I have been asked to explain “flow” in poetry, as opposed to the plotting of fiction. Perhaps it’s better to think of a poem as a tapestry, an art form in which all that happens happens at once — a kind of forest that the viewer and the writer walk through, making the story as they move through its richest patterns, which includes them and each reading. Here, for instance, are a few short stories. In a poetic universe, they are viewed at once. It is a place in which the act of making the sculpture is part of the sculpture, as is the act of viewing it. The unfolding of time is not the point.
Leaf Miner Tracks in Poplar Leaves
In a novelist’s universe, the hour by hour track of the leaf miner through the leaf’s sun-eating apparatus would indeed be the story. Now, this might still not be clear, so let me try another analogy. It would be easy to describe flow as the flow of water, like this:
Gravel Roadbed Two Days After a Thundershower
A camera stops this flow and turns it into a sculpture. We are free to wander through it at will.
Now, one difference between a photograph and a poem is that a photograph is framed by the boundary of the image. In that boundary lives the point of view of the photographer. In a poem, or in the tapestry of a poem, that frame is inside the image itself. I know, I’m making all this complicated in my attempt to make it clear, so let me try again. On the mountain, flow might look like this:
Freshet Tumbling to Pinaus Lake
Apart from it being another photographic sculpture, do notice how gravity, the flow of water towards the centre of the earth (more or less) is deflected by the gravity-defying flow of water through the leaves hanging on their limbs over it. The novelistic story here might well be the flow of gravity; the poetic one is the dynamic of balance. That is a different energy, one that can be followed. That “following” is the “flow” of a poem No poem can be completed without it. Still complicated, I bet. Here’s another image. I hope it’ll help. Notice that the rock is not where it “belongs”.
Grub Hunting on July 1 (I was actually following an owl into a thicket of young firs.)
So, let’s separate “story” or “plot” from “flow”. Story: the bear, tipping over rocks looking for something to eat (the saskatoons aren’t ripe at this altitude and the soap berries have a really lousy crop). Story: Harold following an owl. Story: Harold noticing the bear sign. We could go on. And the flow? Instead of going into the movement through this space, the space expands, over weeks, years and centuries. The bear tips the rock a couple feet downhill, licks up grubs, moves on. Grubs colonize the rock, a bear comes along, tips the rock a couple feet downhill, licks up grubs, moves on, etc. After a few centuries of this, the mountain starts wearing away! I give this plot to illustrate not the story unfolding in time, but to suggest that you can view that flow instantly within the image, and live in that projected space, and in all of its variables, at once — not to make a story out of it, but just to be there with the bear and the mountain, even if you are apart. Here, have another look:
More Bear Sign
Grubs are in rotten logs, too.
See that? Maybe? The bear moves through the space it is? For all of human insistence on free will and independence, humans largely do that, too. Poetry is an art that speaks well to that. It follows patterns, but not to make the story of an individual. Still complicated, I bet. Here, here’s a failed photograph that might help.
Yup. If You Flail Your Camera Around Wildly in the Weeds, Who Knows What Will Happen!
Well, some alternate universes come into being: the light universe, spirit thing made out of an alfalfa blossom at the bottom edge of the image, or the cabbage white butterfly turned into an angel up above: however you shake it, something in this bizarre overexposure reveals more than a cool, human-centred point of view ever could. Really. Take a look at what that might look like:
It has “A Human Was Here” written all over it. This is the equivalent to the bear sign up above.
So, maybe another go at this idea will reveal something that my words failed at. Let’s try it:
The Accident Was Interesting, So I Tried Again
That is flow, too. Follow the line of difference — not the world but the pattern that extends into mind, poem (or camera, in this case) and world at once. Look. It’s about looking. It’s about entering the moment of perception and following the point at which energy opens possibilities rather than closes them. The difference I followed here was the splendid surprise of the floating salsify seed, taking off into the wind — made visible to me only when the camera flattened out the scene.
There are lots of ways to get to flow. I will illustrate one. Think of this as the Old Norse method. What I mean is this: there is this language, which we call English. It’s about flow. It’s about finding a point of common ground between different ways of thinking and making of them a parliament. At its root is a different kind of flow, the flow of Old Norse, in which to lift a rock is to conjure into it the force of the universe called lift, at which point the rock lifts. Again? OK, it’s a language in which to breathe is to be breath. You, the poet, speak this language for all processes in the world. Breath, your breath, breathing (both the act and the thing), to breathe, and all other forms, are the same, you can move between them. The forces of the world become its energies, and the energies become the things of the world, which then dissipate again into energies and vanish. There is a point at which they are present, and at which you, in all that you are, are present as well. A poem is that point. I don’t mean a thing you learn in school or which you pry apart in a creative writing class. That is a social act, that comes from a far newer form of the language. To understand it, though, you need to be able to live in this:
Beetle on Milkweed
“You” are “making” this “image” in your “mind”. Novels are about taking you outside of the Old Norse world of energies and spiritual matter and making you into an individual, living in “reality”. Your job as a poet is to find the flow, which might mean including the novel in with this beetle, which is both you and not you, in the way a reader and a writer share a poem, and might also mean…
… being a separate beetle on a different milkweed leaf. Is the beetle the individual, or the species? Is it the beetle or the milkweed? You can’t have one without the other, or the thousands of other species that are all here together. You are part of this inextricably linked flow of energy. English, at its very core, is a language meant to speak of such flow. That’s very simple. It only gets complicated when you drag in Anglo Saxon and Norse and Latin and Scientific Language and all that happens since, as people have divided that flow into multiple, complex streams. It seems easy to get lost in flow, but remember: the language is also built out of Anglo Saxon, the language of things, of man and woman and sun and moon and the things of the world and the heart. This is not a flowing spiritual magic, like the rather shamanic one found in Old Norse. It’s a language of amulets. You make things, and carry them, because they hold in their webs energy, that can be released over and over and over.
And that, too is a poem. So often we, who live much of our lives within poems, speak of them in the languages of science and novels, using the administrative vocabulary of the Norman French, who invaded the mingled Old Norse and Anglo Saxon world and gave it an intellectual or courtly stamp, and the flow gets lost and confused. At that point, just go back to first principles, back to the Old Norse, back to the earth, and you will see the flow right away. You can then, perhaps, follow it through the new language of academic distance…
… and find your way. I hope that helped a little. If not, well, there were some pictures to look at along the way. That is often the whole point.