July 16th, 2014

“My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV”…

says Leonard Cohen.

A likely story. If Cohen’s mind is like the DMV, it’s not like any DMV I’ve ever been to.

Cohen’s interview is a fascinating reflection on creativity and work:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

That reminds me of something Robert Frost said about writing poetry:

You know, you know that, when I begin a poem I don’t know–I don’t want a poem that I can tell was written towards a good ending–one sentence, you know. That’s trickery. You’ve got to be the happy discoverer of your ends.

…I’ve often said that another definition of poetry is dawn–that it’s something dawning on you while you’re writing it. It comes off if it really dawns when the light comes at the end. And the feeling of dawn–the freshness of dawn–that you didn’t think this all out and write in prose first and than translate it into verse.

Note the metaphor of “light” that both poets use.

I’ve written a lot of poetry in my life, although “a lot” is relative. I’m certainly not up there in productivity with either Frost or Cohen. I’ve got maybe seventy or so poems that I wouldn’t be totally ashamed to own up to. And I have to say that almost all of them took the form both poets are describing: you write it and see whether it shines, and although you have some spark that starts the process you have no idea where the poem will end. The best ones end in pleasant surprise.

13 Responses to ““My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV”…”

  1. roc scssrs Says:

    Back when I was roc scssrs, I wrote this: “In prose, in an essay, when the right word comes, it’s a perfect fit. It feels precise and satisfying. In poetry, the “right” word comes, but it doesn’t feel right; it sticks, like an arrow in the flesh. It has to be eased in, not pulled out. The meanings shift; the poem begins to resonate.” Different metaphor, but the same experience, I think.

  2. Paul A'Barge Says:

    The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines

    We have to pass Obamacare in order to find out what is in it
    – Nancy Pelosi

  3. vanderleun Says:

    70’s a lot.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    You have to become a slave, before you can criticize being a slave.

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    Don’t you know? your just a shooting star…

    A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam. and for a brief moment it’s glory and beauty belong to our world. but then it flies on again, and though we wish it could have stayed, we feel so lucky to have seen it

    Falling sick on a journey
    my dream goes wandering
    over a field of dried grass – Basho

    Death is lighter than a feather
    but Duty is heavier than a mountain – First Precept of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, written in 1883 Meiji Period of Japan

    There ain’t no way you can hold onto something that wants to go, you understand? You can only love what you got while you got it.

    don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go- F Scott Fitzgerald..

    Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly, Dot, and when I got it it turned to dust in my hand F Scott Fitzgerald

    …wouldn’t wait very long.

    It’s tough to have the feeling that you wanted to go,

    Still have the feeling that you wanted to stay.

    Start to go.

    Change your mind.

    Start to go again but change your mind again.

    It’s tough to have the feeling that you wanted to go,

    Still have the feeling that you wanted to stay.

    Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si, do.

    I go.

    I’ll stay.

    I’ll go.

    I’ll stay.

    I’m goin’, I’m–, I’m stayin’, but–


    Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    another, same author

    And death shall have no dominion.
    Dead men naked they shall be one
    With the man in the wind and the west moon;
    When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
    They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
    Though they go mad they shall be sane,
    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
    Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion.

    And death shall have no dominion.
    Under the windings of the sea
    They lying long shall not die windily;
    Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
    Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
    Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
    And the unicorn evils run them through;
    Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
    And death shall have no dominion.

    And death shall have no dominion.
    No more may gulls cry at their ears
    Or waves break loud on the seashores;
    Where blew a flower may a flower no more
    Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
    Though they be mad and dead as nails,
    Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
    Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
    And death shall have no dominion.

  6. Eric Says:

    The inspiration of art and the craft of art work together but are not at all the same thing.

    The artist can control his craft, and may spend a lifetime honing it, but it is all in the service of capturing an inspiration that he only channels. He creates art from the inspiration, but does not create the original inspiration.

    When there’s no inspiration, he can still create art using his craft, but then it’s just mimicry, even when it’s a modified copy of past inspiration for that artist. Observers may not be able to see the difference and hail the new ‘original’ creation. But the artist knows the difference, all too painfully.

  7. Artfldgr Says:

    “To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late.
    And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds
    For the ashes of his fathers
    And the temples of his gods,

    “And for the tender mother
    Who dandled him to rest,
    And for the wife who nurses
    His baby at her breast,
    And for the holy maidens
    Who feed the eternal flame,—
    To save them from false Sextus
    That wrought the deed of shame?

    “Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
    With all the speed ye may;
    I, with two more to help me,
    Will hold the foe in play.
    In yon strait path a thousand
    May well be stopped by three:
    Now who will stand on either hand,
    And keep the bridge with me?”

    Rome Horatius at the Bridge
    Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)

    You were sick and tired and we all knew,
    that God would soon come to take you.
    You fought so hard, so very long,
    but through the pain, you stayed strong.

    We all knew there would come a day,
    when God would come to carry you away.
    It doesn’t make it easier to say goodbye,
    and I try so hard not to cry.

    I can’t help but feel defeated,
    or even maybe a little cheated.
    But how very selfish would I be,
    to hope and pray you could stay with me.

    So as you laid there tubes running to and fro,
    I had to tell you “It’s ok to go”.
    Say “Hi” to loved ones waiting on the other side.
    I know some day; you’ll be there when I take that ride.

    By Rudyard Kipling
    (‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

  8. Matt_SE Says:


    A fascinating article at the Atlantic on genius, insanity and the creative process:


    A couple of surprising highlights:
    – After a certain level is reached (maybe 130 IQ), higher IQ doesn’t correlate to greater success in your field.
    – “Creative geniuses,” those who are on the cutting edge of their fields, have not only high IQ but also high-functioning “associative cortexes.” These are regions of the brain that coordinate between disparate areas, and form cognitive connections that aren’t obvious to others.

    Good article.

  9. Beverly Says:

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in

    — Lenny Cohen

  10. Doom Says:

    Actually I get what he is suggesting. Not a poet, or writer, myself. But a thinker of some minor sort or other. And I often find myself waiting for fodder, threads, or… something. I can even hold my breath, almost like when shooting long distance. That’s not a good way to do it, but it can happen. Ideas call, I can’t make them happen. And, even once they have called, I still have to interpret what they are saying, then form that into words that square with some more solid philosophy… lots of room for error, of course, and exploration. But there has to be a backbone, a skeleton, upon which to rest the flesh of the thing.

  11. davisbr Says:

    I sort of throw the ingredients into the pot, and I have to let them stew. I can’t force ’em to cook any faster by turning up the heat.

    You know, you sure can ruin a lot of dishes by overheating the ingredients.

    The dishes that get served when the meal is placed on the table is generally a surprise to me, too lol.

    …actually I’m always surprised to find that there even is a dish.

    …make of that what you will, but I get Cohen’s point lol.

    And Paul A’Barge? – Gawd forbid that we ever again come to accept a 2000 plus page omnibus bill in Congress as some form of “art” LOL.

  12. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Beverly: I had that poem posted over my writing desk for years.

  13. Wry Mouth Says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve only recently just found some compositions I hammered out (with my piano technique, literally) away back just this side of college, 30 years younger and more foolish. Cassette tapes, don’t you know. I’m digitizing them now, and turning the songs over in my mind, seeing which ones can be rubbed and polished and maybe made new again.

    With music, with composition, I’m almost never done all the way, and I’ve had songs change on me after two years or more of playing as they were.

    I tell my son, “one advantage to being a painter is that not as many people tell you to PAINT THAT PAINTING I SAW YOU PAINT,” whereas in music, or acting, people tend to stick the creator in a box of sorts.

    Thanks; now I’m feeling a little more creative again.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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