23 October 2009

Poetry and Lessons in Risk

I had an idea for a writing prompt, to take a line from a favorite poem and use it to create an entirely new poem. Then I remembered: I'm not a poet and I dare not crucify poor Tennyson. So I decided to do something a bit different, still keeping with the poetry theme.

What's your favorite poem? I have several. I love Emily Dickenson; her poems speak to a deeper region of my soul and say what, many times, I cannot. W.B. Yeats has been a favorite since I heard Loreena McKennitt put music to his "The Stolen Child". Ms. McKennitt also introduced me to Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman", Archibald Lampman's "Snow", and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott". It's perhaps sad that I'd not been familiar with these poets before hearing their words put to music sometime in the late '90s, but the fact remains had it not been for a local pop station playing a strange, ethereal song that consumed me until I discovered the artist's name, it would have taken me years more before I'd delighted in their company.

A lot of McKennitt's music stems from poetry and she weaves a spectacular tapestry of words and melody. Her own lyrics are breathtaking but her ability to take a poem, hundreds of years old and turn it into something meaningful, into something that speaks to this modern woman is magic indeed.

"The Lady of Shalott" wove a tight spell around me from the first moment I heard it. I've secretly longed to sing it myself, though it would require a band of people playing instruments most of the musicians I know in Georgia do not play. It's the story of a maiden, cursed to sit in a tower and never look upon the real world except through a magic mirror, and doomed to weave what she sees in a magic web. "There she weaves both night and day" seeing the world as it passes her by. The people going to and from Camelot. She's been told that should she look down to Camelot a curse would come upon her and she would die. Apparently nothing ever tempted her to look out that one window until she spied Sir Lancelot as he rode down to Camelot. And she did. At a risk to her own life, she decided to follow her heart and see what was out there. She wanted more than security.

Her story, sadly, ends in tragedy. But it is not for this reason I am drawn to her story. My favorite line from the poem. "She left the web, she left the loom - She made three paces through the gloom." I have always thought those words so poetic, so beautiful. And often, I've asked myself, why am I drawn to such a tragic poem?

It's not the tragedy that draws me, it's the promise. The hope. Her hope. You see, how often to I feel as if I'm cursed to sit, day after day, bound to my computer in an office, only watching the world go by through my one little window. I don't see that much of the world, mind you, but it's enough to tantalize and cause and intense longing in my soul. Blue sky and storm clouds, autumn leaves. Sparrows and swallows, stray cats and little green lizards. Living life while I type away, waiting for phones to ring so I can listen to someone complain about what's wrong with their technology. What if I left? What if I left the web (the world wide web??), the loom? Sure, I'd lose my job if I just walked out. But what of the life that is calling to me, beckoning? Dare I take a chance to quit what is secure, what has been deemed "the way it has to be", to follow a dream? There are risks involved. No, I won't have to get into a small boat, scrawl my name upon the prow, and wonder what the curse may bring.

Risk. Safety. Rules. Passion.

How do we make the decision to step away from all that is "safe" into that which has no guarantees, but is beckoning us with such fervor that we either die slowly inside denying it, or jump in, headfirst, and figure it out as we go along? Risk is not something we are raised to take. It's sad, really. There are helmet laws and plastic thing to jab into electrical outlets. And while these are all well and good, putting everyone in a cushy little bubble does damage. Life is not perfect. Things will happen we did not intend. How will we handle it if we've been kept from hurt and risk?

Siddhartha Gautama was a prince. He lived in a opulent palace and was sheltered from the outside world. Cared for by servants, fed the finest foods, given the best gifts, he had it all. Safe. Secure. One day, he decided he wanted to know what was behind the palace walls but his father forbade it. Gautama snuck out one night and was appalled at what he saw. Poverty. Death. Starving children. Sickness. Filth. His father had tried to shelter him from all of this by spoiling him, and any parent would do the same if they could. But I believe all this safety is damaging. Too many people exchange their freedom for security. I for one would much rather take risks and have my freedom, than sacrifice liberty for a comfortable bed and cable television (PS: one can now get this in prison. Think about it.)

Gautama renounced the throne and devoted his life to the poor. You know him today by another name: The Buddha. He took a risk, leaving behind the life of privilege to walk amongst the hurting. Jesus did the same. He left the splendor of Heaven to walk amongst the dying, the sick, the lost. He risked death for something greater.

The Lady of Shalott was tired of watching life pass her by. She took a risk. She paid a heavy price. But ask yourself this: would I rather die in my safe office, my warm bed, in front of a huge television or would I rather get out there, get my hands dirty, invest in my life and the lives of others, risk pain, and hunger, and failure, doing all I can to make sure that when my time comes, I will be totally and utterly spent? I'd much rather die knowing I was completely used up, there was nothing left for me here. I'd rather go out knowing I explored every option, looked behind every rock and leaf. Knowing that I stepped out, took a risk, and found a larger world.

Paces through the gloom. Isn't that what we're here for anyway? To shine a light in dark places. One cannot shine into the dark places, however, until one is willing to leave the light.

Have a wonderful weekend!

(image found here)


Karen Walker said...

Wow, I had no idea "The Lady of Shalott" was originally a poem. I totally love that song and her music. As far as taking risks, life is way too short not to. As long as the risks aren't life threatening, like jumping out of a plane or bungy jumping.

Tamika: said...

Thanks for including the links to these, many of them I have not heard of. You bring such a rich insight Jen.

Writing is the biggest risk I have ever taken. It stretches me and pulls me to places that are unfamiliar. This risk is worth taking.

Happy writing...

T. Anne said...

Wow your last line will likely stick with me throughout the day. Something hauntingly honest about your post. I think as writers we often forget how much we crave the light yet want so desperately to shine and create our own in darkness.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Congrats on your award!!

I love that last line about how we have to be willing to give light. Beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I really like Emily Dickenson also but my favorite will always be Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken".

I always felt I took the road less traveled and it made all the difference, also.

Loved reading about The Lady of Shalott.
Have a great weekend.

willow said...

Me, too, I'd rather get out there and get dirty!

Ratty said...

Finding freedom, no matter how difficult it may seem, is a much more satisfying experience than a life of sheltered comfort. A life of freedom and following our dreams may be difficult, but it also leaves us feeling fulfilled and takes away any anxiety and thoughts that we might be missing something.

Gwen Stewart said...

What a wonderful post, Jen. I enjoyed every word, and it's so true. I'm walking through a gloom of my own right now, in my health and in the writing. But I keep walking, because I'm just that stubborn. I shall not return to the loom.

Have a wonderful weekend and God bless.

...mmm... said...

Hmm...that is a very compelling point you end on here. Wow.

funny you mention Tennyson adn Lady of Shallot adn then McKennit as I was listening to this Saturday night for quite a while. It is such a perfect marriage of music to poem. Incredibly haunting.

NCmountainwoman said...

My favorite poem is a really dark one by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's Renascence and I learned it while a teenager and have loved it ever since.

Terresa said...

"Then I remembered: I'm not a poet" -- not true! With every blog post your write, there is poetry. Can you see it? I can.

PS: I have too many fave poems, but here are a few:
"A note" by Wislawa Szymborska

"The thing is" by Ellen Bass

"The gift" by William Stafford

"To the Light of September" by Merwin

FireLight said...

Jen, my first time to stop by your blog. I have been a big fan of Loreena for some time.
I adore Dickinson. I will never forget teaching her poem which begins...
"After great pain, a formal feeling comes..." to my college students the day after 9/11.
Her poem seemed to have been written for the shock and suffering of the days to come. One man even said, "Now, I truly understand the value of a great poem."