A Writing tip from Leonard Kress
Poetry as Meditation
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
For several years I have been working on a series of sestinas that embody certain important aspects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Each sestina—and I have written nearly 100 so far—is a timed and focused meditation, contingent upon time, place, and physical, mental and emotional states.
Duration, for example, translates to space—the 36 lines in each individual poem is the amount of time it takes to wander through those lines, just as a meditator might practice sitting or walking meditation for a specific time period. The lines of the poem, as they proceed, play out and represent the active workings of a restless mind (what Buddhists sometimes refer to as “monkey-mind”). These mental wanderings, however, must, at the end of the line, return to the poem’s focus—the repeated end word which is part of the sestina’s form. This refocusing is the poem’s version of returning concentration to the breath. And, as in meditation, the poem invariably struggles free and proceeds in its own distracted and digressive way—until the next repeated end-word. Thus, the process repeats throughout the six stanzas.
The varying end-words inherent in the sestina form keep the meditation fresh and alive and foreground the emphasis on process. There is no ruling consciousness in charge, no one fully manning the controls; there are only people, creatures, events, places, and sounds entering the field of the poem. Each poem embodies a way of working through both psychic and physical materials—memory, experience, pain, suffering, grief, joy, gratitude, enchantment…
I suggest you, too, begin to treat your poetry as meditation. For a given time, allow yourself the wanderings. Begin your writing with the intention of allowing it to progress chaotically, and with the knowledge that it will—meanderings in tow—return to a focus. In this way, your listless mind will have a chance at making a creative mirror of itself in verse.
Leonard Kress has published poetry, translations, non-fiction, and fiction in the Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and others. Among his collections are The Orpheus Complex, Walk Like Bo Diddley, Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems, and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Craniotomy Sestinas appeared in 2021. He has received multiple grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. Kress currently lives in Blackwood, NJ, and teaches at Temple University.