On Words and Images: Writing a Poem in a Time of War

Archangel Michael and President Zelenskyy at the Great Gate of Kiev
A painting done by the author during the first weeks of the Russia-Ukraine war

I’d written several poems when the Russia-Ukraine war began, out of the need to process the horrific things I saw on our TV screen until I reached my viewing limit each day. This hell that has been unleashed on a nation whose cities, streets and corner coffeehouses often resemble those of my own town, seemed to come between my consciousness and God.

Not that I have a clue what God knows our world needs: “God’s ways are not our ways,” I’ve heard people, including mystics, say for years (I just learned that quote is a paraphrase of two verses from the biblical Book of Isaiah).

But the idea of a family having a missile crash into their home, let alone the swaths of burned-out apartment buildings we’re seeing on street after street—that terrible waste of resources and energy—brought a near-nihilism into my psyche that hasn’t lived there for quite a long time.

I continue to wrestle with this pall. I accept that “it’s all Illusion” in some sense. However, unless I could say that same thing if the bombs were falling in my neighborhood, I can’t just sing “tra-la-la” and go skipping out to play these days.

For many years, I’ve used writing as a tool to help process challenges. I frequently write “inner letters” to my Higher Power in my notebooks. Sometimes, too, my thoughts and feelings work their way into verse.


An intention to write a villanelle

Mostly, the poems I write are of the free verse variety. For several days lately, though, I’d wanted to write a villanelle about this situation.

I’ve written about two dozen villanelles in my life. I find the form has great power to cast ideas or events in a deep, mythic context. It’s perfect for “larger-than-life” themes.

A villanelle, in case you don’t know, is a poetic form in which certain lines and rhymes are repeated throughout the six-stanza piece. The effect can be something like a tolling, echoing bell. Here is an article about the villanelle form.


The poem develops

This morning, I began to write lines in my notebook. I was immediately fascinated with how I was “seeing” the possible rhyming words displayed in my mind, as if they were scrawled on a whiteboard.

My first task was to find two lines that had enough universality to carry the poem with their thematic interactions and their repetition in alternating verses. In a villanelle, these two lines become a warp-and-woof around which the poem is woven. They have to be “on topic,” and yet have enough tension to generate the discussion that becomes the poem.

The lines I scrawled—and then, as the writing went on, refined a bit to alternately end the three-line stanzas that comprise most of the poem—are:

“The war continues. Where now shall it lead?” and
“We were not ready; we still need to bleed.”

There’s also a curious feature of writing a villanelle that reminds me of a “fill-in game,” like in those paperbacks my mother-in-law used to buy. After the poem has become a viable fetus, so to speak, heading towards full birth, I’m not averse to using an online rhyming dictionary to see if I can find new ideas or a better way to say something.


Words as archetypes

Golden Gate of Kiev painting by Victor Hartmann
Artist’s Conception by Victor Hartmann, displaying the Great Gate of Kiev, used as a model for the painting above

I found myself ever more fascinated by the panoply of words that appeared on my mind’s blank screen, as I faced the need to make choices in the evolving poem. What did I really want to say? I felt nearly overwhelmed with the myriad possibilities presenting themselves as usable rhymes. But I kept coming back to my theme expressed in the two warp-and-woof lines and the “conversation” between them.

At one point, I had to face the perfectionist in me. My topic was so profound, the possible rhymes so plentiful, that I found myself trying to create the perfect, immortal poem! Becoming aware that my attitude had gotten a bit inflated, I scaled back. I didn’t have to crystallize the final truth about the subject in this poem. It had to be, rather, a truth—my truth—today! Tomorrow, I may have another truth. Truth, in its expression, is always unfolding.

I pecked along, stanza by stanza, line by line.


Poetry and painting

"Eye of Wisdom," African dance themed painting by Max Reif
Eye of WIsdom (1989), a tribute to the teachers of the African Dance class the author was taking at the time

One thing I noticed that surprised me today was the way in which literature, in this case, poetry, felt every bit as archetypal and as rich as the paintings that I also do frequently.

Words, somehow, seemed in no way more “removed from reality,” “intellectual,” or separate from feeling, than pictures! They felt, as I explored them, every bit as intimate and expressive as the actual images that my brushes frequently dab onto a canvas.

I don’t know how this happens! What is inside words? I don’t know, any more than I did before this experience. But I was reminded anew that they have great depth, and are in no way “poor sisters and brothers” to painted forms and colours.


A caveat and a “mini-manifesto”

I’m not sure if what I’m saying in this article is as true in the free-verse poems I write more often than the villanelles, sonnets or ghazals. I only know, at this point, how dramatically the archetypal power of words came home to me this morning! I was reminded what power any artist has. We create a world, really, in each new piece.

I’m saying this partly to myself, because sometimes, looking at the paintings on our home walls or rereading a poem I wrote years ago, I forget! I don’t always re-experience that power.

And it’s good to forget, in a way, because the slate has to be clear for completely new creations. But the crucible of emotion, thought and energy that any artist works with—I saw anew today that this is the locus of a fire that fashions something new, not only in the work of art, but in the artist.

Here is the entire poem that came together this morning:

War (a villanelle)

The war continues. Where now shall it lead?
The golden light I once glimpsed was false dawn.
We were not ready; we still need to bleed.

When all are bled near death, will that slake greed?
We watch the crucifixion of a fawn.
The war continues. Where now shall it lead?

I thought we were Humanity’s new breed,
but some behave more like the devil’s spawn.
We were not ready; we still need to bleed.

Can one benighted will have guaranteed
That what the inner eye has glimpsed is gone?
The war continues. Where now shall it lead?

How deeply must pain reach, to wake up need
to spread your wings, o Spirit, like a swan?
We were not ready; we still need to bleed.

To a new age our world will yet be freed.
The promise of the dove was no cheap con.
The war continues. Where now shall it lead?
We were not ready; we still need to bleed.

The “Great Gate of Kiev”

Modest Mussorgsky
Composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

When the Russians began bombing Ukraine, a dignified, slow-cadence piece of music came to my mind: “The Great Gate of Kiev” by the modern classical master, Modest Mussorgsky. The seven-minute piece is one of 10 movements in Mussorgsky’s best-known work, “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

I’m not deeply versed in classical music; but, this piece made enough of an impression upon me when I heard it years ago, that I went right to YouTube to see if it is as stirring as I remembered, and as “right” to play in support of the people of Kiev and Ukraine in this current situation.

It is. Furthermore, I saw that on the YouTube page, it’s accompanied by a rather fanciful-looking, beautifully-coloured artist’s conception of the Great Gate of Kiev itself. Reading an article about the gate, I discovered that it had been built around 1165 A.D. and destroyed in the Middle Ages. In the mid-19th century, a contest was announced to design a “Great Gate of Kiev” to be built in modern times. A man named Victor Hartmann did the whimsical and, to me, inspiring painting that illustrates Mussorgsky’s piece as I found it on YouTube. The contest was cancelled, the prize never awarded and the building never built, but Mussorsky based “Pictures at an Exhibition” on 10 of Hartmann’s paintings and sketches.

A friend had written me about a project of painting “Ukraine Angels” and I was inspired to copy Hartmann’s design onto the foreground of my canvas that appears at the top of this article. Ironically, perhaps, Hartmann’s piece is Russian in style, but I remain inspired by it, and placed Archangel Michael (who I learned is the patron Saint of Kiev) and President Zelenskyy there, defending the city, in visionary space.

Here is the link to Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev“, which I recommend playing as you view the painting here.

Below: The rather prosaic modern “Great Gate of Kiev” that was finally built in the 1970s to house a museum of Kiev history.

The Golden Gate of Kiev recreated (2018)

Thanks to The Mindful Word for publishing this originally.

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