I came across a beautiful poem today by Paublo Neruda that felt deeply resonant with my own path as a poet. I've included the poem at the end of this piece, but wanted to preface it by sharing a bit about my own somewhat unorthodox path and journey as a poet.
The topic seemed timely, as I recently had one of my poems, The Test of Human Existence, published online by Shambhala Publications for their project featuring dharma youths. This was quite big for me, as it was one of the first times I'd ever submitted my poetry for publication.
Publishing this poem with Shambhala, as well as posting some of my other poetry writing on my website has been part of an intimate "coming out" into the public sphere for me and my poetic muse over the last six months.
Although I've published many articles, I've kept my poetry much more private over the years. I've always held my poetry with much more tenderness than I have any of my other writing. I've never been a professional poet in the technical sense of the word, which is probably partly why I've been more shy about sharing it.
Yet, it has felt important to bring more of my poetics into the public because the act of writing poetry has offered me one of the most powerful outlets for unearthing new forms of aesthetic appreciation that have allowed me to dig deep below the surface of conventional definitions and breathe creative life into my perception of beauty within myself and the world around me.
I wrote my first poem when I was 16 years old. At that time, I had not read much poetry and had never been inclined to ever write any myself. It was that year that one of my male friends was killed in a fierce head-on collision with a semi truck.
Robin had barely turned 16 at the time of his accident. He was riding his bike through an intersection and made the fatal decision to run a red light. The driver of the semi truck didn't see him coming and hit him from the side with a force that sent Robin's body hurtling across the intersection. After a few agonizing minutes, Robin died on the road in the arms of a woman who had witnessed the collision from her car and ran out to help him.
Robin and I had never been particularly close. We were drinking buddies, and at one point had been close to hooking up as girlfriend and boyfriend, but we never ended up getting serious. Yet his death still stunned me in a way that was hard to explain at the time. It provoked an existential jolt that knocked me out of some kind of slumber I had been in. Robin's gruesome ending confronted me in a way that suddenly threw up a sea of new questions about my life. It rattled me to my core. I was no longer immortal.
I didn't have much reference at the time to make sense of what I was feeling, and for some reason my response was simply to just pick up a pen and start writing. And thus, my first poem was born.
Of course, that first poem was a pretty shitty poem, but the process of merely writing it opened up something for me. It gave me some needed outlet for my existential angst and a way to hold the unanswerable questions that I was carrying. Thus, I found myself compelled to continue writing, no matter how shitty my poems were.
Around four months after Robin's death, one of my best friend's mother was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of cancer, contracted through exposure to an odd toxin in the environment. Within six months of Shirley's diagnoses, she was dead.
In that period of six months, I watched Shirley go from a glowing, thriving and loving mother, to a very sick and disfigured woman barely hanging on for life.
Around two months before Shirley died, she took the initiative to plan her own funeral. She approached me at the time, and knowing that poetry had become one of my new experimental pastimes she asked me if I would write a poem to read at her funeral. I agreed.
I loved Shirley like a second mother in my early years. I had known and been close with her family since I was 11 years old. Thus, her death on top of Robin's threw an even deeper existential wrench into my soul at the time, and more poetry flowed forth from that opening...
I've continued writing poetry ever since, and it has supported me through some of my hardest times and through some of my deepest personal and spiritual trials. My poetry has helped me hold paradox, contradiction and mystery in a way that rationality never could. It has helped me process the indescribable, and it has helped me create beauty out of the depths of darkness, pain and loss.
Poetry has been my quiet and humble redeemer, and it has also taught me that there is nothing that art can't hold, no matter how dark.
I've still never taken a poetry class, and I've never learned the rules of poetry writing. Maybe someday I will. For now, I enjoy it as a free and unencumbered movement within me. Like waves that come and go. Sometimes I write two poems in a month, sometimes I don't write even one poem in two years. I've always found that poetry has its own life through me, and I've watched my own relationship and dance with my poetic muse develop and mature over time.
I have no idea where my poetry will go in future, but I revel in the mystery of the process itself.
For the person who feels called to sit down and try writing a poem, I would simply encourage you to take the risk. Let your first poem be absolute shit. Hell, let your first 50 poems be absolute shit. Keep writing. Read the great poets for inspiration. Drive fiercely into the depths of your own existential questions, your darkest shadows, your inner contradictions and your yearnings for beauty. Keep writing. Your muse will find you, likely when you least expect it.
In closing, I share this poem by Pablo Neruda as a tribute to all poets, both the great literary giants, and to the amateur 16 year old who doesn't even yet know what they are trying to express but still feels compelled to pick up that pen and write...
And it was at that age... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the brances of night,
abrubtly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.
-- Pablo Neruda