Robert Duncan prefaced a work he composed (The HD Book) about poetics and the poet HD (and really life) with that quote. He talks early in the book about how students are taught to read and learn as a way to get to the middle class. Which has its advantages, to my creature-comfort disposition: a stable paycheck and some level of pleasure and acceptance. As he relates in the first pages, the schools teach us “signs and passwords” to the universities and our life in a job in a formed society. It will be our life to be, earning and spending and supporting a society. However, as I reflect on this and his words, the reading for grades is a reading which seems to pull us away from the small sacred things we had, from finding our own life in that continuum we are in. So we get a happy-enough life in sterile buildings which display caged pieces of nature as potted plants and glass aquariums to help us, but which keep us there from sun-up to sun-down, away from the real thing.
There is a reading, a choice, however, which does take us inside to the sacred life, to things which were valued in some romantically imagined (and perhaps never really existed) other life. A life which we can now, maybe some of us, have when we don't have to worry about fetching water and marauding bandits. From a middle-class comfort we can have the sacred I suppose, if we rediscover those Lost Words and what they represent and do. The sacred things were in those special books which we read for our own purposes, not for a grade, not for a “password” to a life in the middle. Things we read because they grabbed us full on, by the head, by the heart. The books which compelled us to read under the blanket with a flashlight past our bedtime. They took us to the very places we read, and back to “old orders overthrown by the middle class (but which) lived on in the beginnings of an inner life...” finding and making “what is not actual real.” (The HD Book)
An inner life which for some formed in books but also when we marveled at the flight of an owl in the evening, silent, daring, alluring on its wings spread before it disappeared into a line of old trees which themselves hid a secret life and history of earth. An inner life formed when we watched our young child with a cache of jelly beans and a smile wider than life itself. An inner life formed in books about muses, sacred fire, and intrusions of god into life. A time when there there was mystery, interaction, community. We marveled at heroes of giant stature, bravery from halflings, free will, love gained and lost, secrets on forgotten maps, all of those things that must be kept, and kept true as we march to orders in an ordered society. Things which caused, and cause, some to write. The following is my own small attempt at it:
“As regards the Lost Word”
a dropped white feather from silent flight,
seen while holding a guitar, silent without chord.
The word is sought in lost books, pages separating with dust,
of half-remembered stories told around a pale fire,
the teller in ash-white sigils, and when he sings his words
with piercing dark look into our eyes, we both see
memories from lost journeys in other care-worn lives, perhaps
chasing the king's stag between rising sun and quieting moon.
It was an arrow true across meadow blue with extinct flowers
that struck down the sacred animal, a profit before
rain showers that wash mud from our eyes.
There it is we can now see the giant on bent knee, giving a flower
to the traveling queen in silver robes and singing with gilded voice.
She will take us back on a free-will path through the forest,
to place our feet inside the prints of hero's steps
on the way to mountains, battles, a lover's cabin, or quests
heavy with choice, until the misted clock tower
strikes us awake from dream, and in that first ashy moment of half-morning
we hold emerald perception into the light and dark
within the hearts of our race, seeing the watchtowers alight again
with poets to sing, and artists to paint those beauties and horrors,
both our found passwords to the life we live in the found word.
Recovering the word for myself, I read the poets and authors and songwriters I loved, in addition to the ones in a reading list for a grade. It was these others which made me want to write myself. The breakthrough in motivation for writing and imagination was the reading of a poet like Duncan, not on that required list. It was through Duncan I discovered the made places of imagination, the recovered word, and so I end with that most compelling poem,
“OFTEN I AM PERMITTED TO RETURN TO A MEADOW
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
(from, Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field)