Diving off the Cliffs of Moher and Other Poetic Adventures

You may have heard me say, quoting the actor Austin Pendleton, “There are two ways to jump off the Cliffs of Moher. You can either squinch your eyes shut and clench your fists all the way down, or you can open your eyes and look at the sights rushing by.

So here I am on my first visit to the Cliffs of Moher. It’s “another balmy July day in Ireland,” in the words of an Irish friend. While the cliffs, and imagining the jump (which is virtually impossible not to imagine!) are thrilling and beautiful, they cannot hold a candle to the thrill of working with so many Irish, German, English, Australian, Canadian and American friends who converged on that magical island to courageously dive into the life-changing power of poetry and presence.

No matter how much time I spend there, I never cease to be awed at depth to which the Irish take the medicine of a poem. Even those who have what one of my students called “educational trauma” in the area of poetry, have steeped in a country that understands from the roots of its history that “poet” and “mystic” and “seer” and “shaman” are one, and celebrates its poets as a huge part of the national identity. 

Actually the truth is that Austin Pendleton had us hurtling from the top of the Empire State Building, not the Cliffs of Moher. At the time (the seventies), we were a bunch of aspiring theatre people living on our waitressing tips in New York City. He was speaking of having the courage to look into the eyes of the audience when you’ve just bared your soul onstage.  It can feel like a headlong tumble into a kind of death – death of your control, your safe distance, your heart’s protection. The same is true of reciting or reading a poem you love to someone. So often people will shuffle pages, or rush on to the next poem, or curl into themselves, looking down or away. They seem to be simply surviving the time between poems, rushing through it as if the whole purpose of even sharing a poem was not to reach that trembling moment of communion as the last word fades into silence. “Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence,” write T. S. Eliot in  “Burnt Norton.”

As I suggest in the appendix to Saved by a Poem,

The silence just before you speak a poem, during the poem, and right after it can be the most powerful part of your offering. Yet many of us are uncomfortable with silence and rush through these moments. Practice elongating them instead. Let your partner know you are going to intentionally sink into the wordless spaces. Begin by making eye contact with your partner. Let any discomfort or other feelings come up as you silently be with each other. Now begin the poem. Maintain eye contact as much as possible and when you are moved to drop into a silence that naturally occurs in the rhythm of the lines, do. When the poem is over, stay with the eye contact without words, letting any feelings or insights show up. Then talk together about the experience and what arose for each of you in the silences.