TLO Poetry for the Unthought Known

tlo's poetry intervention

More than before, something unknowable is in the air. Palpable -- almost sensate in feel and shape -- there seems these days to be a quality about our lives that’s solid but not, almost touchable yet ineffable, a tip-of-the-tongue reality that deserves words that before now have not been available. This quality of “something unknowable in the air” surfaces occasionally during thought partner conversations about transformational learning, or in the middle of a TLO workshop, when the partners involved discover they’ve talked so much they don't have anything more that seems worth saying.

The Transformational Learning conversations and workshops I lead in fact fairly often come to a place and time when each of the thought partners participating realize that they're at a loss for anything more that seems worth saying. Everyone's said what they know to say, shared in important, open ways, and yet, nonetheless, we're becalmed; not yet done but with nothing more to say. Overtime, I've found that these can be moments when the right kind of poem will open a new space, nudge a new doorway open so that someone is moved to speak something unexpected.

I remember a time like this a couple of years ago. I was partnering with some Vietnam veterans talking about the ways in which all that the war had brought into our lives was, decades later, still creating unwanted ripples. After an hour or so it seemed like we came to a moment when none of us had anything more to say but didn't want to say "goodnight." After several minutes I remembered Wendell Berry's poem, The Real Work. A bit awkwardly, I said as much, and ask if anyone would mind if I read it outloud to see if it would spark anything useful or meaningful. Hearing no objections, this is what I read: 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

After I finished there was more silence, Some movement to the back of the room to get coffee. And then, after about 15 minutes, we said "goodnight" and adjourned.

The following week, we were together again as usual and, after some 'let's catch up' banter, someone said, "I've been thinking about that poem. It got to me cause last month..."

The space in me that Berry's poem alway stirs when I think of it is tinged with anxiety and a feeling of apprehension, and, beneath both, a glimmer of anticipation. What's behind is unpleased and bitter, memories safely tucked away. What's ahead is unknown, unfinished, with so many new paths to be walked. For about two months after this "I've been thinking meeting," this group of Vietnam veterans talked in any number of ways about the the doubt and uncertainty that the dangers we'd encountered yet survived in Vietnam had too often shaken and undermined the confidence and determination we needed to muster in the face of new opportunities. During these meetings, some of us shared old, long-standing recriminations, others fresh anxieties, and some had nothing much to say but were willing to simply 'stand in witness' to some friends' tentative exploration of old wounds that had, before this, never had much of a voice.

In 1924, Antonio Machado published a small chap book titled, I Never Wanted Fame. In it, he offered this poem.

Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea:
Rudder, anchor, oars,
And the fear of going down.

that I think nicely sums up the realities that only good poetry can give life to. Just below are a few more of the poems that have found their way into some of the transformational conversations and workshops I've been a part of over the years. They're offered here as a sample of the kind of  poems I've learned can, at the right time and in the right place, spark something ineffable, yet nonetheless worthy of a voice.

Walking Through a Wall

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, 'Say, I want to try that.'

Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences.

The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

-- Louis Jenkins

Sense of Something Coming

I am like a flag in the center of open space.

I sense ahead the wind which is coming,
and must live it through,
while the things of the world still do not move; 
the doors still close softly, and the chimneys
are full of silence.

The windows do not rattle yet, and the dust
still lies down.
I already know the storm, and I am as troubled
as the sea.
I leap out, and fall back,
and throw myself out, and am absolutely alone
in the great storm.
-- Rilke

A Torn Heart

Lost in the forest, I broke off
a dark twig and lifted its
whisper to my thirsty lips,
maybe it was the voice of the
rain crying, a cracked bell,
or a torn heart.
-- Pablo Neruda

Wild Mallard Thought is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild mallard thought, which 'mid falling dews' wings its way above the fens. 

A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning's flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself -- and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.

-- Henry David Thoreau

The Storm

Now through the white orchard my little dog
     romps, breaking the new snow
     with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited
     hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins,
     in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
     the pleasure of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

- Mary Oliver

Against Certainty

There is something out in the dark
that wants to correct us.
Each time I think "this," it answers "that."
Answers hard, in the heart-grammar's strictness.

If I then say "that," it too is taken away.

Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.

- Jane Hirshfield

Never Wanting Fame


Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea:
Rudder, anchor, oars,
And the fear of going down.

- Antonio Machado


Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.

-- Rumi

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Rumi

The Real Work

Real Work.jpeg

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

-- Wendell Berry

Diving In

Sometimes you want
to wade slowly in.
First, tender feet on a rough beach,
sharp stones and pebbles,
making your hesitant way
to ankles, knees, thighs.
You're breathing faster,
getting used to it
a little at a time.

That's one way.

But this is a hot, sleepless night
with strong dreams from a past
you had long forgot, and indeed
your unknown future is out there.
The surface of the lake glitters
under moonlight.
It is cool and silky.

But the deep, dark water
holds secrets unknown:
dangerous boulders
or felled logs.

You cannot predict this.

Or the terrible chance
that you will instead skim
the surface of your life,
or worse, dangle your feet
from the safe seat of the dock.

If you can imagine the shock.
The first sensation, the realization
that you have let go
of the solid ground
beneath your feet,
the ground you grew to trust
and take for granted,
you can catch your full breath,
now, bursting in your lungs.

Then this weightless, buoyant
body of yours, baptized
by longing and desire,
will rise up, shimmering
trailing luminescent moonlight
from your fingertips,
breathless and bold.

-- Libby Wagner 

Talking To Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

- Denise Levertov

What was your word?


I love Jesus, who said to us:
Heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away
My word will remain.

What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
One word: Wakeup.

- Antonio Machado


The important thing to understand are the ways
in which people together follow grammars, 
and how their own social worlds are created
through this following.
Most forms of conflict are played out within some frame, a grammar that provides options and moves from which to choose. Following this path is fraught with complications.

One person’s moves are always governed by the grammatical rules that they’re governed by. But these moves only make sense, can only make sense, when the contingent responses of the other are created by and governed by the same grammar.
-- W. Barnett Pearce

Moral Proverb #12

image-to die.jpeg

To die. . . To fall like a drop of water into the big ocean? Or to be what I've never been: a man without a shadow, without a dream, a man all alone walking, without a mirror, and with no road?

-- Antonio Machado

The Decision

There is a moment before a shape
hardens, a color sets.
Before the fixative or heat of kiln.
The letter might still be taken
from the mailbox.
The hand held back by the elbow,
the word kept between the larynx pulse
and the amplifyinging drum-skin of the room's air. The thorax of an ant is not as narrow.
The green coat on old copper weighs more.
Yet something slips thought it --
looks around,
sets out in the new direction, for other lands.
Not into exile, not into hope. Simply changed.
As a sandy track-rut changes when called a
Silk Road: it cannot be after turned back from.

-- Jane Hirshfield

The Olive Grove

Olive Grove.jpg

...Why do you want me to say you exist
when I no longer find you myself?

I cannot find you any more. Not within me.
Not in others. Not in these stones. 
I find you no longer. I am alone.

I am alone with everyone's sorrow,
the sorrow I tried to relieve through you,
you who do not exist. O unspeakable shame.
Later they would say an angel come.

-- Rilke

I Am Not I


I am not I.
                          I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

- Juan Ramon Jimenez


Wherever you choose to stand in this world,
that place, firm as it feels,
is a place of falling.

In my own house I fell. A dark thing,
forgotten, struck my ankle
and I fell.

Some falls are so slow, you don't know
you're falling till years later. And may be
falling still.

- Leonard Nathan

Losing Too Is Still Ours

Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation.

When something's let go of, it circles;
and though we are
rarely the center of the circle,
it draws around us its unbroken, marvelous curve.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

- William Butler Yeats