Archive for the ‘Richard Hugo’ Tag

31 Days of Lunasa: Day 3 — Ravens



Part of the point of this series is to put in a period of steady writing. As a spiritual practice, it has much to recommend it. The commitment gets things into words that wouldn’t otherwise arrive there. And if you’re a Druid on top of that, you naturally get at least some things that are Druidic into words, too.

The theme I thought would jump-start me was berrying. But all day, nothing was stirring. I found myself avoiding this blog altogether. (Just day three and he’s dead in the water, mutters the inner censor.) Yes, I probably could have gone out to our half-wild blackberry bushes in the back yard, taken a picture, and found in that interaction at least my triggering subject. Poet Richard Hugo writes in his delightful 1979 book The Triggering Town:

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

As with so many human crafts and skills, each has much that wise observers learn they can transfer — or maybe transpose — to living a life. The equation isn’t always one-to-one. We’ve become accustomed in the last century to photographs. We point to an image of ourselves frozen on a a flat phone screen or hard-copy print-out and declare “that’s me” without thinking much about how strange such a statement is. I can be both “here” and “there”, in the same way that human beings in the Hebrew Bible are made in the “image of God”, both divine and not at all. The image both is and isn’t the same as the thing it images. The triggering subject often works similarly, pointing us beyond. I start a blogpost about berrying and I know at this point that the title and possibly some ghosts of ideas will linger in the draft folder on WordPress. That idea got me onto my blog. A starting point, a seed crystal. A prompt. But that’s not the current title.

My wife and I were sitting out back eating diner an hour ago when we heard a series of gronks emanating from the front yard. She hadn’t paid much attention to such calls before, though I know she’s heard them, and she couldn’t identify the creature making them. What IS that? she said. As the calls became more insistent, I knew that Raven was asking for my focus. One call probably wouldn’t have been enough to break through. But a series of them did. What made the conversation even more interesting and significant is that we’d just been talking about ravens, among the other birds that frequent our hilltop, including waxwings as they migrate north and south, bluebirds that occasionally nest here, and an assortment of woodpeckers.

As a bird with world-wide associations and symbolism, the Raven naturally lends itself to varied interpretation. While we needn’t discount such ready hints and clues, we don’t need to ascribe to them invariant significance either. Google “the name raven” and you’ll dredge a surprisingly muddled set of potential meanings and mis-meanings suitable for any bias. Your best friend means something quite different to you than to his parents, children, co-workers, the pedestrian he or she cut off in traffic, and so on. An actual being interacts with so many others, and picks up meanings and interpretations like carrion attracts flies. The simile is intentional — the Raven is a messenger or guide between realms in very many cultures, including the realm of the dead. But as Hamlet quips to his mother, “Tis not alone my inky cloak … that can denote me truly”. Meanings can be slippery things. Check it out before you check it in.

This particular raven was going about his own business. While simultaneity put us both in proximity and brought my wife and me to hear his cries, the raven doesn’t have to “mean something” to have profound significance. What did my conversation with my wife “mean” to him? Is he now divining in a book of Raven Wisdom to learn what his recent interaction with two humans meant? (Maybe he is!) We were brief interactions in a cosmos stuffed with them every instant. Wisdom can help us learn from our interactions.

For one thing, a raven close by could be a sign that the owl pair nesting up the hill from us hasn’t decimated the local bird population. For another, “Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness”, notes the Wikipedia entry for common raven. My inclination, rooted in decades of practice, is to remain alert for future appearances, other coincidences, (dis)confirmation of speculations, and direct inquiry in meditation. Raven, what do you want to say to me?

Call this “Raven divination” if you want to. It’s also a form of creative play. The universe seems to play catch with meanings, tossing them towards us to see how many we’ll even notice, let alone return.

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