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fishes-421346_640One of the things I love most is writing about writing, unraveling the creative process, how the mind at play works.

Mark Doty’s essay Souls on Icedescribing how he came to write a particular poem, is a fascinating example of that. He put into words something I’ve long felt and toyed with–how certain images, feelings, experiences will strike me as singularly important. Somehow they seem deeply relevant to the world at large, as if I pulled hard enough and long enough at one of these loose strands I’d see how it’s all connected and, in the process, unravel one small corner of the mystery that underlies the universe.

Below are parts of the essay that spoke so eloquently to me, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing at the link above.

It begins with Doty “struck by the elegance of the mackerel in the fresh fish display” and how this sighting prompted his poem “A Display of Mackerel.”

“Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do. . . . . I can’t choose what’s going to serve as a compelling image for me. But I’ve learned to trust that part of my imagination that gropes forward, feeling its way toward what it needs; to watch for the signs of fascination, the sense of compelled attention (Look at me, something seems to say, closely) that indicates that there’s something I need to attend to. Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve. . . .

I almost always begin with description, as a way of focusing on that compelling image, the poem’s “given.” I know that what I can see is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; if I do my work of study and examination, and if I am lucky, the image which I’ve been intrigued by will become a metaphor, will yield depth and meaning, will lead me to insight. The goal here is inquiry, the attempt to get at what it is that’s so interesting about what’s struck me. Because it isn’t just beauty; the world is full of lovely things and that in itself wouldn’t compel me to write. There’s something else, some gravity or charge to this image that makes me need to investigate it.

Exploratory description, then; I’m a scientist trying to measure and record what’s seen.”

The poem follows. See how his plucking at one loose thread leads to the unraveling of a whole universe of ideas.

“A Display of Mackerel”

They lie in parallel rows,

on ice, head to tail,

each a foot of luminosity


barred with black bands,

which divide the scales’

radiant sections


like seams of lead

in a Tiffany window.

Iridescent, watery


prismatics: think abalone,

the wildly rainbowed

mirror of a soapbubble sphere,


think sun on gasoline.

Splendor, and splendor,

and not a one in any way


distinguished from the other

—nothing about them

of individuality. Instead


they’re all exact expressions

of the one soul,

each a perfect fulfilment


of heaven’s template,

mackerel essence. As if,

after a lifetime arriving


at this enameling, the jeweler’s

made uncountable examples,

each as intricate


in its oily fabulation

as the one before

Suppose we could iridesce,


like these, and lose ourselves

entirely in the universe

of shimmer—would you want


to be yourself only,

unduplicatable, doomed

to be lost? They’d prefer,


plainly, to be flashing participants,

multitudinous. Even now

they seem to be bolting


forward, heedless of stasis.

They don’t care they’re dead

and nearly frozen,


just as, presumably,

they didn’t care that they were living:

all, all for all,


the rainbowed school

and its acres of brilliant classrooms,

in which no verb is singular,


or every one is. How happy they seem,

even on ice, to be together, selfless,

which is the price of gleaming.