The Transformational Power of the Lyric Poem, by Lisa McIvor

So this is the edge then, this shoreline of glass—
How every letter contains the sound of its own breaking,
its own holiness.  What is held as sacred, as truth.
How often I have sat right here, on the finest line, inkedalong
a wilderness of  empty page, and how each word is placed
like a stone between nighttime and the morning.
Syllables filled with light, they rise through voices
like a thousand wings, and I wake from writing
to find while I was dreaming of birds
the wind itself has become a story.

Each letter has its own texture, its own color and gift of sound, and in community the letters become words and the words gather like tiny nations to make a world of meaning. In its attention to the sound and texture of words, the mirror of metaphor and resonance, and the vivid image, lyric poetry creates a sacred space, ripe for transformation.

Derived from song, the lyric poem tends toward musicality in both cadence and the sound of the words, which embodies emotion and memory giving voice to the interior experience of what it means to be human.  This attention to sound, the texture and weight of words, the mirror of metaphor and resonance makes it particularly useful in the process of grief work and healing.

In the craft of my own lyric poetry, I am drawn to explore places of periphery and stillness, how words rest against the waiting page. I have come to glimpse how the lyric poetic form in particular lends itself to the work of facilitation of life change and the navigation through grief or trauma.  Having delved into the work of poets, such as Jane Hirshfield, Gregory Orr, Sharon Olds, and others, I have come to understand that the essence of the lyric poem is always, in some essential fashion, transformation.

As I pondered this, I harkened back to my recent reading of Gregory Orr’s book, Poetry as Survival, and his description of the lyric poem as having its roots in music and rhythm.  He discusses the ways in which the cadence of a poem, the very sound of the words, often possess a quality of mourning or keening.  He describes the healing aspect of rhythmic voice in his section, “Bearing the Unbearable: The Power of Incantation”:

Incantation as expression and consolation. Anyone who has cried deeply in his or her life knows there is a certain point at which sobbing takes on a rhythmic pattern, and that this stage of weeping has about it something that soothes the weeper. It is the power of incantation at work.  A griever might, in the same way, repeat a loved name over and over (107).

Shaun McNiff also references the use of rhythm in art as a calming tool in his book, Art Heals.  In the section titled, “Lost Rhythm,” he writes:

My experiences with the arts have consistently shown that rhythmic expressions in all media bring about a feeling of well-being…The disturbing aspects of art experiences play a  necessary role in the healing process, which often requires upheaval in order to bring new insights and change.  Yet rhythm, even in its most intense and driving forms, is a reliable mode of integration.  It draws things together in a steady pulse (233).

Whether it is through musicality or dissonance in the spoken words or the way the lines are constructed so as to convey connection or distance, the metaphor that is revealed is something instinctively recognized by the ear as well as through imagery.  The fall of words along the page, where a line ends or begins, can create a sense of pause or plummet.  The space between words may feel to be an indrawn breath or silence, a wide canyon of distance or longing.

For instance, in Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “”Bonsai,” from her collection, After Poems, one senses the haunting aspect of sadness and needful silence that accompanies a certain quality of letting go:

One morning beginning to notice
which thoughts pull the spirit out of the body, which return it.
How quietly the abandoned body keens,
like a bonsai maple surrounded by her dropped leaves.
Rain or objects call the forgotten back.
The droplet’s placid girth and weight.  The table’s lack of ambition.
How strange it is that longing, too, becomes a small green bud,
thickening the vacant branch-length in early March (45).

The above lines hold both a feeling of stillness and the impending arrival of movement. They turn to another season, whisper of hope, the green of spring and new growth. The edge of turning is evident in two sentences placed deliberately next to each other, “The droplet’s placid girth and weight.” and “The table’s lack of ambition.” There is a heaviness to this line, a somnolence of waiting things out.  Then comes a feeling of lightness, the sense of movement in the following line, “How strange that longing too, becomes a small green bud.”

I thought it interesting that this place of turning, of transition in the above poem had a quality of birth following death.  In the line, “like a bonsai maple surrounded by her dropped leaves,” one senses autumn at work, followed by a period of incubation or deep inertia of the line, “The droplet’s placid girth and weight. The Table’s lack of ambition.” Then we come to a quickening, an image of new life in the lines,  “How strange it is that longing, too, becomes a small green bud, thickening the vacant branch-length in early March..”  Within this illustration of the “Threshold” in this lyric poem, all is contained: life, death and renewal, and I felt that Jane Hirshfield was purposeful in that use of her imagery, suggesting that just as these elements are contained within the poem itself, so too is it present in each moment of our lives.

This idea of the moments of transition as carrying within them both life and death and this aspect of these spaces as providing great potential for transformation is something Stephen Levine describes in his book, Who Dies.  In his appendix 111 regarding the teaching of the Tibetan Bardo system, he writes:

There are many translations for the Tibetan word bardo, but essentially it means a passageway, a point of transition. Some define it as a gap, a space; others, as a portal…Generally we think of the bardos as occurring after death but actually this moment is a bardo. We tend to think that such portals will become evident only after we drop the body but that is only part of it. You are in a bardo at this very moment (303).

This idea of the bardo as a place of transformation and its connection to lyric poetry is something Stephen Levin also touches upon in his section titled, “End Game.” He quotes directly from the Lotus Sutra, a tremendous example of how the language of lyric poetry serves to encompass the sacred: “Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream” (290).

As I read the above excerpt, I was caught not only by the beauty of the words, but the way in which the lines were almost musical, their movement in these images that include the sound of the words as well as their meaning. The essence of the song-like cadence is transformational: something is rising, traveling down a stream. There is the cleansing sensation of water and light, and this world of the spirit, of ghosts and visions, is as real as the physical world we encounter, perhaps even more so because it arises from within our hearts, which is where transformation itself really happens.

In speaking with a friend, Steven Scribner, a classical musician and composer of the “StormSound Cycle,” a nine-hour exploration of sacred sound and dissonance, he noted how language mirrors the rhythms of life both within form and sound.  In reflecting upon the musicality of words, he noted how sound and vibration has been used throughout history to connect with the divine.  He brought up this use of lyric poetry within sacred ritual, such as one might read in psalms in the bible.  As our discussion moved into the realm of dissonant sound as a frequently used aspect of conveying the creative aspect of the universe, Steven remarked, “We perceive sounds as pleasant or unpleasant, and yet it is often dissonance within the form of both music and words that is recognized as powerful and transformative.”   Steven addresses this idea in one of his lyric poems included in the “StormSound Cycle” series:

Light was not, nor sun nor moon to cast it.
Darkness was not, nor night nor cave to hold it.
Warmth was not, nor sun nor fire to cast it.
Cold was not, not night nor sea to hold it.
The person who is was only.
There was nothing between Him.
And He said, Let there be a Song. (1)

In discussing the above piece on his blog on the “StormSound Cycle”, he references this aspect of the lyric poem and its relationship to sacred ritual and story.  As he writes, “This is indeed a creation story…When I wrote it, I put in some of my concepts about music…in the line “Let there be a Song.”  The universe is a song.  It began with sound, vibration and energy.”

I found Steven’s point an interesting one; that dissonance may actually be an important and necessary part of sacred sound.  In listening to portions of  StormSound Cycle, I was struck by the way the dissonance broke up the restful, meditative rhythm of some of the pieces and taken back at the discordant noise.  It effectively conveyed chaos and upheaval.  Certainly, he was attempting to reveal the way the “storms” of violence, war and man’s inhumanity to man and the natural environment are a frightening and heartbreaking sound in the universe. The music made me think of how the storms of our lives move through our interior worlds with the same discordance, and how they upset our balance, literally and figuratively, in the status of our physical, emotional and psychological health.

The use of dissonance and unexpected breaks between words and lines to convey chaos and the depth of human suffering is a key element in the poetry of M. Norbese Philip in her book, Zong!, a work that explores the purposeful murder by drowning of African slaves.  There is a quality of both breathlessness and song, of cry and silence in her title poem, She Tries:

When silence is
Abdication of word   tongue or lip
Ashes of once in what was
Song   Word    Speech
Might I…like Philomena…sing
…pure utterance (207)

The story conveyed in Zong!  is one of horror and almost incomprehensible loss. And yet, in the delicate balance of what is part song, part howl, the cadence of weeping, the crash of waves and the silence of deep water, Philip weaves the retelling of this historical event with a terrible compassion with language that contains the qualities of keening, of song and prayer.  As she writes,

Why the exclamation mark after Zong!? Zong!
is  chant! Shout! And ululation! Zong! is pure utterance,
is song! And song is what kept the soul of the African
intact when they wanted water…sustenance…
preservation.  Zong! is the Song of the untold story;
it cannot be told yet must be told, but only through
its untelling.” (207)

In writing through any kind of trauma, addressing the chaos, the dark and frightening place that is often the landscape of change, is crucial in transformation.  This foray into the wilderness within lyric poetry is something that Jane Hirshfield speaks to in Nine Gates in her essay, “Writing and the Threshold Life,” where she discusses the mystical journey of the lyric poet and the use of the writing to encounter the painful and difficult places that accompany any kind of grief or trauma.  She describes both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as “mystic” poets who bravely journey into discordance and pain in their poetry, pointing out that such an “aspect of mystical paradox is the willing embrace of pain—also a liminal characteristic.” As she goes on to write of Emily Dickinson:

Just as Whitman allied himself with the most difficult human circumstances, Dickinson too acknowledges the necessity of  pain in the enduring transformation of the threshold:

Essential Oils—are wrung—
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns—alone—
It is the gift of Screws—
The General Rose—decay—
But this—in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer—When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary—

In the above poem, Emily Dickinson employs a purposeful dissonance to her lines, both in the rhythm and the sound of her words, suggesting something slightly off kilter.  In the repetitive use of the hyphen, there is a quality of a halting gait, of something off balance and challenged by sorrow.  In the very surprise of her word choice; a lonely, desiccated image resting against the flower, and summer, I had the impression of a life wilted and yet on the brink of something poignant and beautiful as well, the very fabric of transformation.  Necessary death and the earth pungent depths of relinquishment transport us to the grieving inherent in letting go.  There is the necessary death of something, the earth pungent depths that such relinquishment takes us to, the letting go and the grieving. Something waits beyond the edge of last light.  The poem points to this transformative turning, “Make Summer—When the Lady lie in Ceaseless Rosemary.”

Orr also writes eloquently on this aspect of the personal lyric and its connection to the sacred through the sound of poetry, reflecting on the ways in which the lyric is reminiscent of keening, the singing quality of deep mourning. He describes how this form is used in many world traditions in the expression of grief or transition. For example, he quotes the following from The Mythology and Traditions of the Maori in New Zealand: “When the two met, they both sat down to have a cry together. Rehua cried simple, but Tane cried with a  meaning, in verses” (22).

While Gregory Orr makes the point that the form in which lyric poetry or music manifests as sacred ritual or traditional expressions of grief certainly varies widely, the rhythmic quality of words most likely is an intrinsic part of human biology and this may indeed explain the natural gravitation toward the lyric form in the universal expression of personal grief or a society’s communal expression of loss. Here he writes:

It may be that the production of stories and symbols is innate to the way the human brain functions in the course of making meanings.  And the omnipresence of incantation may well derive from an underlying, physiological dimension  of soothing through rhythmic repetition. (94)

As well as the cadence of the words, Orr also speaks to the way the lyric poem often illustrates the places of “threshold” or “liminal spaces in our lives, the moments of transition or transformation that may be experienced as being perched on a ledge of sorts, on the very outer limits of our comfort level where the future beckons us forward into an unknown and uncertain landscape.  These first steps forward into darkness are almost always experienced as loss before new life arrives, and it is to this idea of transition that Gregory Orr refers to in the following excerpt:

“Liminal” means “threshold” and is applied to certain transitional states like marriages, funerals, and initiation ceremonies—states in which ordinary social rules are  suspended and an individual may undergo profound changes in identity…The lyric poem follows these biological and anthropological models…The threshold is that place where we become aware that we are on the borderline between order and disorder. It can be like standing on the brink of a cliff, or the edge of an ocean, or the beginning of a love affair. (53)

In his chapter, “The Quest and the Dangerous Path”, Orr speaks to how the use of silence within both imagery and the format of the lines of the lyric poem may serve to illustrate the delicate sense of movement between chaos and the necessary quiet following the storm. This pairing of both images of upheaval and stillness is mentioned in his discussion of Theodore Roethke’s poetry and his struggle with manic-depressive illness.  He describes how both darkness and hopefulness are revealed in his poem, “The Lost Son”:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
a slow drip over stones,
toads brooding in wells. (200)

In the above stanza, Roethke begins with a menacing image, a wail of despair, and the discordant noise of the “slamming of iron”, giving impression of finality along with the undercurrent of chaos in the sound of the “slam” against the cold metal.  A prison, a crypt, a quality of descent into the underworld perhaps, and so too the journey of the hero into poem, the often dark earth of transformation.   There is such heaviness to the first lines of this poem, an almost funereal quality in the ponderous lines.

Then as the poem goes on, there is a feeling of rising, an uplift of both cadence and image, and the piece becomes lighter and infused with silence.  Here the turning from darkness to the possibility of healing is gorgeously illustrated in the following lines:

The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait. (201)

Sharon Olds is another lyric poet who often contrasts the turbulent image and rhythm with the movement into a sense of the rising of hopefulness and the easing of the breath in her work. As in her collection, The Dead and the Living, in her poem titled, “Farewell Poem,” where she writes:

The big, cut iceberg waits
outside the harbor like a spaceship.
Sends in emissaries: cold
chopped fish, floating cakes,
canoes of ice white as brides. (22)

The imagery here is all sharp edges.  A frozen brittleness, some hard and breakable thing that must be traversed in order to reach the other side.  And this indeed seems to be the journey, this rise of something like homecoming in both image and sound in the lines of the last stanza:

…sets her foot
on the cloudy crystal of an ice floe
and floats out to her mother, floats
out to the white iceberg waiting
ninety-three years for hot death
to deliver his favorite daughter home to
the cool white long room,
lace curtains from the parlor flying
like flags in the summer sky. (23)

In these lines, even the image of the iceberg is transformed into an image of welcome.  I had the impression as well, that the image of the ice, the color white and the curtains in the window signaled something like forgiveness and reconciliation.  Certainly here are all the aspects of the sacred journey from death to life, one reads it as both a literal passing of an elderly woman and the journey home of the spirit.

The ability of the lyric poem to carry so poignantly within it both darkness and the light, the discordant and the resonant, is one of the qualities that make it such a valuable medium for writing through trauma and grief.   It allows space for chaos and stillness to cohabit, and this lends itself to the compassion and non-judgment required for such exploration into the wounded places in our hearts.  As a form that offers both safety of structure and the freedom of discordance and upheaval, the two may rest side by side sustained by both freedom and the circumference of literary form, and as such provides the framework for healing exploration into the places of threshold.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine also speaks to this idea of threshold and the importance of approaching times of transition and transformation with mindfulness and compassion, both in the writing and the sharing of lyric poetry.  In the following paragraph Levine writes:

Our edges differ and are constantly changing, as is all else in the universe. We notice that our cage has varying capabilities and available space. We move to that edge with compassion. And each step beyond is taken with love, not forcing the edge But softly penetrating our imagined limitations and going beyond. Step by step, into the freedom of nonholding. (35).

This quality of mindful movement from one room to another, of stepping to the edge of a moment that harkens somehow to a new life, even as this is experienced as loss, a dying of some kind, is palpable in the following poem by Jane Hirshfield, titled “Translucence, An Assay” from her collection of After Poems:

She did not look back.
A shadow opened then folded behind her.
I followed as if past a gate latch
sliding closed on its own silent weight.
It was not so different, really.
More as if a narrator had turned and departed,
abandoned the story,
and each tree, each stone, stood clear in its own full fate (15).

As I have personally felt so often in reflecting back on my own writing, there is a strong sense of journey within the image of the threshold. The action is only the barest step, often only the awareness of a shift of light, the way the air feels to have changed. This too suggests movement, with the quiet realization something is no longer the same, some indistinct quality of shadow or season, the world as we know it is changed forever.

In reading through some of my earlier poems, I see now how the discordant and chaotic images were balanced with the widening translucence of the following lines, and I think this is such an instinctive impulse, and one that lends itself so naturally to healing work. Because the darkness has been unmasked in the safe space provided by the structure of the poem, light is shed on fear and despair; the monster is made a manageable creature and eased into the light. In one particular poem I wrote in the aftermath of my mother’s sudden and unexpected death titled, “Cataclysm,” this balance feels integral to the poem, and the writing of this piece and in much of my writing during this difficult time provided great self-healing:

The moment is made of glass
and we find ourselves bright
fragments blown to the branches of trees,
the rust blood roof tops, our shoes
lost to the shutters of dark windows.
The world is a mirror—heaven a lake,
a spoon of blue,
and we are the round dear light reflected
in a million eyes. The same
infinitesimal ember is carried, is ash
and lifted to the air.

This contrast of blood and brightness was a recurrent image in many of my poems of that period, and one I questioned at the time.  I wasn’t at all sure of the “blood,” but it felt so natural that I just allowed it, and I see how appropriate it was to my grieving process.  In another poem, “Wren,” this image of the bleeding wound was paired with the darkness of the earth.  In the image of the bird, I think I am referring to a sense of rising, of a quality of rebirth:

A hundred birds cluster on the lawn.
A crowd of hungered wings
gray as morning rustle against the moist earth.
They have assembled uninvited
outside my kitchen window
and I could look at the early sky
and see nothing but the slow noon hour descending.
But instead I stand here, rooted to the cool space,
this shard of cup pressed to fingertips,
its gentle spill of water.
I bleed bead like drops crimson
bright against the yellow counter top
and in the yard a vastness of feathers move.
Beaks searching the graveled patch
while a thousand tiny and burrowed creatures
whisper through the soil.

In that moment of turning, space opens up a crack in the ceiling of the sky. The lyric poem conveys an aspect of reality where the distance between here and what waits beyond the moment is a single breath. The barest turning is transformation.  It is not the long path but the first step that carries so much power and requires so much courage. In her collection of essays, Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield speaks to this ability of poetry to touch upon this sense of journey:

We peer into the new poem with the old hope: that we may find there a few words to illuminate more widely our passage though the dark woods and brightly lit cities of the fleeting, time-bound world.  And the art of poetry remains a daughter of Remembrance—of our wish to feel joined to some fabric that both gives meaning to and is made meaningful by the part of it we are. (196)

Within the immediacy of moment a space is opened up. Within our words there is a sense of the next mindful step that serves as a reflection on the sacred nature of the journey as well as providing a guidepost through the unmarked doorway. The step itself is the answer. Certainly something waits across the boundary between this moment and the next, this room and the one barely seen through the shadowed hall, and yet all is contained in the very act of movement itself. The transformation begins in the decision to move forward, the moment our visions widens just enough to recognize something beyond grief is possible.

Works Cited

Hirshfield, Jane. After Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Orr, Gregory. Poetry As Survival. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Levine, Stephen and Ondrea. Who Dies?. New York, Anchor Books,1982.

McNiff, Shaun.  Art Heals. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.

Olds, Sharon. The Dead and the Living. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Philip, M. Norbese. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Scribner, Steven. “The StormSound Cycle” http://www.stormsoundclycle

Lisa McIvor is a poet from Washington State and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in 2011. She went on to earn her MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard in 2014. Lisa has been a home health nurse for the past thirty years with Provail, formerly known as United Cerebral Palsy Association, and has facilitated a writer’s circle for individuals living with the challenges of disability with Provail’s art program, Artistry Incorporated, for the past four years. Lisa’s poetry has been published in literary journals including Hurricane Alice, Red Hawk Review, Bellowing Ark, The Madison Review, The Nassau Review and Advocate Journal. Her first chapbook of poems, How the Sky Became a Child, has been accepted by Tebot Bach for publication later this year. This will be her second year in co-editing the TLA Network’s Chrysalis Journal. She lives in Seattle and shares a home with her father and her cat, Lily.

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