Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

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My Heart’s Owls

I am no less under the thrall of owls than were the Ancients, no less than are the New Agers and Halloween Trick or Treaters of modern times. More than any other bird, they perch motionlessly, or near motionlessly, on a limb near the house and peer at the ground below for rodents or the unwitting small bird. Or they raise their eyes to peer at me, unblinking and unfazed, or so it would appear.

First to impress her power and stamina upon me was a barred owl. She arrived one Sunday morning and took as her launch a myrtle limb from whence she kept an eye peeled for a rat that regularly made the journey to and from our railroad-tie compost box. All day the owl watched—and I watched her, checking to see if she’d snagged that sneaky rat. Interestingly, I was all for the owl, not being fond of rats visiting my compost box, let alone our house. But she still hadn’t left her post by the time we packed up to return to the city.

First barred owl

First barred owl

When we arrived the next weekend, I hurried straight from the car over to the limb where she’d waited so patiently, and sure enough there was a bolus of rat bones and fur below the limb and a large splat of white shit on the limb. Apparently, she’d not only had more patience for the rat to appear than the rat had for her to disappear but she’d also had the extra patience to digest it right where she’d slain and ate it.

Then, because owls have a way of appearing out of nowhere then disappearing for months on end, I didn’t see or hear an owl for nearly a year till one early morning I heard crows cawing scoldingly and robins chirping angrily from the time I woke till sunset that day. Here’s the story, in a simple narrative poem:

Great Horned Owl

Crows, cawing,
wake me up early.
I shut the window,
go back to sleep.

Crows, cawing, make me
close the sliding glass door
as we eat our breakfast
and drink our coffee.

Maybe there’s an eagle perched
in the spruce, out of sight.
Maybe it’s just a young crow
who’s over-flown its boundaries.

Maybe it’s a murder,
a congregation or congress
of crows. But the robins are chirping too:
Maybe the crows have found a robin’s nest!

I step outside, sidle roundabout into the woods
till I stand beneath the spruce, look up,
see an enormous owl with ears,
perched unfazed on a low thick limb.

Chickadees, towhees, a solo wren
have joined in the melee
at their respective elevations
in the crabapple tree below.

The owl has seen me, stares at me hard,
and as he does is caught off guard
by a charging crow and flaps
over to a limb on the alder tree.

And there, all day,
crows and sometimes robins
yell and swoop at what I now identify
as a Great Horned Owl.

I watch it blink its wide yellow eyes,
its pupils contract amidst sunlit leaves.
The big bird stares at me but never flinches,
impervious to the flak from other birds.

Only night will get those crows
off that poor owl’s back, when crows
return to their regular roost and the owl
starts hunting in the dark

for rats and shrews,
perhaps a sleeping crow,
though tonight this owl will have to hunt
without a good day’s snooze.

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

My mother died on July 5th, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 81st birthday, lo and behold a barred owl landed and perched till after dark on the three-man stone my father and I—he with a broken collar bone and I with tendonitis and bursitis in a shoulder joint—in other words with two arms between the two of us—hauled up from the beach and set on a mound on the south side of the house as, what turned out for me, a memorial to my mother that I’ve come to call the Mother Stone—or the Mom-olith. I’ve heard many stories about birds appearing at moments of death, funerals, and memorials. Now when I look at that shapely green stone, not only can I not help but think of my mother but also can I not help but re-envision that barred owl perched there so long that evening, looking at me. The next day, her birthday, Fran picked flowers that I placed on top of the stone, I said a few words, and then I spread a small urn of her ashes that my father had prepared for me for the occasion, around the base of the stone.

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Then, during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, we had major “irruptions” of snowy owls from the arctic tundra to the wide-open grassy areas of Protection Point. The first year, there were seven owls, the second year eight. They stayed from November to April, hunting for and devouring any small rodent that resembled their main prey in the arctic, the lemming. Theory has it that the older, bigger owls force these younger owls out of their birthright feeding grounds due to increasing numbers of owls and therefore decreased numbers of lemmings. So the younger birds fly south in search of similar hunting grounds. They perch on the drift logs stranded up in the grass and doze during the day in plain sight, making them a much-sought-out photographic subject. Tens of thousands of photographers, tourists, and nature pilgrims have worn whole systems of new trails through those tundra-like meadows. Fran and I were amongst those many seekers of an owl sighting. As many as eight times each year, we took yogis, photographers, birders, friends, family, and the “bird-curious” out toward the end of that long sand-accreted point. What great, weighty, mythical birds snowy owls are! Here are a couple poems inspired by their mystery and magnificence:

Snowy Owl

I do not want to make you
any wiser than you are.
But to stop and stare,
astonished by your size,
your snowy elegance,
your golden blinking eyes
(with what solidity
you perch upon a snag
overlooking winter seas!)
is to experience the love
of timelessness, to join
the wise in motionlessness
and mute austerity.

I bask in seeing and being seen by you,
being ransacked of all my pretensions
by your otherworldly purity
and penetrating gaze.

I stand for minutes richer than hours,
minutes enriching, adding to, my years.
I clothe myself in your downy feathers,
I breathe in the coolness of your soul,
I don the precious gems of your eyes
and through you see myself, as animal.

On strong wide wings you veer away
as I glide back down the beach,
clad in my new white robe,
the whole world glittering gold.

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Birders Flock

How reassured I feel
in a world where I find myself
standing amidst a whole flock
of birders, their giant lenses,
like tremendous beaks,
mounted on stork’s legs
of tripods, zooming in on
a single sleepy snowy owl
perched unimpressed
on a dune-grass drift-log,
their cameras chirping away,
clacking countless photos,
mesmerized for hours
in finger-freezing weather.
Now this gives me hope.

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Owl’s, because they’re often huge, have large eyes, and can appear human and wise, and because they generally hunt and hoot at night and seem to show up at auspicious times, are said to be mysterious, prophetic, meaningful birds. Owls were sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena, as a symbol of status, intelligence, and wealth. For the Egyptians, Celtics, and Hindus, owls were guardians of the underworld, protectors of the dead, rulers of the night, seer of souls. Owls have been honored as keepers of spirits who have passed from one plane to another, accompanying spirits to the underworld. As a result, owls have acquired a negative association with death (images of owls are a common sight at Halloween time, or All Souls Day). For Americans First Peoples, they were associated with wisdom and foresight and were keepers of sacred knowledge and forecasters of the weather. West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, mystics, and medicine people. In medieval Europe, they were thought to be priestesses and wizards in disguise. Their appearance announced change or death (or a life change). In general, they helped see that which was hidden from the view of others.

Interestingly, I never quite feel the same when I’m in the presence of an owl. Owls have abilities that far exceed any I can boast of: They can fly, of course, and can fly so stealthily that they cannot be heard by the unsuspecting small critter. They can see at night better than I can see during the day, and they are infinitely more patient than I am in their work to satisfy their needs. It’s this patience that sustains an owl’s life, a generally overlooked example I strive to emulate.

Two Paradise Poems

First egg (Killdeer)

First egg (Killdeer)

Birds in Heaven

What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful?
Do they sing beautiful melodies?
Do they soar gracefully,
with great acrobatic agility?
Are there furry creatures there
pleasant to pet, to cuddle,
to keep us cozy company?
And won’t there be a little green,
a few green leaves, a deep blue sky?
Yes, I’d like a deep blue sky.
And I’m wondering. Will there be
stones, rain, someone there to love?
Will we get to eat and drink?
I’d like some tasty food, a strong wine
in Heaven, a few birds singing.
What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful
or are they invisible?

New birds (Canada geese)

New birds (Canada geese)

Reconstructing Paradise

A man set out to reconstruct paradise.
With an abandoned equation,
a few letters from an antiquated alphabet,
with the distant echo of a syllable,
he rebuilt the tree.

Clouds he coughed up
from his own lung’s eons of gases
till a beautiful storm cloud
banked up overhead
near to bursting.

Birds gave him the most trouble:
To redesign that which both sings and flies,
in a single act of destruction in reverse,
is a lot to ask of a man
who’d given up the world for lost.

From his own hair he fashioned
feathers and mounted them
on a twig from the tree,
then this lifeless creature
he began to teach to whistle.

What a wonderful in-earnest
sight he made, who had nothing to do
and no reason to do it! With what
a profusion of silly shrill notes
he bent the poor ear of outer space!

Imagine no birds (American robin)...

Imagine no birds (American robin)…

Copyright 2014 by Rick Clark