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.
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem "The Weed Garden"
"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.
An idea can happen any time, anywhere. According to David Eagleman in his 2011 book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain we have any number of secret “selves” or systems working beneath our “consciousness mind,” which is actually a very small portion of our brain. “Ideas” bubble up from some sort of subliminal brain committee that is forever working to keep us alive. A poem may begin with a single word — for instance, I heard a word on television one morning. I was watching the weather forecast and the forecaster said, "When will the snow do what it's supposed to do?" But instead of "snow do" I heard "snow-dew." That word fascinated me. I don't know where that idea is going to lead, but perhaps eventually something will click, one of my subconscious committees will put that word into some kind of context for me, and I'll be able to write a poem.
On another occasion I'd been collecting such words and making a list of them, hoping I'd eventually find a place to use them, but I never did. It was a short list — "twilleter" is a neologism, meaning a kind of insect, from Alistair Reed's children’s book Ounce, Dice, Trice; "common goatsucker,” is another name for the nighthawk, one of my favorite words, but I tend to overuse it; "clum," which I ran across in the Oxford English Dictionary, is an ancient synonym for “silence.”
Finally I got tired of waiting for "inspiration' to strike, and my conscious mind decided to write a poem and use all of the words, just to get rid of them. So I did, and as I was typing up the final draft (yes, “typing” — this was back in the ‘seventies, as I recall), I meant to write the word "slicing," but it accidentally came out "sliving." I looked at that typo and decided it was more descriptive than the word I'd intended to use, so I kept it. Years later, long after I’d written the poem, I serendipitously ran across the verb "to slive" in a book of archaic words, Charles MacKay’s Lost Beauties of the English Language published in 1874. It meant, "to do anything furtively or slyly; to sneak, to skulk." It turned out to be another ancient word and not a neologism after all! I wonder which of my subconscious systems understood that. Anyway, this is the poem I, or several of my selves, wrote from my word list:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem "Home Thoughts"
Time buzzes in the ear. Somewhere
nearby, beyond my peripheral
vision, an insect throbs its heartsong
to the couch. A twilleter fuzzes
against a burning lamp. Outdoors,
a common goatsucker strings twelve
yellow streetlamps on its bill. Between
its hoarse shrieks, the town sky drops pieces
of clum among my snoring neighbors.
If I close my eyes, a crack along
the wall comes sliving my lids to
split the mind's dry sight. Look inward: a
plaster skull sifts dust down upon old
webs that hang, buzzing, as darkness moves
ruthlessly to feast on something
small and hollow with blind, jeweled eyes.
So ideas come from everywhere; I guess all one need do is be receptive, keep one's ears open for sounds and one's eyes open for images. A poet, above all other writers, is interested in language. That's his or her material, You keep your ears open for language and your mind open to impressions.
"The Weed Garden" and "Home Thoughts" were published in my chapbook, The Weed Garden, Orangeburg, SC: Peaceweed Press, 1973, and they were eventually collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007. Copyright © 1973 and 2007 by Lewis Turco; all rights reserved.