Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem The Weed Garden
One of the most common, and most unanswerable questions a poet is asked is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s as though people expect one to say someplace specific, as though every idea were born in the same place and, if they knew where that was, maybe they could become writers too. My standard answer is, “I have a guy in Chicago who sends me new material every month.”
That’s a lie, of course, but then poets are prevaricators by profession. In the early 1960s the poet Miller Williams participated in a writers' conference held at the Cleveland Poetry Center of Fenn College, now Cleveland State University, where he made a number of cogent comments, but in the course of a panel discussion on "The Poet's Masks" he said one thing in particular that I have remembered ever since: "The poet lies to tell the truth." As an illustration of this thesis Miller used an incident that involved his son: One day the boy ran into the house and said, "A lion's chasing me!" Of course, there was no lion in the yard, but out of courtesy to childhood Williams looked, and there was a lion in the yard...in the form of a fair sized dog.
The point Miller made was that to an adult the animal was a dog, but the quality of the boy's experience was that he had been threatened by something as large and menacing to him as a lion would be to an adult, so the child had "lied" in order to convey the magnitude of the experience to an older person.
Usually one doesn’t recall where a motivating idea comes from, but in the case of the poem following I recall reading in a periodical long ago an essay by or about R. D. Laing, author of Knots, who, though himself a poet, made his living as a psychiatrist. Laing quoted one of his patients who said, “I am the ghost of the weed garden.”
I don’t remember whether I finished reading the article because that line stopped me in my tracks. I knew I had to do something with it, for it was burrowing into my brain evoking…I knew not what, nor would I know until I wrote about it. In order to do that, though, I needed the other inhabitants of that weed garden, the herbs and plants among whom Laing’s patient lived.
Fortunately, I was a book collector (what writer isn’t?) and I owned an old copy of John Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea. Or, A Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts, published in London by Thomas Longman in 1742, “Twelfth edition, enlarged and corrected.” It was bound in full contemporary calf with raised bands, blind-stamped borders and designs, but a modern leather label that I had made to replace the missing one. Its covers had been reattached with leather strapping at the top and bottom edges. The rear cover had been damaged, perhaps by acid, but I had refilled the holes with pieced leather. It was the perfect volume to tell me what I needed to know:
THE WEED GARDEN
On a line by a mental patient, with reference to Quincy's An English Dispensatory.
"I am the ghost of the weed garden."
Stalk among stones — you will find me
remembering husks and pods, how crisp burdock
couches in the moon for every passer.
I am the dry seed of your mind.
The hour will strike when you dream me, your
hand at the sheet like five thin hooks.
I will wait for you in the old vines rattling on
the wind, in the ground-pine. I will show you
where rue has blossomed and eyebright,
mother-thyme. You must name me Yarrow.
Bitter vetch shall catch your step as
you follow, hearing the stars turning to crystal,
sweet lovage turning sere, adder's tongue and
Jew's-ear at their whisper. Nightshade
will consume the beautiful lady.
Dwarf elder, dodder-of-thyme, I
am the thing you fear in the simple of your blood:
toothwort in the dust, feverfew, mouse-ear,
sundew and cup-moss, tormentils.
"The Weed Garden" was originally published in Poetry Northwest, volume xii, number 3, the autumn 1971 issue. It subsequently appeared as the title poem of my chapbook, The Weed Garden, Orangeburg, SC: Peaceweed Press, 1973, which was eventually collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007.