Poetry’s Origin Story or Why Drink Skáldskapar Mjaðar

I have never heard the Norse version of how poetry was created. But thanks to Sam, who is reading The Prose Edda for the sheer pleasure of it, I now know about Skáldskapar Mjaðar: the Mead of Poetic Inspiration.

origins of poetry, Norse study, homeschooling,

Sam reading The Prose Edda using a Pomeranian bookrest.

Here’s the story as I understand it.

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

Groups of warmongering Norse gods, Vanir and Æsir, agreed to a truce after a long and bitter battle. Each side spat in a vat to preserve the peace.  The gods decided to keep the agreement safe by shaping their spittle into the form of a man they named Kvasir.

Kvasir was the wisest man on earth. He traveled the world— teaching, spreading knowledge, and correctly answering every question posed to him. (A lesson on the benefits of peace…)

But alas, evil dwarves Fjalar and Galar murdered Kvasir. They drained his blood and distilled it in Odhrǫrir, the magic caldron. (Apparently smarts are a downfall. The dwarves told the gods that Kvasir’s intelligence had suffocated him.)

Draining  Kvasir's blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Draining Kvasir’s blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Kvasir’s blood was mixed with honey to create the Mead of Poetic Inspiration. Poetry had once been the province of gods. But this drink held the power to turn all who imbibed it into skalds (poets) and blessed them with wisdom. Thus, skaldship spread.

child 2

Along came the giant Suttung. He sought revenge on the dwarves because they had killed his father, the giant Gilling, for sport. Suttung seized their precious mead and hid it in the center of a mountain with his daughter Gunnlöð standing guard.

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

But Óðin (a.k.a. Odin) was displeased that so vital a nectar was hidden in a remote cavern. Óðin was a biggie in the Norse pantheon. He was known as King of Asgard, ruler of the Aesir, father of the thunder god Thor and associated with battle, victory, death, wisdom, prophecy, and the hunt.

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

So Óðin disguised himself as a man and wooed Gunnlöð. After three nights of sex he got her to agree to offer him three sips of the mead. But he tricked her (or by some accounts she succumbed entirely to his charms). He emptied the first vessel with his first sip. His second swallow emptied the second vessel. His last swallow emptied the last vessel. Holding all the divine mead in his mouth, Óðin changed into an eagle and headed back to Asgard.

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Suttung transformed into an eagle as well and gave chase. Óðin hurtled over the mountains. His people saw him coming and put out vessels in the courtyard. Óðin swooped low and spat the blessed mead into those containers. In the frenzy of the pursuit some of the mead came out “backwards.”

Yes, Óðin shat it.

Anyone that wants it can take that portion. It’s called skáldfífla hlutr, the rhymester’s share. It’s the portion for inferior poets.

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end. (en.wikipedia.org)

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end.
(en.wikipedia.org)

Hey, I’ll take whatever portion I can get.

 

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick.deviantart.com)

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick)

 

Quick update on the poetry-wise goodness that’s flowing my way.

  • I was nominated for, but did not win, a 2014 Pushcart Prize. (Where’s my fairy godmother when I need her to turn the pumpkin of my work into a magical coach?)
  • Houseboat did me the honor of featuring several of my poems along with some wonderfully evocative photographs.
  • Read+Write: 30 Days of Poetry, a National Poetry Month project by Cuyahoga County Public Library, happened thanks to the hard work of poet Diane Kendig. I was fortunate that she selected one of my poems to appear during those 30 days. Along with the other 29 poets in the project, I received the gift of tickets to hear former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky read. Of course I show up in my badly scuffed shoes wearing clothes decades out of date because, well, that’s pretty much the best I can do. The event took place in Cleveland’s dazzlingly beautiful Playhouse Square complex, with an advance reception for Mr. Pinsky held in a plush mezzanine featuring a gorgeous painted ceiling and gilded walls. I tried to hide my hermit-doesn’t-know-how-to-talk-to-stranger issues by lurking near the tables with finger foods, which led to me licking my fingers after a few bites, which led to someone who doesn’t approve of barbarians handing me a napkin accompanied by a withering look.
  • I was stunned by a beautifully written, deeply generous review of my book by Ivy Rutledge in the newest edition of Mom Egg Review.

What an abundance of blessings.

Advertisements

A Dozen Ways To Revel In Poetry

poetry fun, celebrate poetry, exquisite corpse, traveling poetry, set poems free,

It’s all about how the letters are arranged. (mosswaterss)

1. Leave poems where they’ll be discovered. Write a poem on the sidewalk with chalk, crayon it on your child’s lunch napkin, tack it on your market’s public notice board, or tuck it into a friend’s coat pocket.

2. Pull a poem from a hat. Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat. Try the “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” method.

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

3. Dine with poetry. Linger over some beautiful lines as you savor each mouthful.  The poems don’t have to be about food, but that can add to your pleasure. Find a rich assortment in The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young and in Appetite: Food as Metaphor: An Anthology of Women Poets edited by Phyllis Stowell and Jeanne Foster. Or let these poems nourish you.

~”From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee

~”Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

~”Love Poem with Toast” by Miller Williams

~”The Invention of Cuisine” by Carol Muske-Dukes

~”Onions” by William Matthews

4. Sign up for poem-a-day sites. This month my wonderful library system is offering 30 days of poetry by email, featuring the work of local poets along with prompts for your own work.  You may also want to subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac or Poetry Daily.

5. Watch poetry-infused movies.

6. Play Exquisite Corpse. This strangely fascinating game was created by the Surrealists in Paris. To play with several people, each person writes a phrase on a sheet of paper, folds the paper to conceal the words, and passes it on to the next player to contribute the next line. Each participant must be unaware of what the others have written, thus producing an absurd but often delightful poem.

7. Let yourself fall in love with spoken word poetry. 

~”Human the Death Dance” by Buddy Wakefield

~”Drunk Text Message to God” by George Watsky

~”OCD” by Neil Hilborn

~”Shrinking Woman” by Lily Myers

~”Accents” by Denise Frohman

~”Place Matters” by Clint Smith

8. Go on a poetry diet.

9. Set poetry books free. Leave them where strangers can find them, perhaps a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room, a dentist’s office, a barber shop, or a muffler repair shop’s waiting room.  If you’d like, register them with BookCrossing.com to see where they travel.

10. Take a poem into nature. It doesn’t have to be wilderness, simply under a tree or near water, and the poems don’t need to reference nature although these do.

~”Catechism for a Witch’s Child” by J.L. Stanley

~”The Silence of the Stars” by David Wagoner

~”The Seven of Pentacles” by Marge Piercy

~”Sometimes” by Sheenagh Pugh

~”Hum” by Mary Oliver

11. Hang on to poetic life lines. Some lines read long ago wait in our memories, rising to awareness at just the right time. The Academy of American Poets offers some time-honored life lines.

This line by art historian Bernard Berenson came to my mind recently as a friend struggled with cancer.  “I would have stood at street corners hat in hand begging passers by to drop their unused minutes into it.”

12. Curate a collection of your favorite poems. If a poem truly resonates with you, save it. Print such poems out out and paste them in a lovely scrapbook, or copy them by hand in a journal, or calligraph them on fine paper, or (as I do much less artfully) keep them in a word doc. After a few years you’ll have a highly personal, completely invaluable collection.

Book Zombie

zone out while reading, reading addict, can't stop reading, staying up late to read, tune out the world when reading,

L.G. Weldon, book zombie

book [book]  noun
1. a work of fiction or nonfiction bound within covers or digital version
zom·bie  [zom-bee] noun
1. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, inanimate, remote
 2. an eccentric or peculiar person.


I stayed up past two a.m. last night happily churning through a book. Reading seems timeless to me, a book-related fugue state that got me in trouble in elementary school.  Many days the class moved on from reading time to math while I remained completely absorbed in a book. I’d look up to find I’d been called on to answer an equation. My brain would scramble to move from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’s18th century manor house to third grade long division, the plight of children dealing with villians more real than dreary numbers chalked on the board.

This still causes me trouble. I have no idea how many minutes or hours have elapsed when I finally lift my eyes from the page. That’s not helpful. At night I tuck into an enticing stack of books, often enjoying non-fiction for a few hours and then finishing up with a long indulgent dessert of fiction. The evening me doesn’t care about the morning me, she unpages chapter after chapter oblivious of the clock’s reality. But no matter how late she stays up reading there’s still an early start. When the morning me looks at the stack of books she isn’t bitter. She may sigh, but she also looks forward to reading some more.

When my kids were tiny I only let myself read when they were asleep or nursing. Okay, I also read while they were safely strapped in the stroller, pushing it with a book propped against the handle. I hoped this would keep them safe from their mother’s zombie reading state. It didn’t. Now they’re zombies when they read. Or maybe they pretend to be, the better to filter out reminding parental voices.

I can’t recall a fraction of all the marvelous books, essays, poems, and articles I’ve read over the years. But I’m convinced that they’re in there, ready to provide a bit of insight or wisdom I might call on when the need arises. They are a part of who I am as surely as the experiences that make up my life.

Yes, today I feel pretty zombified with only a few hours of sleep due to the magical novel, The Night Circus. But if my schedule allowed I wouldn’t wait until this evening to finish it.

Perhaps because I’m tired, it occurs to me that books lure us into this zombification. Think about it. Close scrutiny of readers reveals that we willingly zone out, only our eyes moving in oddly repetitive back and forth motions. While reading we are out of our own minds, happily roaming through the imaginings of someone else’s. Perhaps our beloved books build brains to feed on them. If that were true I’d say, “Nosh away my dear books. Make a buffet of my mind. I am your happy zombie.”

Are you a fellow book zombie? If so, what are you reading lately? And if not, does something else cause you to zombie-out?

How The Secret Garden Saved Me

inner life of children, kids' religious worries, what kids hide from their parents,

My mother gave me an old clothbound book when I was nine years old.  It was her childhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I felt a sudden tug of connection to the little girl my mother once was, especially when I found her name carefully penciled on the inside cover.  Right away, I signed my name under hers.

Although written in 1911 and clotted with Yorkshire dialect, that book became an essential nutrient to me.  It told the story of orphaned Mary Lennox who was sent to live with her silent brooding uncle on the English moor. Little Mary had no lessons imposed on her and was given the opportunity to explore.  I envied her freedom.  A character named Dickon befriended animals so easily that they gathered at his feet and ate from his hand. I, too, liked to go in the forest behind our house in hopes that woodland creatures there would come to accept me.  And I understood Mary’s response when her uncle inquired if she wanted anything. He suggested toys or dolls.  Instead she asked, “Might I have a bit of earth?”

More than my favorite book, The Secret Garden provided comfort at a time when I could find no other solace.  The year I received my mother’s copy was also the year that one after another of my grandparents succumbed to long, painful illnesses. By the time I turned ten, all my grandparents had died.

I’d watched them struggle for each breath but it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t get better. That’s what doctors and medicine were for. That’s what prayer was for. Now we would never have Sunday dinner together again. The seasons would come and go without canning applesauce or planting bulbs or going to the lake with my grandparents as we always did. I couldn’t stop thinking about death.

children's literature and positive mental health, saved by a book, children find meaning in fiction,

Other children probably weather grief with more resilience but that year was a dividing line for me. The blithe happiness of my childhood came to a halt. I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone I loved would die some day—my pet rabbits, my friends, and worst of all, my parents. My mother assured me that God simply called people home to heaven when it was their time. I kept asking why, if God were all-powerful, would He allow people like my grandparents to suffer so horribly before they died. She said His wisdom was beyond our understanding. Her answers left me with more and more questions. I could see asking them only intensified the sorrow she felt. So I tried to keep my worries to myself.

Now added to my fear of this unknown thing called death a new bleakness was added. Where I once prayed and worshipped without doubts, I was set adrift somewhere beyond my parents’ beliefs. Religion seemed piteously small when confronted with bigger dilemmas. And more of them occurred to me each day. What was the purpose of existence in a universe of unimaginably vast time and space? How did everything start when it had to come from somewhere? How did our tiny lives matter? I didn’t like the thought that adults believed in something that made no sense. I felt I was standing in a blizzard outside the warmth of answers that faith provided. It was lonely.

I tried to reconstruct my comfortably safe worldview with the tools I’d been taught were the most powerful: good behavior and prayer. I knew I wasn’t really the good girl I seemed to be. I was a picky eater, I argued with my sister, and I was lazy about chores. So I tried hard to be better, to be so worthy that no one else I loved would be taken away. The effort was a useful distraction from my preoccupation with big questions about death, meaninglessness, and infinity.

And I prayed, fiercely and in my own way, using pictures in my head and silent words. It was a gamble because I was no longer sure that God existed or if He did how on the job He was, but I had to do my best to keep my family alive. Here’s how my keep-them-alive game worked. If I thought of people I loved I had to pray for them. This was somewhat less burdensome at school because I was busy. It was overwhelming when my parents went out for the evening. I thought of my mother and father constantly, each time silently praying that they would come home safely. I summoned up images of my parents driving, chatting with their friends, driving home, then walking in the door. My whole body could feel the relief of their imaginary return. But as the evening wore on my prayers got more fervent and I took up a position watching cars go down the street. Their return was always later than I expected, probably because I was constantly willing them home. As soon as their car pulled in the driveway I ran to bed, feeling a sense of blessed completeness I couldn’t explain. They were back. Everything was okay.

It was exhausting.

importance of stories to girls, what books mean to kids,

I couldn’t imagine how but my parents weren’t fooled by the cheery act I put on. My mother told me that sometimes people need more help getting over their grief. She made an appointment for me to see a psychotherapist. I knew full well what this meant. I’d read my share of children’s books where unfortunate characters are locked up in institutions or sent away for their own good. It rarely went well for them. I was determined to act as un-crazy as possible. The day of my first appointment my mother made me wear a summer dress, sweater, and saddle shoes—the clunkiest fashion statement imaginable even to my ten-year-old sensibilities.

My mother usually stayed with me in the pediatrician’s office so I expected the same. Instead I was ushered in to see the doctor by myself. An older lady sat behind a large desk. She asked me to sit facing her in a chair much too large for me. I sat, my throat clenched with so much tension that it was hard to swallow. She asked me how I felt about coming in. I knew it wasn’t polite to admit my true feelings. Kids constantly have to filter what they do and say to please adults. So even though I feared and despised everything about the appointment I told her I was fine and didn’t need to be there and I was perfectly happy except for the embarrassing outfit I was wearing. I said it nicely. In fact I thought my comment about the outfit was a light-hearted joke. The doctor turned it into the topic of a lengthy question and answer session. She seemed to think I hated my mother for making me wear clothes I didn’t like. I couldn’t imagine that she’d had a mother recently or she would know that mothers make you do all sorts of things you don’t want to do. Eat all your dinner, clean your room, write thank you notes, well the list was endless. Frankly a dorky outfit was the least of it. Clearly I would have to filter what I said even more carefully.

Next she got out a series of large black and white photographs. She said it was a fun kind of test. I always got good grades on tests at school but the rules were pretty flimsy for this one. All I had to do was look at the pictures and tell her a story about what was happening. That included what happened right before the picture was taken and what would happen immediately afterwards. The first picture showed a dark-haired woman walking by herself on a beach. She didn’t look all that happy.Right behind her was a man with his arms reaching up in such a way that he seemed ready to choke her. The look on his face was creepy as well as dangerous. But I put the lightest tone possible in my voice and told the doctor that it was the woman’s birthday and she didn’t know her friend had come to surprise her. He was going to put his hands over her eyes and ask her to guess who and she’d be delighted. Nearly every picture was equally disturbing. I churned through them with Pollyanna-ish stories in my attempt to demonstrate just how mentally healthy I could be.

Next she brought up my grandparents’ deaths. The questions she asked were so upsetting and intrusive that I couldn’t answer. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. Having a stranger try to get me to tell her things about those who were dead alarmed my whole body. I could feel every inch of the chair touching me. The smell of the office, dusty and airless, made me want to choke. Although I willed them away, tears kept springing up in my eyes, and I set my mouth as tightly closed as I could.

The doctor changed her tactics back to the earlier conversation about my mother. I tried to unlock my mouth into a polite smile but I desperately wanted to run out the door. I knew my mother would be waiting and ready with a comforting hug. All I needed to do was just hold on until the appointment was over. Then the doctor made a statement so insane that it seemed whole adult world might be slipping away on a raft built without logic. She said I was upset because I wanted my mother dead.

That was it. I was willing to sacrifice the time I’d invested in good girl behavior but I would never go back there. I would do whatever it took. I would throw fits if necessary but I would not speak to that doctor again. On the drive home and all through supper I tried to figure out how to best make my stand. I decided to be logical and calm, although I wanted more than anything else to climb into my mother’s lap. That evening I sat with my mother, the person I prayed for most often, and lost my struggle to keeping from crying. I told her the unspeakable thing the doctor had said. My mother was gratifyingly appalled. She hugged me for a long time and then we talked as if we were on one side and the doctor on the other. It was delicious.

My mother called the doctor the next day and afterwards confirmed that I was a good judge of character. I would not have to go back. I overheard her telling my father that the doctor “didn’t have her head screwed on tight.” But my mother did think the doctor was right about one thing. I wasn’t getting over my grandparents’ deaths.

That wasn’t it. The loss of my grandparents had tossed me into a realm of questions I couldn’t ask and worries that faith couldn’t explain. I knew my parents were concerned about me so I ramped up the cheerful act. Masking my fears actually helped, at least during the day. But at night I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t work hard to steer my mind relentlessly toward peaceful thoughts I’d feel as if I were falling into dark nothingness. The galaxies we learned about in fourth grade, black and endless, seemed like a void that would swallow up everything I knew. On the worst nights I could feel the fabric of the ordinary world stretched thin over a much larger unknown. Then I couldn’t even cry myself to sleep.

So I resorted to the distraction of reading. As soon as the rest of my family went to bed I turned my light back on. Most often I chose The Secret Garden. I turned to the same passages over and over. I read about the garden that seemed dead in the early spring chill until Mary cleared away branches and leaves to find tender green sprouts in the soil. I read about the crippled boy whose limitations Mary refused to accept and of his triumphant recovery in that garden. I read about her sorrowful uncle who awakened to joy after years of despair. Then I could sleep.

~

I don’t regret the fears and doubts of my childhood. They set me on a richly rewarding lifelong path of seeking answers to big questions. But I didn’t realize why I turned to The Secret Garden until I found the book years later. I opened it to see two childish signatures, my mother’s and my own. Rereading it, I recognized the passages that sustained me when I felt most lost. Each one was about about redemption, nature’s wisdom, and offered what I needed most of all, simple hope.

If I could meet a person from history I’d choose Frances Hodgson Burnett. I now know about the losses she suffered, the despair she fought, and the writing that was her life’s work. I’d tell her, a bit shyly, that I make a living as a writer too. I don’t think I could express how profoundly her book calmed a little girl too upset to sleep but I’d want her to know that her words were a soothing balm during those dark nights.

And I’d tell her that The Secret Garden didn’t just save me, it also shaped my future. Today I live on a small farm where my children have no lessons imposed, just like Mary. The animals here eat from my hand, as those in the book did from Dickon’s hand. Maybe I’d simply say, “Frances, our land is named after lines you wrote. We call it Bit of Earth Farm.”

Laura Grace Weldon

Poetry Diet

struggling poet, making money as a poet, appreciating poets, life of a poet,

“Favourite Poete” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.  ~Thomas Gray

The term Poetry Diet might imply a rare appetite. The sort of longing only appeased by words strung spare and stark, like a meal so desired that imagination keeps creating it anew.

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
~Mark Strand

Or Poetry Diet could imply hunger for that rare current some call inspiration, the elusive muse carrying phrases from ether to pen.

Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale ’til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

However in this case, what I’m calling the Poetry Diet is something much more mundane.  It simply means to eat nothing but what is purchased with money earned from one’s poetry. Reading, teaching, publishing, wearing them on your naked body, selling poems painted on scrap metal, whatever it takes. If I started a Poetry Diet now I’d be svelte in a week, thin rather soon. Before long, starving artist might be a literal (hah!) condition.

Surely a Poetry Diet would provide a vast incentive to write and, here’s the rub, send out one’s work. It could also leave the poet so imperiled that friends might stage a poetry reading to raise funds to feed the annoyingly hollow wordsmith.

Thus far I’m not dedicated or foolhardy enough to attempt a Poetry Diet. Mostly because I’m already trying to live by patching together the Essay Diet, Columnist Diet, and Editor Diet. But also because I know how long it takes from inspiration to paycheck. Right now I’m waiting for one of my poems to appear in Christian Science Monitor, two in Trillium Literary Journal, two more in J Journal. The total pay will amount to, well, let us not speak of actual numbers. I wouldn’t last long on the Poetry Diet. Surely that says something about the quality of my poetry but it also says something about our culture as well.

Poets aren’t very useful
Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.
~Ogden Nash

I hardly expect to live by poetry alone, although I have been sustained by the work of other poets in ways more vital than any meal. I long to see greater support for artists of all kinds. I have dear friends who devote their lives to perfecting a craft. They act, compose, weave, calligraph, paint, weld, invent, write, bake, work with wood, sing, and throw pots. They are driven to explore the intersection of art and cosmology, continually refining what it means to create. Yet most of them spend their days at jobs that are unrelated in order to survive. They wait tables or work in accounts receivable. Their real gifts emerge during precious hours plucked from mundane obligations.

It’s quite possible to attend a production at a local playhouse and see performances that shift the way you experience the world. You walk out a changed person for the extraordinary art you’ve enjoyed. Chances are that director, those actors, that playwright are unable to support themselves with their work, vital though it is.

I’m certainly not in league with those whose work is transformative. My poetry is about ordinary things like opening doors, moving stones, forgetting a name.

Perhaps I should head in a new direction—food poems. That way I’d feel nourished while contemplating the swirling curds and whey in the next batch of cheese I make. I’d also be answering Chesterton.

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.  ~G.K. Chesterton