“You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough–even white people–the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.” So remarked a Crow elder whom Gary Snyder quotes in his collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild.
I’ve always thought of this quote as a variation on the current popular saying, “Just show up.” And it’s awfully hard to do today. We can’t just show up. We can’t just be somewhere long enough. There’s too much to do. I’ve heard people complain (imagine this!) that they can’t memorize a poem because it’s too much like sitting around doing nothing. Just reading and re-reading a poem? Letting it sink in? Remembering how it goes? The whole idea of memorizing something! What’s the point? What good does it do? We have more important things to do than that!
Well, this is not an essay on the virtues of memorizing poetry. The real point here is that we need to be somewhere, rather than, or in spite of, doing something. We need to be receptive to the Life-Giver who speaks to us in moments of quiet openness. I have a feeling the Crow elder didn’t have busy people in mind who might be somewhere long enough, but would miss the spirits speaking to them because they are busy listening to all the commotion and activity around them, even the commotion and activity they cause themselves. White people do a lot of this. One thing you can say for memorizing a poem is that it slows you down. People might look at you and think you’re doing absolutely nothing. Of course what you are doing is memorizing a poem, but it’s more like just being with it rather than doing something with it.
Ruth Underhill in her book about the Papago, The Power of Song, points out that these people do not see themselves so much as creating a song as receiving it. They make themselves pleasing to the spirits, the supernatural beings of their landscape, by being good hunters or warriors. By being something more than doing something. It requires an openness to the world around them as hunters and warriors must have. My friend Dave teaches stalking skills as part of the naturalist program he runs at a county park. He likes to point out that the stalker can’t just be focused on the deer because while you sneak up on it, the mountain lion sneaks up on you. A good stalker must have something like 360-degree awareness and openness to what’s going on in the whole area. In other words, Dave presents stalking as a spiritual activity, it’s about being one with the land and the wilder life right where you are. It’s about slowing down and really being somewhere with an open mind, a receptive heart, and alert senses. Whether we hear the spirits the Crow elder talks about with our ordinary ears, or our inner ears (it might happen either way), what’s important is that we have the attitude that something will come. Whether we hear the mountain lion behind us with our physical ears, or just know that it’s there, either way we are ready for it.
Mary Oliver has a poem, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End,” in which she says that if she stands around, it’s with her arms open. And then “Everything in the world/comes. // At least closer.” It’s this kind of attentiveness to what’s around us, an active state of just being with it, rather than trying to do something to it or with it. It means being open for the song, even if it’s the song you are trying to memorize. Memorizing is not so much doing as receiving. Letting the song or poem grow in you. It’s like the Papago idea of finding a song in your sleep. Letting it come. Closer.
So maybe this is an essay on memorizing poetry after all. I think when we memorize a poem we have the best of two worlds going for us. First, we have to be somewhere relatively quiet, even if it’s in your car waiting for the light to change. You’re not just in traffic and impatient drivers, waiting impatiently yourself for the light to change. In fact you’re content to be there and wait for the light to change. Because you’ve got this poem spinning around in you. So you are happy to just be there. Second, you are and are not doing something. You are memorizing a poem, of course, but you are also waiting receptively for the poem to take up residence in your mind and heart. Similar to the Papago, you make yourself pleasing to the spirit of the poem, and it speaks to you. It becomes a voice in you that will repeat itself over and over whenever you want it. All you have to do is listen. All you have to do is be there with the poem.
So we stalk poetry. We aren’t just trying to sneak up on it, but be and stay in the poem’s world long enough to really hear it and see it, and allow it to lure us deeper into its wild land. We are also mindful of what stalks us–which is also the poem. If we stay with a poem long enough, it finally catches us. Memorizing it was not totally your doing. It was also the poem’s doing. The poem finds you being somewhere long enough, being with it long enough, and then it pounces. And you’re caught.
Even white people can do this.