The Finger Pointing at the Moon

by Sarah Webb

Writing a poem, there’s a pause, moving wet leaves to the side in a cup of stones, so it can refill. The words appear out of nowhere. Sometimes I don’t even know what they mean until much later. A poem I plan — or if I seize the meaning and shape it to what I think its end will be — will feel sterile. The meaning must come and I receive. Or I embody. I believe this is the dynamic quality of True Nature. Appearing. Embodying in the poem. Embodying in thoughts, perceptions, memories.

The poem is not gibberish, and it does come through my life and my mind. The words may come out of nowhere, but they use my memories, my words, wrestle with my issues.

So who writes the poem? It is not just me, the personality I identify with. But it is me. Untangling who is the writer and who the hand is impossible. It is like looking up into the white sky to see where the snow flakes come from. Am I going to see into a realm or a being or even a process that brings the words to me? No, but I still am drawn to look.

William Stafford, a poet who has always seemed a teacher to me, once commented, “I'd give up everything I'd written . . . for a new writing experience.” Writing is not about the poem, with its beauty or insight. It’s about the process of writing the poem, letting the words be given, following them. Time disappears. An image comes, the words to describe it come.

In Taoism and Buddhism there has been a traditional distinction between live words and dead words. Live words are sometimes described as turning words, words that help the mind open. That might mean a koan or a teaching story or a teacher’s instruction. I would say it also might be a poem.

A poem can arouse the unnameable. Writing a poem may arouse it through the process of opening to the words that come from their white sky. Reading a poem, too, may take you to an unsayable space. Evoking the un-nameable is not the only function of poetry, but it is one of them.

Mary Oliver is a poet who often evokes what cannot be said. In one of her poems, “The Humpbacks,” she uses a phrase to push the reader into the wordless. The poem starts

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Oliver uses the words “You know what I mean” twice in the poem, and she does it so we will access that realm past words in ourselves. I taught the poem to a class of freshmen once, and asked them, was it true, did they know what she meant? These were not sophisticated, literary students but kids just out of little country towns in Oklahoma, many of them fundamentalist. But more than half of them said they did know what Oliver meant, and when they wrote about it, it was clear they did, that something welled up when they heard those words.

When Oliver pushes the people who read her poem to open to the unnameable by saying “this country of original fire” and “You know what I mean,” she is pushing them into the space the poet occupies when writing a poem. We let something come through that we can’t name but can feel in ourselves, moving us.

— Sarah Webb has been an editor for Just This for the past year and a half. Her poetry is part of her practice.


Danny said...

I found this on a completely random google search and it may be a year old but I love it! Really eye-opening and inspiring for a young poet such as myself.

mark m rostenko said...

hi - i discovered this post in searching for a link to define "finger pointing at the moment"... coincidentally enough, for a post on my own blog about poetry... i think you might enjoy it!