My daughter and I were talking about the difference between “overwhelmed” and “whelmed” in the car while I merged onto a parkway. I think those words are close to each other but not freely interchangeable. Creative work thrives on “whelmed,” as a kind of outflow of real compassion. “Overwhelmed” seems like the crowded on-ramp, where you’re hoping for an opening in the traffic.

“Ineffable” was yesterday’s Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. Were you also wondering if “effable” is a word? (It’s not.) Something that can’t be expressed in words is called “ineffable,” but its opposite, which would be anything that can be expressed in words, has no word? Of course, those things have endless piles of words.

In poetry, attempting to use words for the ineffable is our constant practice, perhaps unwisely. A better approach may be to simply try to understand where poems come from: where’s the source? What prefix exists for the thought that becomes the word that becomes the poem?

When you run after your thoughts you are like a dog chasing a stick; every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. But if, instead, you look at where your thoughts are coming from, you will see that each thought arises and dissolves within the space of that awareness, without engendering other thoughts. Be like a lion, who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. You only throw a stick at a lion once.

Dilgo Khyentse, from “Like a Mirror, Like a Rainbow, Like the Heart of the Sun,” The Best Buddhist Writing 2004, ed. Melvin McLeod (Shambhala)

The stream of creative duty is this direct and powerful, which is why we train for it in myriad, often painful, often beautiful ways. I think the humility of poets is often obscured by their huge cargo of words, which are heavy with ego. This poem by Ada Limón, newly named our next US Poet Laureate, gets at that problem.

A film short / book trailer featuring our new US Poet Laureate Ada Limón

In this poem’s list of poetic images and themes, she begins each with “enough of…” almost as a new prefix to all the usual tropes in poetry. What direction then?

In my reflective reading of the Dhammapada, I reached the chapter titled “Impurity” this morning, perhaps just in time for this answer.

But life is hard to live for a modest [person], who always looks for what is pure, who is disinterested, quiet, spotless, and intelligent.

from Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada, translated by F. Max Müller

Maybe it is hard, but that peace and love at the source are well worth striving toward through our art.

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