Where Do Poems Come From?

Where Do Poems Come From?

Where do poems come from? I believe they happen when several insights come together to make an explosion. For several months I’d been reading a wonderful new translation of Lao Tzu by Ursula Le Guin. These were the hum in the back of my mind. I found myself walking the labyrinth at Rancho La Puerta in Mexico. It was endlessly raining, and a crowd of black crows flapped overhead. As I followed the labyrinth in a walking meditation, some lines came into my head:

I put my toe
On the labyrinth’s edge,
Hoping to walk
The circle of my life.

I scribble these down in a damp notebook, wondering whether anything will come of them. Walking back to shelter from the rain, I hear the cawing of crows and look up to see them circling above in the rainy sky. Why are there so many crows, and where is the carrion that draws them? I think of all the deaths that have saddened me in the last few years. Eventually, these elements come together.

Do these notes “explain” the poem? I doubt it. They are simply markers along the way.

Sometimes there are many markers and no poem. If the elements come together to tell you something you didn’t know before, it is always a mysterious miracle. I hope that’s the case with this poem.

In the Labyrinth with Lao Tzu
By Erica Jong

Be broken to be whole.
Twist to be straight.
Be empty to be full.

—Lao Tzu (transl. Ursula Le Guin)

Hoping to walk
The circle of my life,
I put my toe
On the labyrinth’s edge.
A crowd of black crows
Veers above
And drops fall
In this place
Where it never rains.
Writing has been my life
But my writing is stopped
By the crows
And the deaths they portend.
In the middle of the labyrinth
of my twisting life,
I find myself under a cloud of crows
and the straight way is lost.
Lao Tzu would say
I must learn to write
Despite the haggling of the crows.
And perhaps he would also say
there is no
Straight way and no
Middle of the road
Of anyone’s life.
Oh Lao Tzu, muse of labyrinths,
I should listen to you
And not the everlasting cawing
Of the crows.

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