Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The most mysterious rest

Peter mentioned the new journal Rock & Sling , and I wasn't going to bother looking since it's billed as a Christian-ish journal and, well, I'm not one of those. But I looked anyway, and I'm glad I did because it looks quite interesting (and I do deal with spirituality in my work sometimes, even borrowing from Christian imagery occasionally, so I just might have something to send them). But mostly, I just wanted to share this excerpt from an excerpt from an interview they did with Li-Young Lee -- something about this paragraph just made me stop in my tracks:
I feel as if this whole idea of the Sabbath, and the idea of rest, is built into poetry. The greatest Sabbath, the greatest peace, and the most mysterious rest that we can find in language is the rest at the end of a line; that pause at the end of a line is the most mysterious rest, or the most mysterious peace, or Sabbath, in the world. It’s all about the pauses, and it’s all about the rests. When we write poems, that’s what we’re working with, that’s the real medium, the rests between words, between two lines, between stanzas. All those rests, I feel like those are versions of Sabbath. By rest, I don’t mean flaccid rest, something dead, but I mean something that is very full, full of meaning, and full of decision. I’m thinking now of between words and at the ends of lines in poems that go anywhere, so it’s full of myriad directions and surprise and at the same time, resolution, and fullness, and emptiness, and, on the one hand, it’s full of expectation. So it’s full of Parousia. Full of waiting, on the one hand, and full of deep answering. And so I feel as if, when we write poems and we wrestle with line endings, we’re wrestling with spiritual matters.

This is an entirely new way of thinking about lines and line breaks for me, and it's blowing my mind just a tiny little bit. (And interestingly enough, Li-Young Lee is coming here to read in a couple of weeks, so now I have a bit of something extra to listen for in his reading.)

When I took modern dance, lo these many years ago, there was a position my teacher called "constructive rest." It was a position of controlled relaxation, with limbs placed in positions where the pull of gravity would train them into good habits and work to stretch and limber them.

I think that periods of not-writing can, if you do it with thoughtful attention, serve as "constructive rest" too, and can be "full of meaning, and full of decision" as Lee says. What I love about what he says here is incorporating the idea of mystery -- which, when I took a workshop with Lucia Perillo a couple of years ago, was an idea she kept returning to and felt like something I needed to pay attention to. I once knew someone who was a new-age/psychic/spiritual worker, and she conducted a series of workshops called "Mystery School" -- and though I wasn't drawn to her particular spiritual path, I always have liked the idea of "mystery" in its religious or spiritual significance. Especially, I like the idea of accepting mystery, embracing the questions that can never be answered, embracing the very answerlessness of them. (My god, is that a word?)

But thinking about all this specifically in connection with the line-break ... thinking of the line-break as a measurable unit of not-writing, of constructive rest, of mystery and readiness -- a moment filled simultaneously with the mystery of silence and the intentionality of the poem.

And, of course, there is the rest in music as well, which is an essential part of the language of rhythm and time. Rhythm, like the heartbeat; and time, like mortality. And we're back to spirituality again.

I swear I'm not a religious woman, but my poetry sometimes feels it necessary to contradict me.


Peter said...

Wow, Anne: Fascinating take on this. I'm glad you looked further into it.

Peter said...

"when we write poems and we wrestle with line endings, we’re wrestling with spiritual matters."
this line especially blows me away, too.

Anne said...

People talk about spirituality in poetry all the time, but they're usually referring to the content -- the idea that spirituality is expressed in the craft of the poem, in the line breaks, the very bones of the thing, is just -- well, it's giving me one of those "light bulb goes on over the head" experiences.

There's something here that goes to the heart of what it means to create, I think.

Pamela said...

When Lee writes, "And so I feel as if, when we write poems and we wrestle with line endings, we’re wrestling with spiritual matters," I cannot help thinking about Jacob grappling with God, and how whenever we write, we're expressing that dichotomy, self wrestling the divine. Hopkins and Dickinson have different takes on this in their poetry, and I think it's pretty fascinating how they diverge there.

Thanks for such a fascinating post and for making me think.

Kells said...


Oh, I'd love to see Li-Young Lee read again. He is incredible & a favorite of mine. Please give a full account of his reading. I'll live vicariously through you.


Emily Lloyd said...

Anne, thanks so much for this post--this is fascinating, and while I know I would have looked into the journal eventually, you sped me there. Now I feel all tingly and charged, wanna go break some lines...

Anne said...

Thanks, all. I sent in a subscription to Rock & Sling today so I can read the whole interview. (More reading material in my house -- Peter, it's all your fault!) I'll have to go back and read the Jacob-grappling-with-God story ... I may feel woefully underread in poetry, but when it comes to the Bible, I'm practically illiterate. I sure do like that tension of the mortal grappling with the divine, though.

Kelli, I'll for sure post about Lee's reading! He was here this past summer for the IU Writers' Conference and I heard him read then, so I know I have something good to look forward to.