For a long time, every poem I wrote was occasional, though not in the traditional sense of the term. I wrote poems only as they came to me, showed up on the doorstep of imagination, and knocked, demanding to be let in. Most often they were prompted by a significant event in my life or after an intense engagement with a work (or works) of art. This practice suited and satisfied me, enabling me to lead a busy life as a professor, administrator, mother, and wife and to be a writer as well. It led to the production of a modest number of poems of reasonable quality, and it allowed me to feel that I was being faithful to the call of poetry, a vocation that first claimed me when I was about six years old.
This is also a deeply moving way to write. Those moments when the poem would arrive felt like incursions of the holy into my ordinary life. One particular example comes to mind. A few years ago, I went to see an exhibition of Van Gogh's work at the Neue Gallery in New York. Wandering from room to room, pondering the eighty paintings assembled in this small space (many of which had never left the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam before), I was overwhelmed by the visionary world the artist had given us entrance to. Somehow, Van Gogh had received these revelations of the eternal is all things and translated them by means of mortal materials (pigment, canvas, wood) into a language I could understand. It was like having converse with an angel. I left the museum (inevitably), but Van Gogh had a hold on me and would not let go, compelling me to answer the call of his art with my own. Writing "St. Vincent," a poem that arrived as a long free verse meditation but gradually found its form as a sonnet, felt like a Visitation. I was overjoyed by Vincent's gift, the miraculous Work he had conceived and given birth to, and I felt the Word within me leap with correspondent joy: [End Page 242]
St. Vincent "The best way to know God is to love many things."—Vincent Van Gogh
What Vincent loved of sky he told the crows.He taught them blue and the long note of want,the rut and whorl of time that comes and goes,God's face in the field, drawn and gaunt.What Vincent loved of earth he told the trees.Their branches writhed like flames when they heardhow every leaf and bole at last is seizedand falls like olive stones and evening birds.What Vincent loved of salt he told the sea:the play and savor of the friends of Christ,their sails taut, each mast a wood-crossed T,the empty boats afloat on waves of light.What Vincent loved of fire he told the fire,then placed his wounded hand upon the pyre.
The Spirit that engendered this poem is the same Spirit that moved Elizabeth and the infant prophet inside her, the same Spirit that impregnated Mary, the same Spirit that filled the disciples full of words they didn't know they knew at Pentecost. Seen this way, every work of art becomes an Annunciation, a Visitation, and a Pentecostal celebration—each a key moment in salvation history that turns upon the Word. Interestingly, the Spirit moved, in this instance, via the medium of paint—a work of visual artistry. What I saw insisted on translation, transformation, and transubstantiation into what could be heard, providing a new path of access to the original incarnation of beauty. If painting gives (in)sight to the blind, then poetry lets the deaf hear—both art forms making miracles of the sort Christ performed through the agency of the Spirit during his earthly ministry.
The inspiration that prompted the Van Gogh poem was immediate, insistent, and irresistible. I could not rest until I wrote it. The double meaning of the word "inspiration" is relevant here: I felt both "blown into" by a mysterious breath outside myself, and I felt the compulsion to "inhale" that life...