Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting, and they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire . . .
Keith Peterson is alive for me today. I’ve just listened to him read one of my favorite poems. It’s just possible that I sat in the same room with him within the year before his death in 2001 – he was a well-loved member of the NC Poetry Society. Could he have been present at the first meeting I attended at Weymouth Center around 1999? That was before I had read this poem or ever heard his name, but since then I’ve re-read it a dozen times and wondered about its author.
I hear Keith’s voice today, his introduction, his intonation of the lines. I picture him furiously scribbling, as he describes, in a dim cold bedroom. I feel his “4.8 on the Richter Scale,” and I suddenly imagine every writer I know experiencing that same clutch and urgency.
Experiencing that inspiration. You know you’ve felt it yourself. To be filled with breath, to be created new, to be made alive. When it strikes, you must write, or draw, or sing, or dance. To do otherwise and you would cease to live.
. . . . .
How Long Did It Take?
I wrote a poem once
about something I’d just read
and I recited it to a guy
who liked it a lot but asked me,
How long did it take? And I shrugged:
Coupl’ hours, I said.
I didn’t tell him, Yeah,
two hours of standing there
freezing in my pyjamas,
leaning over the chest of drawers
in a small circle of lamplight
scribbling almost faster than I could think
before the tremor faded, only 4.8
on the Richter Scale, but strong enough
to drive me out of my house of bedclothes
into the streets to run till it stopped
which it started to do
when the first draft shaped itself,
no, it took the whole night
that began with the reading,
the pages that turned inward,
into the heat of the cauldron,
the pressure of the plates on each other,
the deliberate counting of sheep,
one hundred and twelve, one hundred
and thirteen, the two bright blanks
of the backs of my eyelids,
the wreck of the covers, the roar of the
clock racing toward daylight and,
no, it took forty years.
What the poem was about
were earlier dawns and midnights
the reading had rediscovered,
the rocks it turned over: a job,
a joke, a burial, tears of laughter
at a kitchen table, tears of relief
in a hospital bedroom, a football game
in a downpour, one telephone call
that ate fatigue, the sweet silence
of a sunrise once in the mountains,
like the first morning. No,
it took forever.
[from Pembroke Magazine, 1966. Collected in Word and Witness, 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Sally Buckner, editor. Carolina Academic Press, 1999.]
Hear Keith read this poem as part of the Community United Church of Christ media series.
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part 1 of 2
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