The Poem I Would Have Writ

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 - 6:10am
Photo by Matteo Pezzi

The Poem I Would Have Writ

Our lives leave a trail of words, even when we’re not speaking or writing. With every move we make — at home and at work, with friends and strangers, in public and in solitude — we’re dictating the next few lines of the text called our lives, composing it as we go.

How best to go about “composing a life”? That’s the title of a highly regarded book by Mary Catherine Bateson, so I know I’m not alone with my question. William Wordsworth said we arrive on this planet “trailing clouds of glory.” What kind of text trails behind us as we live out our time on earth? Does it read as tedious or banal, uncaring or resentful, fearful or angry, or something better than any of that?

Fifty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, lost and seeking guidance on what it means to live well, I found a compelling clue to composing something better. In Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, there’s a section on the life of the artist. Without explanation or elaboration, as if the idea had just popped into his head and he had to capture it before it fled, Thoreau drops this simple couplet into a dense stream of prose:

“My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.”

What a remarkable notion, that the text one writes with one’s life might be a poem! Of course, if you regard poetry as little more than flowery verse, you’ll find the idea cloying: life is not all sweetness and light. But neither is poetry, rightly understood. The poet Paul Engle says:

“Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.”

And Robert Penn Warren adds:

“For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.”

Poetry at its best is as close to the bone as life itself.

Thoreau’s claim that we can live our lives as a poem seized my youthful imagination. As time went by, his couplet began to haunt me (or taunt me) with the sense that it concealed a secret I only half-understood. So, three years ago I set out to unearth that secret by writing a book titled, of course, The Poem I Would Have Writ.

I re-read Thoreau, collected quotes and footnotes, made outlines and sketches, wrote and rewrote chapters, and talked with my friends about it until they must have wished I’d get a new idea. Or new friends. After an ungodly amount of research, reflection, and writing, it became clear that my book just wasn’t happening. A few months ago, I abandoned the project, feeling defeated by the failure of my long-time quest.

But here’s the thing about the fact that we are all dictating words with our lives: keep living and the words will keep coming. Pay attention to what they say, and occasionally they will surprise you by composing themselves into something of meaning. Recently, as I sat down for my early-morning journaling, Thoreau’s couplet came back to me for the umpteenth time. That’s how obsessions work! Thirty minutes later, the poem below had shown up in rough draft. After playing with it for a few more days, I felt I’d come as close as I can to the secret of “the poem I would have writ.”

It took me 50 years of being dogged by Thoreau’s couplet to arrive at this destination — not a book of many pages, but a five-stanza poem written by an amateur poet who loves to watch life become words and words become life. That’s one stanza per decade!

Still, the journey is the destination, and I’ve learned from every step. With this poem in hand, praise be, I can finally make peace with the book that will never be, the book I thought I should have writ.

The Poem I Would Have Writ

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

—Henry David Thoreau

The first words are the hardest. Sound
surrounds you in the womb, grows louder
when you’re born. You listen. You know
the day will come when you must speak
words, too — that’s how we make our way
through this trackless landscape called
the world. But how? And what to say?
And what does saying do?

Later, words come easily. You learn
to speak the language of what you
want and need, to help you find a
pathway into and through your life,
to make it clear what you believe,
reach out to friends, find work to do,
heal your wounds, ease your fears,
get chance on chance to give love
and receive. Sometimes words leap
out of you in ways you soon regret —
or in ways so magical you silently
rehearse them, hoping never to forget
how these words came out of the blue,
begging to have life breathed into
them by you. You live a life of words.

Then you learn that first words aren’t
the hardest. The hardest are the last.

There’s so much you want to say,
but time keeps taking time and all your
words away. How to say — amid the
flood of grief and gratitude you feel —
“Thank you!”, or “How beautiful, how
grand!”, or “I’m so glad I survived…”,
or “I was changed forever the day
we two joined hands and lives.”

As you reach for your last words,
you realize, this is it — this ebbing tide
of language called your life, words
trailing into silence, this unfinished poem
you would have writ — had it not been
for the heartache and the gift of all
the years that you've been living it.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Beautiful. Thank you so much Parker for this reflection and this poem. I am happy you reached this particular poetic "destination", but it seems to me perhaps your entire collected life's work is the epic poem you have writ -- journey & destination as on-going revelation. In any case, deep gratitude to you.

Oh my, Parker, you have written words that pierce my soul and say what I have been feeling for years on many levels. First words and last words. Time and mortality meet mystery and the eternal through you. But you said it better: "this ebbing tide
of language called your life, words
trailing into silence, this unfinished poem
you would have writ — had it not been
for the heartache and the gift of all
the years that you've been living it."

Heavenly. Thank you. May I post this in my website?

What you have written, Parker, what I have read only today, reminds me to not let go of or dismiss what it is that speaks to me. I am grateful for your words. Thank you. Perhaps reading this today was the time in which I was meant to see it. It certainly seems so as it truly speaks to me and where I am.

I love you, Parker Palmer!

Contemplation is a life-long endeavor. It can take years of reflection on a simple statement to finally get the meaning. Paradoxically, it is the reflecting that is both journey and destination, not the insight at the end. Happy to have read this short reflection.

Beautiful and resonant poem, Parker! I can't help but hope you resurrect the idea of that book you let go of. Your words have strengthened so many of us.

Dear Parker,
in my early morning meditaion I have been reading from the book:Bread for the Journey,by Henri Nouwen,his entry for February 11:Words That Create.
He often said:"Let,s watch our words."
Then I found your column from yesterday:
You are truly a voice in the wilderness!
I thank you deeply for your great gift again,offered just as the 40 days of Lent are beginning.
You are enriching our lives so very much!
I feel so blessed to take your gift of your sharing with me into the journey ahead.
And please know,I will share your column with others!
In your words: " Composing one,s life" is the most amazing phrase to me.
As I am in the process of writing, you have provided so much encouragement for me,ever since I followed your collumns.
It is my hope ,that you will be able to continue to write for a long time to come.
Through your writings you help so much to heal our world ,and the souls of others.
Peace and love to you.

This is just marvelous. I am retired after 47 years of work and am writing poetry furiously, loving every minute of it. Some published in journals, book soon to come, working second book at a speed I can barely believe.

I must say that this post resonates deeply with me. I am, however, in my 30th year of journeying & I too have been composing a written reflection that I suppose could be the summation of wisdom received out of bad choices -- all the way to the great ones that ensue personal development. Lastly, I'd like to add that I love being a life learner and having the ability to put my heart & soul into words always feels like there is much more to be said, written...and learned. I enjoyed reading your poem.

You, Parker Palmer, are an inspiration, a joy, a beautiful love poem. Thank you.

Thank you, Parker. "...but time keeps taking time and all your words away." As my 60's unfold, how this felt sense of time feels more and more vibrant and daunting! Kathy Spivey

Beautiful. Thank you.

Thank you. I am re-reading "Healing the Heart of Democracy" in front of your visit to Belle Plaine, MN, next week. I have been flogging myself because I have not done enough to make my congregation a better community. I understand your book. I understand my church community can make the world a better place but I can't find the authority to make my words effective. So I choose to model hospitality, and reverence, and hope. But I was afraid it was not enough. Thank you for finding Thoreau's words. They instantly gave me a moment of peace. My life is my story to my community. It will be enough. I will keep writing. I will keep agitating. I will live in hope my community grows a heart of hospitality and compassion. Thank you I look forward to being in your presence.

Great. I like your column. Simplicity, heart and soul. And that is a great subject, life as a poem.

As another "amateur poet who loves to watch life become words and words become life," Parker's words spoke to my soul. The poem we might have writ, the poem we are writing.... such a lovely thought. Trailing clouds of glory here in school on club Earth. It is somewhat like a vacation and someday we will all go back home.... in the meantime, if we are very lucky, we may lose our baggage. The words spoke to me strongly, possibly because of learning yesterday about the five Reiki principals which are very simple but very profound which in turn and inspired this poem:

Just for today

I will live life free from worry
My anger I'll let go
I will do my work with honesty
Giving thanks for all I have and know
I will be kind to my neighbor
And every living thing
I will walk today on my chosen way
In the sight of God I'll sing
John Haigis 2/25/16