“I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life.”
Christian Wiman, “Filthy Lucre,” collected in Ambition and Survival, p28-29
I haven’t yet dived back into these essays today. There were other things-to-do, “frogs” if you will, to be tackled while I had screwed my guilt to the sticking point. There was the virtuous act of letting B hone her Poké-Go skills and/while eating lunch out. Writing this post, as well—I paused last night at page 142, well past the above, so for a whole day I’ve been relishing my plan to share this quote with you. And to take it apart!
“Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world […] doesn’t recognize as discipline.” Right there, I did back-flips. As you may have noticed, I have been struggling with this ‘indolence v. work’ tension since I again became writing-primary last January. (Not the recent acedia; that’s qualitatively different and I promise I’ll talk more about that later.) I can tell you my tongue-tied understanding that poetry requires what I generally refer to as “clear space,” what I think Wiman refers to as “dead time.” But all along I’ve been wrestling with time (like Jacob with the angel) in order to pin its shoulders and get it to cough up some poems. Maybe professional poem-time is this kind of sitting, maybe it’s that kind of sitting…maybe I’ll stab my leg with a pencil if I sit still here any longer?
Not stillness. INDOLENCE.
When I think of indolence, I think of a certain approach to non-committal doing.
Not merely waiting. Not the defined task of generating words on a daily basis; oddly enough, that’s an orthogonal activity. Sure, my indolence frequently involves reading vast quantities of genre fiction, an activity that correlates poorly with poem-making. But my indolence could involve cleaning the pantry (because that never really needs to be done but does look nice later) or rambling in the woods. I am suspecting that Julia Cameron’s artist dates are a certain kind of indolence; I can confirm that several of her suggested field trips spawned some pleasing poems.
When I first snagged on this quote, I hummed with recognition because Wiman used the word “discipline”… I hummed at the affirmation that there is a kind of discipline to this unstructured, “dead time” life. My Calvinist upbringing hadn’t believed it until someone else said it.
But I think my deeper hum belongs to “indolence.” I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned how antsy I get sitting in front of a blank <something> waiting for words to come. And how bitter I become when I generate poems for the sake of poem-generation…it’s seldom that I gain any satisfaction from writing exercises when I’m not in a class (or in an exploratory mood). The modes of writerly discipline I’ve been taught are not my disciplines. So now what?!
More than a year ago, I had a very visual dream. At its core, a large bronze toad—all pop-eyes and bumps—grinned open-mouthed, so you could see flames licking upward from within its belly and sparks escaping into the air. A brazier of sorts, but a living one.
I knew this toad was my artistic heart. I realized I had to feed its flame. But I didn’t know what it ate.
I now think that it eats, in part, indolence. Not stillness, but indolence. “[H]ours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry” but hours that also strike sparks. Hours that include fuel, and heat, and air.
This may not get me any ‘forwarder’ than I was before. But I feel more grounded!