poetry inspiration

2 posts

If Music Be the Food of Poetry, Play On!

arvo part

Rumor has it that Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is an acquired taste, like salmon, Brussels sprouts, and all those other things you steer clear of as a kid. Repetition. Tintinnabulation. Waves of mesmerizing music (much of it religious in nature) washing over you.

I love writing poetry to classical music, but none more than Pärt’s. Whether his minimalist style shows up in my writing, I don’t know. In some cases, a definitive maybe. Can music genes long-jump to writing ones? And what is the sound of one note writing, anyway?

Koan-like questions, but some say ours is not to ask why, it’s to accept when inspiration strikes (with help or without), which is why I steal a page from the Bard and say,  If music be the food of poetry, play on.  (Yes, I snuck “poetry” in for “love,” but, in the final analysis and after checking the nutritional facts, what’s the difference?) The preceding link is to all instrumental pieces by Pärt, but you can find plenty of choral works, too, such as this meditative collection or this old favorite.

If your Muse is not inspired, it may sneak away for an Estonian nap. And yes, dozing mid-poem can be refreshing, too. To coin the well-minted Shakespeare once more: “to sleep, perchance to dream the next line.”

For an example of a minimalist poem from The Indifferent World written under the influence of Pärt, here’s a poem that’s so simple and so given over to mood that it may seem like empty calories to some, but it’s all a matter of taste, of course. Strawberry shortcakes and hot fudge sundaes with whipped cream are empty calories, too. It doesn’t mean you always scowl and put your nose up when they’re offered.


“Sitting in the Dark” by Ken Craft

In the dark
before dawn,

in the kitchen
before the lake,

when the windows
are rain-runneled

and the room
is still shadow,

I like to sit
and stare at black

glass glaring back,
beady with reflection,

runny with rumination
and the slip of sadness.


Though I don’t think ole Arvo has read any of my poems, I think he would approve of that little guy. Nothing fancy. Simple words. And not the best poem I ever wrote, but it does mirror a contemplative mood–one created while writing to Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, as I recall.

How about you? Do you write to music? And does it sometimes infuse the blood of your poems-in-progress?

Sure Things: Food and Loneliness


What to write about?

Seems like an easy enough question. Some say your topics should be determined solely by the dictator that is you. Others say have mercy on your readers’ souls. Consider them. Others still–the agnostic wafflers of the bunch–say, “Why not both?”

I’ll be political and not take a stand because who really cares what I think? I do know this: You’re in trouble if you think you can write about something you know nothing about or don’t care about.

Which brings us to two sure things: food and loneliness. Like air and water, they will keep you grounded.

How do we know food resonates? Easy. People eat it up. And people with cellphones (there are a few, apparently) actually photograph and upload the stuff before eating it. Curious case closed!

And loneliness? True, most confuse loneliness with being alone, two different animals. Unlike many in this world, I cherish alone time. It sustains me. And my writing. But I know the world also harbors manic social sorts. They get frenzied by lack of sound, technological input, people. They believe they are unpopular, neglected, or sad if not buoyed by activity and input. (How sad!) Can you go wrong, then, when writing about the poignancy and beauty of alone-ness? Rhetorical, I assure you.

My thoughts turned to these two staples of writing after I read Li-Young Lee’s poem “Eating Alone,” which nicely breathes and drinks the two poem-sustaining wonders in one fell swoop. And check out the last line! It speaks to the ages (if you’ll pardon the pun). See if you agree:

“Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.


— from Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions