She can bring someone who is simply good company. She can bring along a dozen people—or one—or none. But in any case she gets to decide, in this imagery, who to bring on the train.
And it occurred to me that this image could be translated as an idea for writing.
Say that you are beginning to write. Say that you have decided to do a year of writing and healing—or a month of writing and healing—or fifteen minutes of writing and healing. Say that you imagine that as you begin this writing—this writing project—say that you are boarding a train. And say then that you get to decide who will be riding this train with you. And say that it can be anyone at all—persons living or dead—persons real or imagined—some persons perhaps that you’ve only read about in books or some persons perhaps that you’ve conjured in your imagination.
Who would you like to bring on the train?
One of the first writing workshops I ever took—this at the University of Missouri in Columbia—was taught by Janet Desaulniers, a woman who I’ve written about here before. One evening she began class by reading to us an extended passage from a J.D. Salinger story. The workshop was a fiction-writing workshop. She’d been reading our stories for weeks. And she prefaced these pages by Salinger by telling us that she sometimes felt a lot of responsibility, knowing that, at least for some of us, she was our first reader. She took this seriously—being a reader. It was one of the things that made her a good teacher.
The passage she read was from, “Seymour, an Introduction,” this one in a series of stories that Salinger wrote about the Glass family. In this particular story, Buddy Glass, a writer, is telling about his older brother, Seymour, a young man whom he idolized and who is now dead. In the passage she read to us Buddy Glass is telling about a time when he was twenty-one years old and living with his brother, and had the habit of reading his stories aloud to him. And Seymour would then write responses to these stories, lengthy responses, sometimes writing them on shirt cardboards, or on whatever he could find at hand. Here is one particular memo, this written by Seymour on notepaper from the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago and placed on Buddy’s breakfast plate beneath a half a grapefruit.
It’s daylight out, and I’ve been sitting here since you went to bed. What bliss it is to be your first reader. It would be straight bliss if I didn’t think you valued my opinion more than your own. It really doesn’t seem right to me that you should rely so heavily on my opinion of your stories. That is, you. . . . You must know yourself that this story is full of big jumps. Leaps. When you first went to bed, I thought for a while that I ought to wake up everybody in the house and throw a party for our marvelous jumping brother. What am I, that I didn’t wake everybody up? . . . Excuse this. I’m writing very fast now. I think this new story is the one you’ve been waiting for. And me, too, in a way. You know it’s mostly pride that’s keeping me up. I think that’s my main worry. For your own sake, don’t make me proud of you. I think that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. If only you’d never keep me up again out of pride. Give me a story that makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all of your stars are out, and for no other reason. Excuse the underlining, but that’s the first thing I’ve ever said about one of your stories that makes my head go up and down. Please don’t let me say anything else. . . .
I could write more here. But I’m thinking perhaps that I shouldn’t write anything else. Except perhaps to say that I think this whole notion of a first reader—and how that first reader responds—or how one imagines that this first reader might respond—has something to do with writing and healing.
It occurs to me that it might be okay to borrow Salinger’s Seymour for an idea for writing and healing. You could imagine that you write some piece of your story, and you could imagine that Seymour reads it while you are sleeping. You could imagine that when you wake in the morning there is an envelope at your breakfast plate. You open the envelope. Inside is a memo. Inside he has written—what? That he can see the leaps in your story? That he’s seen how all your stars have come out? That he’s seen---what? What would you most long for him to say?
You could write this down--what you most long for him to say--or for someone to say. You could write this on a piece of notepaper, or on a shirt cardboard, or on a piece of hotel stationery. You could write it at night perhaps and place it on the table where you eat your breakfast. You could write it early in the morning and place it in an envelope beneath a half of a grapefruit.
And then you could read this memo with your breakfast as a way to begin your day.