Startled, stunned, surprised… stopped in midair by a poem! I never tire of that feeling and I especially love seeing others stealthfully confronted by a powerful piece of language. I’ve delighted in seeing so many people over the years, who have been deeply moved by just the right poem at the just the right moment in their life. People plunged into states of sublime captivation. Transfixed by simple sequences of words read or spoken. It can happen slowly over time or quickly in an instant. BAM! I crave the experience.
Yes, of course, these feelings art provides are subjective. And our taste and appetites for language will differ. We are not machines after all. But still, over the years, I’ve noticed certain portable principles that can be quite helpful for spotting and even seeking out this kind of language, if we care and if we dare!
Working one-on-one, in classrooms and with audiences I’ve discovered that when a captivating poem grabs us, we can feel as if the poem were coming from inside our own body. Suddenly we know things we didn’t know we knew. We see old things new. We develop new hungers, quests, and questions. Questions derived from the poems that begin to burn in the back of our minds, demanding answers.
Captivating poems, like serious jokes, often give us that jolt of surprise on the way to delighting and informing us. They help us remember who we are. They catch us being real. They grab us by our unconscious beliefs and assumptions, holding them up to the light, asking is this who we really are? Here’s how they roll in 3 powerful ways:
1.) First, they give us uncommon access to our interior selves. Captivating poems shine their light on critical beliefs and assumptions, often dipping into our unconscious realms where our mind reflects and makes up the world. It’s these very perspectives about the way we and the world are that so often become our blind spots. The right poem lights up our interior. It allows us the sheer joy, delight and sometimes shock of the instantaneous ah-ha moment!
2.) Second, after providing access to the truth of our interior selves, a captivating pemican then support us in reassessing what we may want to be true instead. It allows us to identify the kinds of beliefs, assumptions, and values we may want and need to adopt in order to realize a new perspective and ultimately actualize our larger dreams and visions.
3.) Third, after the critical steps of providing access and helping us reassess, a captivating poem can commence in helping us take one critical step at a time in order to actually change our selves and our lives.
Think of this as the “ARC” (Access | Reassess | Change) process of a captivating poem. I first noticed this process years ago. I was away from home, weary from a long stressful drive, sitting in a historic public hall in a California hill town. That night I would hear and feel the full weight of words I had never experienced before. These are just some of the words I heard that night that changed the ARC of my life.
My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men. Look at / what passes for the new. / You will not find it there but in / despised poems. / It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.
Hearing these words, I thought who could say such an absurd thing? Who could assign poetry this kind of critical and central role in our lives? Are you kidding I said to myself? Poetry? To say I was skeptical is a massive understatement.
But still, I couldn’t deny my interest and surprise at hearing these few strange lines from a much longer poem called Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, by poet, William Carlos Williams. I could not deny that something had been touched inside me. I could not deny that my perceptions, beliefs, and assumptions about the power of language had been exposed to something very new, which would forever alter them.
Soon to follow the change of my perceptions and beliefs was my heart and then my feet. Since that time, poetry has remained a passion for all these 25 plus years. Why? Because of its strange, exciting, surprising and yes, the captivatingpowers.
And again, it’s true there is a unique subjective experience at the heart of any captivating poem. Perhaps the Williams poem that blew me away all those years ago, is only mildly compelling to you, or perhaps not at all.
Still, my experience working with thousands of people by now and with an untold number of poems is that most people (if they’re exposed to the right poems) will find their own captivating lines. And on that subject, it’s important to realize that many captivating poems are not poems at all, at least not in a formal sense. In this, I agree with poet, William Stafford that a poem can be any language read or heard that causes us to stop what we are doing and simply pay attention.
So for example, try out any of these few brief lines below for yourself. Some are poem excerpts others are aphorisms. Of course, when it comes to poetry, we often need a full dose of the entire poem. But still I want to offer you some brief nibbles. Will these words captivate you? I don’t know. They may feel subtle at first, then sink in deeper over time. I hope they send you searching for the whole poem. No need to force anything, other than simply reading and being ready for what naturally occurs. It may help their impact if you read the quoted lines slowly and out loud.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. (When Rumi speaks, where do you go?)
Not seen, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness/ Between two waves of the sea. / Quick now, here, now, always / A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything) (What is complete simplicity? We don’t know exactly, but it sure seems appealing at times. For me, T.S. Eliot is describing something in these few lines that I’ve never been able to shake.)
Don’t give it away… give it back. (Yes, the subject is wealth. When I first read this aphorism by poet, William Stafford, it definitely captured my attention. Have we entered the last stages of our current economic system? Eight people now have the equivalent wealth of the bottom half of the planet’s population. Is that sustainable? Might we look to fairness to help us design our economy?)
Stand still. The forest knows / Where you are. You must let it find you. (These last 14 words of David Wagoner’s famous poem called Lost, has forever made different my experience inside any forest. Let’s add “word bathing” to our “forest bathing.”)
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul. (Do these words by Pablo Neruda upend any of your habits or beliefs? These words make me want to experience that secret place with my sweetheart.)
For it is important that awake people be awake, / or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; (After reading this quote from William Stafford’s famous poem called A Ritual To Read For Each Other, it is awfully hard not to take seriously our responsibility to all our fellow citizens. We must stay awake ourselves and do our best to help others stay awake as well. Now in 2019 more than ever!)
Writing a poem is easy, like swimming into a fish trap. Analyzing a poem is hard, like swimming out of a fish trap. (William Stafford said this and I believe it. Any of us can feel at home with language, either writing or reading it, if we simply respond as we naturally will and forget about any need or “shoulds” concerning analysis or the correct and prescribed reaction.)
Yes, of course, I hope you’ve been captivated by some of the words you have found here. I hope a little opening has happened for you. I hope one of these little ditties caused you to lean back, look inside yourself and wonder about something real. Yes, I hope you felt a little BAM!