Wordsworth would agree—it is poetry weather outside, the forecast of my mind is a sunny 76 degrees, with a slight breeze, but no gust strong enough to change the course of a launched Frisbee. Days like today make me happy to be a writer. It’s not always sunshine and rainbow bridges connecting me to inspiration from on high sliding down Jacob’s ladder–some days, dark clouds cover the sun and a blizzard blocks all the roads, and I am cooped up alone like one Emily Dickensen or your choice of Byron’s brooding heroes. If the weather represents the writer’s mood, then the actual process of writing the poem is more like a morning routine. This, for me, is like walking a dog—the poem tugging in the lead, I just get dragged along by a lifeforce that’s alive, alert, and sniffing.
The question is not, “when will I walk the dog?” but rather, “which dog will I walk today?” My house has become a poetry pound where dozens of stray poems come off the streets seeking refuge in my mind until I can find them a new home in another house—this time a publishing house. The stray poems follow a well-marked trail (from fire hydrants, garden gnomes, tree trunks, and yellow patches in the snow) to the house of the neighborhood poet in residence—me, a kind owner they always hope will let them inside his mental mansion, and give them a new name, feed, wash, and scratch underneath the collar with its Title and my own name on the tag. Some k-9 guests stick around no more than an hour, others weeks, and there are the few poem puppies who never seem to grow up, or leave. I don’t have the heart to kick any out because when I pass by my porch window, there is another stray poem scratching through the screen door to the glass..another stray, homeless image, outcast and whimpering and shivering in the cold.
I like mutts the most: free-verse poems; but I don’t always choose so the various breeds of poems in my house fluctuates constantly. Purebreds, are form based poems like sonnets, terza rima, ext. seem standoffish and snooty with their show-dog posture; they sit upon their small square pedestals, fearing to play with the masses that might ruffle their ribbons, so they sit with impeccable form, wagging their tales to the precession rhythms, and barking in predictable rhymes. On the other hand, the mutt is marbled in style and full of life; with these poems I can feel free wrestling them to the ground and then scratch their multicolored bellies: a free style of play, love, and tongue-lapping joy.
The backburner poems never leave the backyard of my mind, penned outside. They are the skinny ones, malnourished due to neglect. Sometimes they bark to get my attention, but when I am too preoccupied getting the kibble for the other dozen dogs, these poems begin digging in the garden, turning their noses and paws a light brown color in the flower patch. Oh, and how can I forget the barking, barking, barking up at the oak tree; there are no mental shock collars in case you were wondering, so there they go, vigilantly guarding me against the squirrels’ imminent surprise attack scheduled for two o’clock in the morning—every morning, that howling call is what forces me out of bed in the middle of the night to grab the nearest pen and pad of paper and to write.
Most poems I pick up off the street. Though its true that some just come to me in a flash ringing the front doorbell, more often then not, it is me searching them out. Once I started looking, they appear at work, in my neighborhood, .I have found a poem puppy balancing in the nest of a bewildered robin while another was at a classical concert, hired by the band for its tail as a living metronome. Golden retriever poems are most likely found hiding under the desks in my creative writing class, while the more daring ones put on a dress shirt with a yellow paisley tie and do their best to write their name on the chalk board and call the class to order. Some silently stalk me and wag their way onto the bed at the foot of the bed or coiled on a pillow. The loyal poems that silently follow and wait, are the ones which cause me to tense up or let out a scream when I find their twin-moon, reflective eyes staring at me in the dark. Some dogs scare me. I try my best to keep them stowed away in the loft but I can still hear them scratching the rafters above me, like rats in the attic.
Standing by the door I whistled and waited for the poem of the day to appear. I saw the thick furs, thick build, and droopy eyes of the St. Bernard come to greet me. My sigh was audible as I took the few steps over to the dog, recognizing that today’s walk would be a bit more of an exercise than I hoped. A St. Bernard is not like the come-when-you-call, cheerfully dumb, Labrador. The strange looking wiener-translation poem, the stubby-legged yet chipper imagist beagle, and he didn’t seem like the bloodhound or other hunting dogs who are out searching for a man paused for a moment in the New England woods on a winter evening or on a silent road somewhere picking which divergent his path to take with a sigh. The St. Bernard poem was definitely not like the tiny, feisty, one-liner chiwawas. The preachy, short-tempered terrier and the guard dog of morals, the German Sheppard, were nowhere to be seen. This thing is the power house of the poems, the Mac daddy of muscle, senses so fine he could locate and rescue a reader entombed five feet below the snow.
“Well”, I said to myself, “a jog up the canyon will be lovely today. Now let’s see if this brute will give it a go.” Well, he leashed easily enough and eagerly held his nose at the crack of the front door. All I had to do was turn the doorknob and pull inward an inch and that was enough. The poem was out to explore the brisk summer morning as mist steamed through its jaws. The sun was still behind the mountains as we began our walk and turned up the street. The idea of taking a moderately paced jog up to the mountain stream, and enjoy the seclusion and majestic beauty in the summer dawn brought a smile to my face, but the poem had other plans. Actually to say it had other plans gives the beast to much credit, a poem is clueless, but anything but senseless. It is sensefull beast of sights, smells, echoing the world and instinct. He wasn’t planning to catch the teasing whiff of another dog’s territory exhibited on the corner patch of grass; or a curious encounter with another jogger and his dog. The St. Bernard poem wasn’t planning to see Mrs. Krantz’s calico cat turn around the corner, meet eyes for a moment then bolt. Then came the chase of instinct—the trigger moment.
The frightening pulse when I wanted to continue north down the street towards the canyon but was violently and unexpectedly changed directions and paces, chasing a cat through parts of the neighborhood of my mind I have never explored. Lurching behind the St. Bernard I was the helpless passenger on a reckless train-of-thought conducted by the senseless cat that had no presubscribed vision of manifest destiny, but was instead laying the linking rail tracks yard by yard. Zigzagzagging and curving trip was full speed ahead, no stops. Scenic sights to my left and right I noticed the alley in-between Wordsworth’s and Gerard Manley Hopkin’s daisy patches bickering which is the brightest, Seamus Heaney’ blackberry patch while Billy Collins is throwing in ropes to go waterskiing. Then there was Walter and Iara from Brazil, still unpacking their coias, chimarrao, and photo albums of their family. Onward past the beautiful tour of the Milton’s hellish backyard patio, Sir Thomas More’s mansion utopia complete with pool, the St. Bernard Express steamed through the back bushes—scratching my face and knocking off my glasses.
Letting go of the leash, there I was lying facedown in the dewed grass, finally stopped. I had to feel for my glasses before I could begin to guess where I was. I had never been there before. The poem had decided to give up on the cat and started up some small talk with the garden gnomes and bunnies in the garden. Panting on the grass I realized how I had planned to hike up the mountain to see the dawn unfold upon the valley this morning, but instead I watched the dawn break over the empty lawn of a stranger’s backyard. I blamed the St. Bernard for his crazy antics and walked over to the poem fuming. “Stupid poemutt you aren’t cooperating, let’s get back on track,” I yelled under my breath as I reached out my hand to grip the poem’s collar and drag the beast back to the street. Any attempt to force a poem back to the writer’s presubscribed path is just as easy as trying to force a St. Bernard to do anything against its will. I dug my heels into the soft grass and leaned all my weight in the opposite direction but to my frustration the St. Bernard stood and slowly walked to the edge of the yard. “No. No. Bad Bernard. Bad. Stop! Let’s get out of here before you get me in any more trouble,” I pleaded, but the poem nosed its way though the brush on the opposite edge where we entered. Still holding tightly to the collar I was dragged though the leaves and surprised by the sight. Before me was a beautiful mountain stream, nestled secretly behind this stranger’s yard. The scene was magnified by the new morning light falling thought the leaves and the poem didn’t wait, stunned like me, to walk to the water’s edge and take a drink.
Before I even stepped out the door that morning I thought I had a charted route where X marked the spot. Even though I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, or how I got there, I was stunned by the Eden I stumbled into. I guess that is the thing with poems, they are alive and have the instinct to follow the trigger moment, something that a practiced poet loves—the thrill of going somewhere unexpected on his walk with a poem. Just a word of warning, be prepared to for the enlightening yet awkward moments when we intrude past common fences, and catch William Blake and Mrs. Blake acting out Paradise Lost with fruit, garden snakes, adorned only in their bare human glory.