Going Home: Incidental Lines, To Be Erased
Perhaps this is the last poem you will write she said,
You’ve done enough. Done now. Shut the window.
He could still see the way the last sun made the blue snow
Lighter, like lips still with some breath—O See, See!
--Lear at the last moment—nothing grander or more sad—
The dog is old now and he lies by the front door like a tossed rug
When I could lift him in my arms—a pup—I still was glad.
Nothing in the physical world can protect us from what will be,
So nothing—oh Cordelia, my love…if you have poison for me
I will drink it. I am a poor sad man, and I fear I have offended thee.
Hush, she says. Hush. No reason. And I am still dreaming.
Outside the lights play on the water the way a girl plays on a harp,
Strumming the rough meniscus, making the glitter-goes like fireworks
In another country, another time. I did tell you that I love you.
If chaos is our home, then I like the hat you gave me—
I think it looks kind of cool, really, it makes me look younger.
You can’t see the skull through the skin.
And these daughters, what shall we do with them? I think
They fall around us like rain, like a spring rain, warm and sweet—
The myths always told us we would die, and that our sacrifice
Would have meaning—some kind of meaning. I scrawled a letter
To the stars tonight on a snowy, ordinary evening at the end of time.
I will await your answer. But please don’t say no.
and lay down and died
I had owed a friend an email for a long time, since the New Year, and when I got an email in my box from him I expected that it was some note to remind me that I have been hors de combat, but the message was simpler. And in the way that messages will, it sparked me to finally start a new column after weeks of post-New Year malaise and then the maelstrom of a new semester’s start-up.
I’ve written enough about teaching and the cycle of the academic seasons, for now at least—and part of why I stopped writing, the post-solstice malaise, was being out of things to say. Repeating oneself is easy enough but also a sort of failure. So even though I have a splendid pride of new students like lions stalking in my classrooms, I want to write about dogs tonight.
It was not until I was in middle-age that I came to understand the loyalty of a dog and the meaning of the kind of communication that is possible between species. I had a dog when I was very young—a dachshund bought for me through some guidance for parents who were having their second child, my brother. No connection with it, apart from a sort of comical obesity that developed in poor Cleo’s later years, when she boarded all winter in Vermont with Forrest Gallup and his wife Edith—when she died, packed tight as a Brautwurst in her thin black fur, we were in New York, and if Forrest mourned for her I would not know, though I suspect he did.
A few years later we acquired, by chance, a stray dog named “Puppy,”—which fit our family well, we all had names like Kitty and Mackie and so on—who lived with us in New York during my high school years, a good dog—a very good dog. A friend of my father who knew us well in that halcyon time once remarked that Puppy—that was his name, even in old age—had a sort of knack of clearing his throat when he wanted to be let in again, something like a British gentleman.
A very good dog, he lived on after the years I was in college and fell out of touch with him, and died finally the day my parents and younger sister left him to board with some friends when they went to travel in France. They left. He walked down the road a bit that same day, to a private place, feeling abandoned again, maybe, and lay down and died.
For a long time I did not have a dog. Not through college or graduate school or working and living in New York, or in the Philippines, where I inadvertently partook in eating some of an acquaintance’s puppy who had been braised as a snack, nor for many years after I had settled in Vermont and married and begun to raise a family. My wife’s family is allergic to dogs, at least her father and a couple of brothers, and she grew up without them. We had cats, but we never thought about having a dog.
Then, about ten years ago our younger daughter, who at the time was fascinated by animals—in addition to our usual cats, we had gerbils and parakeets and fish, all of which ended badly—began to agitate for a dog. She was vocal and skillful about this advocacy, but I doubted its effectiveness, though I was in her camp. My wife makes these decisions in our family. Still, one day we went to the humane society and looked at the puppies, and there were a few that seemed really cute and compelling—I remembered one that looked up at me and seemed to have my number. After that visit I wanted a dog, in my daughter’s camp, but I didn’t expect we would get one.
A week or so later I went down to New York to watch the Mets open their season at Shea Stadium. I had not done this for a long time, and I was seeing a close friend whom I had not seen for a long time. The backstory to this part of the story is so long I have to just say that we watched a good game and it was nice to see Andy and Emily again, and then when I got back to Vermont and my home I saw this little girl running across the lawn with a small dog in her arms, a puppy, and for a moment I thought “that’s strange” and then I realized that the little girl was my daughter Michaela and that we seemed to have acquired a puppy.
We named the dog Seamus, and he is my dog now, nine years later. He was a cute small puppy, a mutt, a shelter dog—he was the dog who looked up at me, at the shelter, who somehow my wife decided to bring home despite not being at home with dogs in her own life—and now he weighs about 80 pounds and lies on the floor like a small rug, sleeping.
He has always been a good dog, and there was a time when I was living on my own that he came with me and kept me from harm. When I was a child I was terribly frightened of things, and even in adulthood the darkness would still scare me at night if no one was there, and the feeling of being alone has always felt like a terrible abandonment to me, one that might drive me crazy. All of these vulnerabilities were somehow mended by Seamus, even in my darkest time. There has not been a night since he has been my fellow that I have lost sleep to some childish and idle fantasy of harm, nor have I felt alone. He is my boon companion.
Is it strange to feel this way about a dog? I wonder how strange it is to feel connection to any other being. We are separate in our lives, in the end, and the darkness that falls is only for us alone. I am certainly closer to Seamus than I was to my father in the last years of his life. But it’s not that—that’s not what I want to say.
When I learned my friend’s own dog had died it reminded me of how much, and how often, I worry about my own dog’s mortality. This may seem silly or trivial—but a dog is like a child with a short life-lease, almost certain not to outlive one, unlike one’s actual children, whom one expects will carry one forward in memory after one dies. Sometimes I think that my personal project in this time of my life is to talk enough about death, to myself at least, to normalize it, to prepare for it, to treat it as the most natural thing. Which it is, of course.
I don’t know how one expresses friendship across species, except through the kindness one may show—our language is the language of walks, and food, and tricks, simple stuff, the way a two-year old child talks to an adult. Yet I know that when a dog to whom one has been close finally dies after a long time of the kind of friendship one can have with a dog, an entire universe of meaning goes static and turns into memory, a loss…and one is left simply to say, that was a good dog.
Today, after the email from my friend, I took my own dog for a walk in the woods, in the snow. He likes that—I don’t walk him often enough. Now he is sleeping on the cool slate by the front door, dreaming. I won’t wake him.
The Feast of the Epiphany
Although I dislike Christmas and New Year’s in the forms these mainly take as American holidays—I think only Americans could invent a day called “Black Friday” as an orgy of consumerism after a day called “Thanksgiving”—I take the winter solstice and the twelve days subtracted from the year of the moon’s cycle quite seriously.
Since the night before the night before Christmas (which makes the title of a wonderful poem by Randall Jarrell) I’ve wanted to write something, but I’ve been struck dumb, brooding my thoughts, I guess, or macerating them in the rich and sometimes bitter marinade of emotions that the end of another year brings.
Driving home a couple of days before Christmas, there was a story on NPR about Christmas songs and why so many of them are sad. A lot of our popular Christmas songs were written during World War II—“I’ll be home for Christmas, even if only in my dreams”—and a lot of them are about loss and about how hard it can be to find one’s way home.
On New Year’s we sing about old acquaintances and celebrate the hooded specter with his scythe along with the baby in his basket-diaper, and one thinks of Larkin’s line: “Truly, although our element is time / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives. / They link us to our losses…”
I spent some time before the 25th reading in the gospels and I was struck that it does not take very long to get from the story of the immaculate birth, the star and the wise men, to the sacrifice on the hills of Gethsemane. Why would we just have happy Christmas songs? A lot of the choral renditions of the great Christmas hymns have the blood of the stigmata buried inside their chords. Birth and death. Why not go shopping or kiss someone under a holly sprig?
I’m always grateful when the enterprise draws to its end and we can start focusing again on the Super Bowl. The second round of shopping—all those returned garments, the winter sales—something at least more practical there, back to life again after a kind of suspension. Time to book that summer vacation. I am feeling very cynical tonight about the nature of time and how we live in it.
Tomorrow is the Feast of Epiphany. When I was a boy my parents were social but they only threw one really large party that I can remember, it must have been about 1970, and they threw it on the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, the last of the days out of time.
They cleared out the dining room table in our big old pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive and brought in a juke box, delivered by a couple of shady looking guys one afternoon, and I do remember now how filled the apartment was—everyone we knew showed up.
My brother and I retreated to our big bedroom which had a new bumper pool table in it, hanging out there, and from time to time someone would come in to play some bumper pool—one of those Newsweek writers or an old family friend, carrying a drink and having a good time playing a little pool with a couple of kids.
Everyone was quite drunk. One couple had an extraordinarily vicious fight before they finally left, and another writer behaved quite badly on the dance floor with a younger woman—or so I was given to understand. The cops came—a scandal!—at about 2AM and said to turn the music down. They were met at our service entrance by Uncle Bobby, who was still drinking then, mainly grape-juice and vodka, and somehow he managed the encounter. Bobby died a few years ago.
Very late that night, after everyone had left, I watched “Dr. Strangelove” on WPIX in our TV room with my dad, who was still awake. We watched the whole movie and went to bed at five. He had turned 40 a few days before.
At this distance, I am pressed to think of anything more meaningless than this memory—it has all the meaning of a buoy one passed on the way out of a harbor from a port to which one never can return again. Truly, though our element is time…
These markers in the years’ cycle—they force our attention, though perhaps we would do better to pay them no heed. Almost everyone who was at that party in 1970 is dead now.
Today the sun was so brilliant and the air was so still that all the snow that has fallen recently seemed perfectly suspended, white clumps of snow in the pine boughs, the fields around the house almost unbroken and perfect, except for a few trails of small animals, and the utterly frigid sun pouring down making everything quite brilliant in an empty way.
There is something the solstice tries to say to us—the still point in the turning year, the birth and the death, the carved stones catching the first light.
Perhaps it says that we are just talking to ourselves. Perhaps it says something more than that, the bells against the door, the scritch and skittle of squirrels hunting in the deep back-deck snow for leftover seeds. I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ll have to listen more closely next year.
There are different kinds of memory. One sort has to do with how we remember the meanings of words and concepts, the kind of memory prized in academic settings, like who wrote “Ariel was glad he had written his poems,” or what the Pythagorean theorem says. Another has to do with procedures we remember in our muscles—tying our shoelaces, cooking a steak on a grill.
A third type has to do with our memory for things that happened in our lives, what the cognitive psychologists call “episodic memory,” that time we spent fishing under the bridge in Green River and the sun was shining so hard on the water you didn’t see that trout when it hit your fly, the biggest fish you ever saw in those waters, gleaming in a splash of water for an instant and then gone…and how it felt when you got home and tried to tell someone about it.
I’m good at memory, for the most part, but it is the third type that gifts or afflicts me, often with a sort of precision that touches me keenly, sometimes at odd moments, and always with a tug backward that has dogged my life. I’ll be at the dinner table with family, all of us reminiscing, and find myself saying “no, it was 1973, and her hair wasn’t blonde, it was black, and he was never actually married to her. But sure, it still was a scandal.” I record everything, a searchable disk.
This week we had three usable cars for the first time— added to our fleet, a ’98 Buick we took over from my father-in-law, his Florida car, where he won’t be going any more—and my younger daughter started to drive herself to school and to the 6:00 AM hockey practice. She came home last night and the car was almost empty of gas, so I went out in the wet and dark to put a couple of gallons in the tank from the can I keep for lawnmowers and snow-blowers.
As I poured the gas I was taken suddenly with the memory of a distant time, almost three decades ago, when I watched a boat-man I had hired pour gas into the banca that would take us from Batangas across Mindoro Bay to the village where I was living then. I had traveled to Manila with my friend Dante to pick up some money I had had wired from my dwindling savings—there was no bank where I lived, it was 1986—and I thought, in a burst of derring-do, that we could make the trip in one day. I didn’t want to stay in Manila overnight. I was done with city life entirely at that point, and even leaving the village where I lived felt painful to me.
We made it to Manila fine, and then back to Batangas Port, but all the ferries were gone by then, so I asked Dante if we could see if we could hire a banca to take us across the bay—about an hour’s trip. The night was calm, and I was very young and stupid, and I had 25,000 pesos in my backpack, about $1,000 at the time.
Dante found a guy, though he seemed a little shaky. He was the best we could do, a couple of others turned us down. We made the deal and went down to the docks where his banca was. I was all for it. I wanted to get home with the money, have a party, be that guy with the backpack on his shoulder. A banca is a slim, canoe-like boat with outriggers, propelled by a motor in the back. This one seemed sturdy enough, and it was big enough for Dante and me, and the boat-man and his mate.
We waited on the dock while the driver poured gasoline into the tank, and then we came onboard. I could smell gasoline—it seemed he had spilled a bit. When he cranked the engine, the whole boat erupted in flame. I was in a fireball. I dived overboard, or maybe Dante pushed me—or we were blown overboard—it was an instant of unknowing, before we found ourselves in thigh-deep water. Dante dove and retrieved the backpack with my money. My eyebrows and all the hair on my arms had burned off, and I had a bad sunburn on my face and arms. Dante had the same but it didn’t show, and also a small second-degree burn on his arm. We were ok.
We trudged from the water, left the boat-man to his devices. It turned out he was dead-drunk. The explosion was probably better than trying to get across the bay with him. Dante found a place for us to stay, something like relatives of a friend of relatives of his—the Philippines in its hospitality was always so pure and beautiful to me. I gave money so all of us could have a nice dinner and some rum, and then Dante and I slept on the floor and woke up the next morning to take the ferry back to San Isidro. I think it was probably the closest time I ever came to dying in an accident.
So I was thinking of this as I poured gasoline into my younger daughter’s ’98 Buick, trying hard not to spill any—the lesson was salutary—and as I did I also started to think about the nature of memory. It seems obvious why I would have remembered an event involving pouring gasoline while I poured gasoline into a car, in a way at least. Of course the fact that my daughter has just started driving around town tends to focus the mind on hazard. But it is memory that interests me.
It seems obvious that our lives are composed of these small present spaces where we live in the actual moment of our experience, while we mainly are tugged toward anxieties and plans about what will come next, and backward toward what is already past and has no real purchase on us beside the power we give it, which often is immense and even consuming.
And that makes me wonder whether I will remember this night or not—the night I poured gas into a ’98 Buick so my daughter could drive to hockey practice at 6:00 AM this morning, when I also remembered another night when someone spilled gas into the bottom of a banca so that it exploded when the engine cranked on. Or this night, as I write these words—will I remember this night, except for these words?
My daughter came home fine with the car this evening, though it still needs more gas. It was the last day of classes at the college where I teach, and almost everyone will pass, which is what I am there for—no one left on the field of battle, I say. Will my students remember me? Will I remember them?
What does it mean to remember anything? What does it mean that I remember so much, so well, this episodic memory that seems either a gift or an affliction, where every moment of one’s life is still available in memory, even as one tries to live one’s life forward, knowing also that in the end every memory I have, even the ones, like these, that I try to write down, will be burned into ashes with my body?
Well, for one thing, keep a steady hand when you pour gasoline into a gas tank. And also, each memory is beautiful, real, and true—as beautiful and true as a dream, in this world that is almost an approximation of the reality we cannot apprehend, but that surrounds us, like the dream we cannot quite recall when we wake, but still leaves us with the sense of the life that lives beyond us.
The god of winter
The great story-writer Elmore Leonard, who died this year at 89, has this narrative trick in all of his books where the lead character, who usually is morally ambiguous but attractive, gets out of trouble by starting a sort of low-key conversation with a guy who has come to harm him, shifting the set in a way that gets the bad guy to follow along and then riding the flow until finally whatever the initial intent had been was translated into something else entirely.
It’s a beautiful device. An ex-con named Johnny comes over to exact revenge on a guy who rolled over on him after a bank robbery a few years back and then fled to Rwanda to become a fake priest but is now back home again, and the guy comes down the stairs to meet him with a huge machete in his hands, just holding it while he says hi, then hands it to Johnny while he explains how it was used in Rwanda when the Tutsis were lopping limbs off the Hutus during the genocide there, and Johnny holds the machete in his hands, looking it over—a big broad blade, sharp but not gleaming, looking like it has seen some use—and gets carried away in the story, forgetting his purpose. They have a couple of drinks, talk about old times.
I think about this style, the easy flow of narrative, not getting drawn into the harm latent in the scene, keeping it low-key, noticing things around the edges, like saying where’d you get that watch, or remember that time we were playing ball on Riverside and that crazy guy tried to dunk—the way he kept trying, just getting his hand to the rim, what was it, December, it was fucking cold, and the ball kept bouncing from his hand back to mid-court, and he was getting angrier and angrier…what were we, like twelve then? Man that was funny…weird…
December, now. I note the seasons because they live in my bones like metaphors. This is the time of year when god says that the park is closed, when the trees show their skeletons for real, when it is dark even when the sun shines. December poses a problem, if one imagines that one’s life is only a simple year, with nothing at the end of it--“Not myself except in an urn of ashes,” the Buddhist beat poet Allen Ginsburg in his last utterance, “Nostalgias.” Sure, spring comes again—Stevens at the end of his life, our best chronicler of the cycle of seasons and their metaphor for our own lives, imagined a bird’s call at the edge of February, a pre-history. And life, of course, goes on without us—there’s always that.
But tonight I am thinking I want to talk to the god of winter the way one of Elmore Leonard’s characters do, not with any plangent attempt at majesty, but sideways and sly, going to get a few more logs for an unnecessary fire after making a second Thanksgiving feast—two Turkeys in three days!—and finally getting the gluten-free pumpkin pie right for my lovely daughter, and leaving the cranberries in the fridge—completely forgotten, on accident as the children say, but still there, fresh and glistening, to eat with whatever tomorrow’s second-hand feast will bring.
Tomorrow will be colder than today, and in the end…but I want to say instead that we found an old hunter’s duck call—something you can blow on, from Abercrombie & Fitch back when it was a sporting goods store in the 1950s, in a box of odd things we were looking through, still sorting out boxes from lost grandfathers—and that when we passed it around, sitting in front of the unnecessary but brilliant fire, it made a fine sound, as silly and odd as you can possibly imagine, and for a while the house was filled with the sound of ducks, ducks hooting and calling, some of us getting really good at it, quacking madly, again and again, and all of us laughing as the dog barked and the fire burned and the dark grew perfect.
Waiting in the Dark: Thanksgiving and 50 Years, for RMG
When JFK was assassinated I was six years old and I remember vividly my mother and grandmother listening to the radio to get the news—we didn’t have a TV yet and it was just two weeks after my younger sister had been born. I was smart enough to think—I remember this—that they had to be talking about the president of a company. But it was our president. My Uncle Lenny, who was what we called mentally retarded in that time, was there too, and when the news came that the president was dead I remember very closely and immediately, as if salt and wet still smuts my face, how we wept—wept at the terror and sorrow of the adults, of the news, of the harrowing grief that swept over us all.
My dad wasn’t there—my most terrifying sense in the actual time of it, in 1963, was that my father disappeared for several days. He was the news editor at Newsweek Magazine then, basically the executive manager for the chief of correspondents, handling the logistics and flow of coverage.
Forty-four years later, when Rod died, Oz Elliot, who had been the editor at Newsweek then and put the magazine on the map in the 1960s, wrote a very nice bit about how insistent my dad had been that the coverage be thorough, ripping out page after page until finally even the very front of the book, the bit called “periscope,” went down. He did not come home for at least two days—the killing happened on Friday, and the magazine went to bed on Sunday night. I was six. I remember seeing him come back home unshaven and weary—just a glimpse in the memory I have. It all frightened me. I had bad dreams that year.
When I was older, in 1968, I remember waking up one morning in the spring and finding him in the living room in our apartment on 90 Riverside Drive in Manhattan holding his face in his hands. I was in sixth grade. It must have been about 7:00 in the morning. Robert F. Kennedy had been killed a couple of hours before. My dad was trying to pull himself together before going to work—he was in charge of news coverage by this point. I think he had been crying. When he finally quit journalism in 1982 he told me that he was tired of assassinations and wars—he was done.
I thought of all of this when the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination came this week, with its small boat of memory and sorrow, and then Thanksgiving in a day or two, another one without my father, whom I still miss in the way that something unresolved will always be.
There was a time after my father got sick in 2004 that he was still really alive, before he became incapacitated completely and spent all of his time in bed staring at the ceiling, that he would stay up late, for hours, long after my mother had finally fallen asleep. There were different eras to my father’s long illness, many of them, in fact. A successful but modest man, for the most part, in life he had been unassuming, and one period led to the next without a great deal of fanfare, he was just living his life. But his sickness was epic, and it had its different periods.
There was the first period, when he had been diagnosed with cancer and was determined to fight it with all of his strength, and then a very brief period when he was ostensibly in remission, that summer of 2004, and then the headache era, when he suffered terribly from a pain that no amount of morphine and oxycodone would tamper with. That was an awful time, because in many ways he was still himself then, but he suffered terribly, and there was nothing to do about it. And then where was this period, after it was clear that the cancer had “restaged,” as Dr. Dragniev put it, and he was on an experimental trial that arrested the cancer and left him quite healthy but, unfortunately, quite mad, too.
When it was clear that the cancer had restaged, and that the concept of “remission” had failed, was no longer an option for him, my father’s headaches stopped, almost abruptly. There was a short course of radiation—ostensibly a tumor had formed at the back of his brain—but it burned up almost like magic. Later on, as he became increasingly debilitated, this small tumor was essentially forgotten, as if it had had nothing to do with whatever the core being of his cancer was--as if it had never been there, except as part of the mythic era of the permanent headache. No, when the cancer restaged and it was clear that the terms of the game had shifted from cure to management, he actually felt pretty good.
I remember the day quite well, since I had driven him and his wife, my mother, up to the hospital. It was a brilliant, sunny day, and snow had fallen that night—driving up the highway the effect was almost blinding. It was like that in the consultation room, too—brilliant sunlight pouring in through one of the huge windows that made that hospital such a cheery place, in its way.
After Dr. Dragniev had explained everything, in calm, reassuring tones—his manner mixed a kind of concern and clarity, a gentleness, with a kind of nobility, almost a grandeur. They had to talk for a few moments before my father finally got the essential idea, which is that his cancer would not be cured, only managed, and he said, in the most uncharacteristic way imaginable, “well, that’s just great, isn’t it.”
He was extremely angry, but it was not an emotion that he characteristically expressed, and of course there was no one to be angry at. He noticed me, suddenly, standing there against the window—he and my mother had been seated, with the Doctor, but he had stood up suddenly when he finally understood the news—and he patted me on the shoulder and said, “it’s going to be OK.”
I’ve always wondered about that moment. I have thought about the effort of will it must have taken in that moment when he received word that he would inevitably die to reassure me that things would be ok. I love my father very deeply, but perhaps nothing more deeply strikes me than that moment in the blinding winter sunlight when he learned he would die, and reassured me that it would all be ok. I feel very confident that he loved me deeply.
This was also the day that began the era of staying up late, after everyone was asleep, the era in which it became clear that my father was no longer in his right mind.
Of all the things that could have happened to my father, and in consequence, to my family, which depended so much on him for its definition—which was in a sense an avatar or projection that he had willed into being and sustained through the quiet force of his being for so many years—going mad was really the saddest.
If there was an essence to my father’s being, besides his essential modesty and the manners of the upper bourgeois class into which he had been born, it lay in his probity and in the clarity of his mind. He held important positions at Newsweek Magazine during the period when a kind of WASP clarity and probity ruled its coverage, and he played a central role in helping to establish the kind of perspective that led to special issues on “the Negro in America,” or that resulted in a shift in the magazine’s coverage of the Vietnam War. He led the impetus at Newsweek to cover civil rights and to integrate the newsroom, and at his memorial service—tears smart my eyes as I write this—men whom he had hired decades before came from very far away to talk about him.
After journalism, when he was about my age now, my father was a college president, taking a huge cut in pay to help save a small, idealistic institution that was in dire straits, drawing mainly on his own interest in what was local, and small, and therefore truly important, and his intense idealism. A friend of my father’s once chided him, gently, saying “you actually believe in the perfectibility of man!”
That he did believe in goodness, if he did—I am not sure yet--was quite a triumph, in its way, since my father came of age in the period after world war II when it was very hard to believe in anything but the power of evil and the frailty of human existence without god or any other supervening belief. It was the era of Sartre and Camus and Beckett. My dad had me check out Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” when I was thirteen. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yeah, right.
Rod introduced me to the concepts of despair, black humor, and the abyss into which one stares because it is already staring into you when I was old enough to understand these things and young enough to have been shaped by them in almost permanent ways. Our favorite shared book when I was 14 was Fred Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” which has this preface: “Although the events of this work bear some resemblance to those of that of my long malaise, my life….”
He saw very clearly the limits of human goodness and knew with a sort of perfect certainty, which he bequeathed to me, that there was nothing beyond our own immediate experience of the world that we can trust in—no god, no mythos that makes any sense, nothing but a very clear requirement that one should do one’s best to do good in the world. He was not a cynic. In essence, he was his Quaker mother’s son: he believed in the essential goodness of our best selves, and in the thought sustained long enough to bring to its whole conclusion. In the face of the darkness, he believed very strongly in doing the right thing.
It was a burden, in a way, growing up in the warm and unyielding embrace of this sort of ethos, if only because it seemed to circumscribe in such close and unyielding ways the range of choices one might have in any given situation—that so much was impermissible, that there was, in any context, one right way of acting and that was the only choice you had. But how preferable was that strong, unshakable moral compass to the strangeness that seeped in after my father embraced, in a kind of full-throated internal anger, the idea that he would die. After that day, nothing was the same again.
I write these words out of a sense of a need for honesty. All of us will be torn apart by our physical beings in this physical world of ours, torn by losses, and then torn by our own pain, and torn by the sorrow of those who will lose us. Is there anything else to the end of the story? Of course. That it begins again. Birth, marriage, death. The thin skein of light beyond the dark, perhaps. Some kind of meaning. My father, in the end, was terrified by the possibility of his death. It drove him mad. I have been thinking a lot lately about what it would mean to do the opposite—to see life as a cool black river under a sky lit only by stars, without any moon, and with no sound anymore, and to feel the still air against one’s face as the current carries one down to the sea.
If I were reading this last graf aloud to you, Rod—let’s say I am—I would have to wink at you by the end of it because you would see that I see what total bullshit that sort of lyric embrace of the blue kiss of death is. In the end they just carry you down the stairway and if they are careful then they don’t bump you too hard against the bannister, right?
What was strangest of all, of course, was that at first it seemed that nothing had changed for my father. Something imperceptible had shifted, but in a context where we were all so accustomed to clarity and probity, to sanity—and then, of course, to the physical debilitations of illness and the courageous battle against them—the idea that the real problem now was that he was mad was unthinkable.
The first time my father summoned my brother and me to the house—we both lived nearby—because he had “something important” to tell us, it seemed typical. We were accustomed to these occasional chats, especially now that the era of his illness was well underway. This time was different, however. He called us first upstairs, to the little study where he had used to work, and where we sometimes watched sports on television, and had just sat us down and closed the doors, saying “I don’t want your mother to hear,” when she opened the door and stepped in, startling him. He acted like she had caught him in something, and she gave him a good hard look, and then looked at both of us.
“I’m going out to the store,” she said. “Do you need anything?”
My father shook his head, and then gave a kind of dismissive wave of his hand—the most uncharacteristic gesture imaginable. She asked me to come downstairs with her, she had something to ask me about. When I came into the kitchen with her she said “your father is acting very strangely.”
I told her that I was sure he was just tired, and that this was all taking a toll. She said that he was acting strangely, that he was up all night, she could hear him moving around downstairs, and that in the morning she found books open in strange places, like lying on the floor in the dining room, and the whole house seemed disheveled.
I just listened. After she left I went back upstairs and came into the room where my brother and father were both sitting, silent. It was strange—it was as if they had not been talking at all since I left. My father looked up when I came in and said, in a whisper, “is she gone?”
I won’t recall the rest of that afternoon. Things got worse after this, of course. Panic attacks would come, though we did not call them that at the time—it wasn’t clear yet what they were. My father would simply be sure that he was dying, and call for my mother to tell her, and then she would call me and I would meet them in the emergency room.
This happened nine times that spring, until they were persuaded that my father should see a psychiatrist, and he was given some strong drugs that eventually worked for a short time—the period of his mental recovery, a few weeks that May—and then kept him quiet for the last couple of years that he mainly spent in bed staring at the ceiling.
In the end it was a terrible time. He just lay there, waiting in the dark, in the dim half light, for death to take him. It took all of his effort to remember that he loved any of us well enough to climb from bed to see us. He could tolerate one of us sitting on his bed for a while, stroking him gently as he stared straight into the ceiling and waited. It is impossible for me to know anything about what he felt or thought during that time. He had already left us. Every night when I drove home after seeing him there was a part of me that wanted to drive off the rails, just to see if I could find him there.
Finally he died. It happened unexpectedly—a Sunday evening, I’d been watching football with him and the Redskins were beating the Giants, and he begged off early in the fourth quarter, after the game seemed over, and I left. He told me that he really didn’t feel very well. I said, “I know dad, I know.” I kissed him on the brow when I said good-bye. When I got home, I discovered that the Giants had come back—they had won the game, miracle as it was. I called my father to share the moment but my mother told me he was not up to coming to the phone, he was eating, and that night he died.
There is a lot else to say—about that night, about everything else, too—who doesn’t have a story?
But what stayed with me, what stays with me now, these years later, is that image of my father up at night as my mother slept, my father still powerful, ambling from room to room pulling books from the shelves and glancing at them, then putting them down, still open to whatever pages he had left them, leaving them scattered around the house like little markers of his midnight travels, his night travail, as if they might be scattered bit of cloth or seeds to trace a journey, so he could find his way back.
He won’t read these words, but I am leaving them open on the path he took, one of those lost nights, leaving them open and scattered where he might find them, these stray words strewn like stars in the black night sky, these scattered notes made of blue cloth, these black stars against the pure insane light of a page, the words in the books whose pages are still open, these small tokens, these letters—if he could have found his way back again.
Typhoons and Armalites
There was a time in my life that I lived in the Philippines and my closest friend was someone who had been a hired killer for the Marcos family. His name was Ghani, and he had worked as one of the Marcos family’s hired “goons”—that was the term of art for the ex-soldiers who had leant their skills to the kleptocracy that controlled the country in those days. He had cut a tendon in his right wrist fighting off the surge of protestors at Malacanang Palace as Marcos and his wife hopped the American helicopter that lifted them off to exile.
The novel about this time that I tried to write later, tried for years, until I gave up, began “Typhoons and armalites, and cheap dark rum, and there were boys and girls for sale on every street, while in the palace the mad Queen reigned as the King decayed…”
I saw the helicopter heading out toward Manila Bay pass over the beer garden where I had gone to collect my notes and thoughts after that final day of the revolution, which was not really a revolution in the usual sense but more a very large block party, maybe four million strong, stretching for miles up and down the broad avenue called EDSA. I didn’t know at the time that was what it was, a Huey I guess, with the family aboard. I was preoccupied. A little while later military trucks filled with soldiers and civilians came up along del Pilar, shouting and laughing and waving their weapons in the air, and there were fireworks—there were always fireworks—and someone told me the radio said that Marcos had fled the country.
It was February 25, 1986. About three years before, in August, in 1983, I had interviewed Benigno Aquino, Jr. in a nice house on Chestnut Hill in Boston, not far from where he had held a position at Boston College, and then three weeks later he had flown back to Manila, returning from exile to claim a role in the political process, and was shot in the back of the head by the soldiers who escorted him down a utility ramp from the China Airlines flight he had taken from Taipei.
A lot happened in my life, between those two moments of time—August 21, 1983, and February 25, 1986. The course of events that brought me to be sitting in a beer garden in the early evening on February 25, 1986, as the Americans flew Marcos and his family out of the country into exile, was complicated and in some ways sad or crazy, but also just ordinary, what happens in one’s life, I guess. At the time, it just was incomprehensible to me. I was 12,000 miles away from anyone I had ever known, and in a way this moment was the fulfillment of something that I had cared about more deeply than anything else. I also felt totally unmoored. But it was all right. I was going with it.
The next day, I was sitting in the same beer garden, sipping a San Miguel in the blinding sunlight and trying to make sense of my notes. I didn’t have any hope of placing anything—I’d gone there as a free-lance journalist, but once the real action started I was so far out of my league that even I, stupid and self-absorbed as I was at that point in my life, could see it. But I still made a discipline of taking notes, covering things, writing something every day. I thought that someday it might mean something.
A cigarette vendor named Boyet had taken a shine to me—being American and friendly was a good way to make friends, I had found—and he came over to see if he could sell me another pack of blue-seal Winstons, the American version, not the white-seal knock-offs made in the Philippines. I was usually good for a pack, but I didn’t need one that day, so Boyet said that’s OK, but you should meet my friend Ghani, he’s over there—pointing to another table. I think you would like to meet him, Boyet said. You’re a journalist.
Ghani was sitting with two friends, but all I remember of them is the dark glasses so I could not see their eyes and their silence. Ghani’s eyes were clear and dark, and he looked me in the eye, not with any challenge—it was just his nature. His face had been pock-marked with acne in his youth, and he wore a thin, unkempt black beard, along with a red bandana tied back over his hair like a pirate. Later I learned that his nickname--what people called him behind his back—was pirata.
Boyet introduced me. In Ghani’s presence, he was subservient, but he was also a bit proud, like he was bringing a sort of prize. He introduced me by name, adding some praise and the fact that I was an American journalist. I tried to count how many lies he had told in one sentence. Ghani asked me to sit, and if I played chess.
It happens that I love chess, loved it at the time, and love it still, though I have never had the patience or habit of mind that would allow me to get much better than to hold my own for a bit in a pick-up game. Sure, I said. I play chess. Let’s play, Ghani said.
I loved many things about the Philippines in the time that I lived there, some of them too much. One thing I loved is that one was never far from a chess set. It took only a minute or two for the match to be set before us, and when Ghani scooped black and white pawns into two fists, I chose the one that led to his heavily bandaged wrist and forearm, his right hand. It opened white.
Ghani’s table was into the rum, a few empty flats and one nearly empty, with some coke chasers, so I had Boyet go get another couple of flats and more cokes before we started. I have money, Ghani said, pulling out a roll of hundred-peso notes. No, no, I said, this is on me. You get the next one. We started to play.
I had played a lot of chess before, in casual ways, but this was the first time I experienced the meaning of chess as an analogue of war, or felt the kind of aggression that makes it such a complex sport in psychological terms. Each move I made, from pawn to king four to my last desperate rear-guard attempts, was met by an answering move, delivered instantly, as if we were playing to a time limit, which we were not—it was a hot sunny day in a Manila beer garden, the day after the revolution had ended, and we had nothing on our hands but time—but with each move I made Ghani countered, slamming his piece down, then glaring at me, sometimes with a smile or smirk—a smirk, really, I don’t think I ever saw him smile—and once in a while he would say, as his piece landed with a sharp smack, how do you like that one now, my friend. How about that one. What do you have for that?
The funny thing is that it was clear I knew chess better than he did. He had no system to his moves, just an aggressive, constant, instant response to every move I made. He killed me. I hit some shots of rum between moves, as we got later into the match, and by the end all of us had killed the flats, and Ghani had my king on its side. And man, that was a good time.
I was feeling really great about the revolution having worked—that it was over, that good had triumphed over evil. It was a really incredible moment, to be in the Philippines that night after Marcos flew out across Manila Bay and Cory Aquino had taken the oath of office and Ninoy’s saying that “the Filipino is worth dying for,” the saying that he died for on the tarmac back in August 1983, had finally come true. I had had a tiny part in it, too, but now I was just living there. Everything was done.
We switched sides, played two more games, drank more rum as the sun declined lower over Manila Bay, out toward Corregidor, with the freighters floating on the blinding light. I almost beat him, playing black, huddling in a French defense and letting him spend his energy going after me, but he was good at distraction and I never have had a good way to stay really focused on anything, and a clumsy move let him take a rook and defeat me. And I also realized that when Ghani played black he was at his strongest—attacking from defense was like second nature to him.
Later, when I found out that he had made his living as a soldier, and then an enforcer and killer, it made sense to me. We had played three games and then taken a break, and at some point Ghani’s affiliates had left with their dark glasses and silence, but Boyet was still there—it turned out that Boyet had been a soldier in Ghani’s unit, that they had both been in the Philippine Marines, fighting the Moro rebellion, the Muslim rebels, in Mindanao. Ghani had been a sergeant.
We talked a long time that night before I found even this out, and still then I did not know that he had been at Malacanang Palace the previous night, fighting off the revolution as Marcos fled. Mostly he was interested in what I thought of his country. I was drunk by then, and had lived there for about six months, so I guess I talked a lot. I had made a new friend.
I was very lonely when I traveled in Asia in my twenties, and I was never lonelier than when I lived in Manila that winter and spring in 1985 and 1986. I had gone with some sense that my life in travel, trying my hand as a free-lance journalist, would somehow retain some connection to the life I had lived in Manhattan for a few years, as a paid journalist, and that when I was done with this brief wanderlust I would go back to the life I had led before. But it was very lonely, and in a way that I have come to accept now, after years of not accepting it and forcing my life into other patterns, it is also the case that I tend to go along with whatever comes along, either outside myself, or inside. If there is a stream, a rock, and a leaf, I am the leaf. I’ve tried the other roles, and could fake them well enough. But really.
So at the end of the night, this last day of the revolution, after several flats of rum and three games of chess, when Ghani said to me, you have been here for six months, but you have not seen my country yet, I agreed. I agreed quickly, willingly. It was true. I had lived in Manila and Makati, traveled to Leyte, Angeles, Olongapo, and Batangas, interviewed Cory Aquino, gone to a demonstration with Butz Aquino (Ninoy’s brother) and his family, and then back to lunch at their home in Tarlac, and seen and done many other things, but when Ghani said I had not seen his country yet, it was clearly true to me.
What do you have in mind, I said. He asked me if there was anything I still had to do in Manila, and there wasn’t really. I was living by then in a weekly pension. It would be no problem to move around. The revolution was over, and my failure as a journalist could not have been any more stunningly clear than it was that night, after losing three chess matches to Ghani. I’ll take you someplace you’ll like, he said, and then I will take you to the real Philippines, where I am from.
Ghani and I traveled for a few weeks—and it was genuinely a blissful time, March and April in the Philippines is a lovely time, and we visited islands where no tourists were, and traveled into the jungle a bit, and Ghani’s cousin Joey, a university student, came along to keep me interested in conversation and play a mellower version of chess, and Boyet came along to carry our bags and keep us amused, and every night we would drink some rum and play chess and talk.
Along the way, Ghani let slip in bits and pieces what he had done for a living, and that our travels together were in part a way for him to go underground. He was hiding out. I was cover. Others filled in some blanks. He didn’t hide what he had been, or what he had done. Everything he had done had been for money.
It was interesting to me, perhaps only the way that something like that can be interesting to someone in his twenties who has the luxury of not believing in anything, or caring about too much. The fact that Ghani had killed people for money made him more interesting to me. He was very smart, not cunning the way some criminals I’ve known are, but smart—quick, bright, compassionate even. Gentle, even. When we came to Calipan children clustered around him as if he were a saint. And he was.
This sojourn came to an end finally—I was out of money, had to go back to what I had left behind in Manhattan, at least so I could finish destroying it—and then I went mad for a bit, living in Vermont for a summer after my travels, and then I went back again to the Philippines, where I lived again for about a year. While I was mad in Vermont, a letter came one day, from Ghani—something I still find incredible, but it did happen. In very perfect Catholic-grade-school cursive he asked me how I was doing and told me how much he had enjoyed our time together, and that should I ever return to the Philippines, he hoped that I would do him the favor of renewing our friendship.
I didn’t write back—a few weeks later I took a plane back instead, and I saw Ghani one more time. I had come to the same village where we had traveled together, and where I would now live for a year or so with the girl I had left behind there, whom I had returned to marry, and I had been there for about a week or so when Ghani showed up.
He was at a local place where we would get our food or drink, owned by a mutual friend. He was very drunk. I didn’t realize it when I sat down with him—I was genuinely glad to see him. He asked me, not slurring his words, but with the same direct gaze and grace of demeanor that had made me like him in the first place, why I had come back to the Philippines. I joked, I said it was too cold in the United States. He grinned, and then grasped my hand, shaking it hard enough that it hurt a bit. Now you know, my friend, he said. You understand.
We chatted briefly, then I took off for a bit, to talk to another friend, and then when I looked back where Ghani had been sitting I saw that he had gone amok, with a rake in his hand, snarling and swinging the rake, vowing to kill anyone who came close to him. I started to move toward him, thinking, in some imbecile fashion, that I might be able to communicate with him, but my friend grabbed my shoulder and said, it’s better that he not see you. He’s just drunk. My friend pointed me back toward where my home was, the nipa thatch hut that was my home in that time before I took my new wife back to America.
I looked back and saw him walking over to where Ghani was, talking to him in a calm, low voice. Ghani kept swinging the rake, but I could see him wearing down. I turned once again as I reached my place and before I climbed the stairs—all the houses were on stilts—I could see Ghani still swinging that rake, hunched and snorting, bellowing like a bull, holding them all off as the circle around him grew and their laughter swelled at his antics. I didn’t watch after that. Later that afternoon we went out and found him sleeping in the shade, the rake still nearby. He left San Isidro the next day, returned to Calipan. I wanted to see him again sometime, play more chess, but I never did.
In Praise of the Dark, for Lou Reed
The day the news came that Lou Reed had died I wanted to write something, but I was busy, busy, busy, quotidian daze, and then even when I had the time I kept starting sentences and erasing them, and then this Sunday morning when we woke the change in the light had come, standard time, so bright early that we got a lot done around the house, and then darkness falling before dinner or the end of the Sunday football games, and after that I wondered if now, finally, I might finally get at whatever it was that I was hoping to say when I first heard the news.
Paul Blackburn—does anyone read him anymore?—has this sweet elegy for the death of William Carlos Williams, something like “First Rogers Hornsby, the greatest right-hand hitter in the history of baseball (hit .423 in 1923), /// and now this.” And now this.
I’m not sure how many people out there are wandering around thinking of Blackburn’s poem and substituting Seamus Heaney for Rogers Hornsby and then subbing in Lou Reed for WCW, but that was actually my first thought—first this, then that. Jeez. I must be getting old.
Everyone listened to “Walk on the Wild Side” on the radio in 1972 or 73, it got a lot of play and it was ok, but I was into Led Zeppelin then, consumed with acne and angst. It was not until a couple years later when a friend played the first album with Nico that had the banana on the blank cover and we had started to do some interesting things to our minds with drugs that I started to pay attention. Nico’s “Femme Fatale”—YouTube it sometime. Hmm. Warhol. Etc. In praise of darkness, no stars shining at all.
So when we went to hear him live in 1975 at the Forum—I think that was what it was, some adjunct to Madison Square Garden, a smaller venue, I may be wrong, it is forty years ago—me, and my girlfriend Annie, and David, who bought the tickets and was the one who turned me on to the Velvet Underground, we had done some interesting things to our minds and we got to hear the songs live that he had turned into “Rock and Roll Animal.”
It was a pretty bad trip. Partway through the warm-up band a couple of other guys from our class showed up with tickets right behind us, a total coincidence, the kind that can feel very strange if you are in a certain sort of mental space, and one of them was a guy I admired a great deal, someone I trusted. When he tapped me on the back halfway through the first set and said “this isn’t what we came for” I began to wonder if I was in trouble.
It was February in New York, 1975—things were about to change. It took an enormous effort of self-control to get through the concert, and once it was over, I didn’t want to see Annie or David again—I felt scarred, though it had nothing to do with them. I think I wrote a novel about what happened next. I still know where to find it, but I haven’t needed to look at it for all this time—like a sealed autopsy.
When I got to college the following fall, one of the first things I did, wandering aimlessly around Harvard Square trying to decide what the fuck I was doing with my life and why I felt so incredibly alone, was buy Lou Reed’s album “Berlin,” along with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” I think I drove my roommates crazy, listening to Berlin. I listened to it again and again. I had no one in particular in mind.
I would not be telling these adolescent stories except that Lou Reed was Delmore Schwartz’s walker when Reed was a student at Syracuse University in the 1950s and Schwartz, who had the potential to be the greatest writer of his generation, was going insane in middle age. Now it happens that Schwartz’s poetry was the first work I read that allowed me to understand what poetry really is. How it works. Not how to make it, but how it works in the mind. My first book of poems was dedicated to him. As the Dennis Hopper character in “Apocalypse Now” says to the Martin Sheen character, the man enlarged my mind.
Last week after Lou Reed died I googled his name together with Schwartz’s name and found a piece Reed had written in the last couple of years, after he had started to die, in poetry.org. You can go look it up. He walked Schwartz around, he kept him safe, he could quote him from memory, just like I can—and he was writing this a year ago or so, already dying, an homage. So this sort of homage for Lou Reed, who was imperishable but did finally die.
I had known about the connection before and it interested me but I never checked it out. They were both part of my seed-time. The same fall that I read Schwartz for the first time Coney Island Baby came out and my college girlfriend and I—I was past Berlin by then—used to listen to it while we made love in our little dorm room, “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel, I’m a Coney Island baby now…” so sweet and gentle in the candlelight and the wine we had drunk, when life was still forgiving.
In 1982 in the cold heart of Manhattan another girl and I listened to the live double album of Velvet Underground, that poorly produced rag with a hiked up girl’s butt on the cover, listening to “It’s Such a Perfect Day” and especially to “New Age,” a song we listened to a lot of times while she wrote a very long poem with the same title and we wavered and dipped inside and out of our orbits, a gravity that we couldn’t escape until it all broke apart. The one poem about me she never published. Everyone wore black and red. The new stock market was ascendant and people my age were making obscene amounts of money and darkness had come to seem beautiful in a way that I am not sure our culture ever shook off—I think we shook off the idea of beauty, not darkness. We could not have both.
And then this happened and then that happened, and that was that, until last week. My life took other turns, and so did that of other friends. Sunrise, sunfall, families, children, work, deaths, births, etc. But I thought of it last week when he died-- the connection with Schwartz most, but also those markers of time when his music mattered to me and I was still young.
It is a long time since I have read Delmore Schwartz with anything but a sort of anthropologic or personal interest, and the same with Lou Reed, though I have been listening to him as I have written this piece—Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll, Berlin and Lady Day, and now Heroin, which was of course his masterpiece, along with his quitting the drugs and his opening a space in which one’s sexuality might be ok no matter what, as long as something—maybe love—something meaningful, at least—were involved. I am listening to the crescendo of the electric version of Heroin on “Rock and Roll Animal” and I am thinking that it was all right.
Tonight the light changed and it got dark early. When it gets dark in this latitude it gets dark fast and hard, and it stays dark, and when you look outside if the sky is clear it is so filled with stars—so cold, and empty, and also filled with stars, these stars that still bring light even after they have burnt out—so filled with stars that it would be hard to find a new one there, if there was one. And it is all right.
You pretty much know what time of year it is when you read a New England poet like Frost or Stevens. The weather is present in some fashion, melancholy like November, exuberant as June. This past week at my college it was mid-term grades, a half-season reckoning while the bright leaves faded to brown and fell in great rafts drifting across the roads and the lawns. Grey sky this morning like November, then sunlight in a minor key—how winter pales the light while preserving it, as if the sun had become a museum piece. I’ve always hated this time of year. It has never brought any good to me.
Education’s agrarian calendar in this frost zone brings planting late. We start in September as the real harvest is coming in, planting seeds we hope will have sprouted by now and then stand tall in the ice of December, then persist under the snow until in May they reach full flower. Last week’s hard frost killed what was left in my actual summer garden, but I was indoors, reading papers and essays, seeing what had sprouted there. And it made me want to turn Stevens’ line, from The Credences of Summer, on its head: “Now in mid-summer come, and all fools slaughtered….”
The fools in the poem are the nestlings that don’t survive the spring. In my reckoning of work from a large passel of students, I see that a few have fallen, perhaps too far to save, though one must not give up hope. What impresses, though, is how fast and strong some of the growth has been. And it is good for me, in that balance between teaching and writing that I often write about, and in this time of year when poems turn to falling leaves and winter’s nick, to have the chance to turn to new growth. Any attempt at a new poem of my own seems like the stone Sisyphus rolls up the hill. Why bother. But the students…
One student writes about being the only girl on her high-school wrestling team. She strains to keep up with the boys when they run sprints, always falling behind, grim and despondent, until one day her coach runs beside her, keeping pace, then slightly accelerating, so that she can still keep pace, then slightly accelerating again, so that she can still keep pace, pushing her, pushing her. Then the meaning of that coach, in understated words that shine like diamonds. She’s one of my faves, as my daughters would say—a root so strong it splits the rock.
A very shy young man, nearly inarticulate in class, asks me if I will read his stories. He tells me that he writes little stories, invented fables and fairy tales, or his own versions of the stories he was read to as a boy. I say yes, of course, but don’t expect much, and resent the time out of my busy day, expecting too little, as teachers sometimes do. Instead, a suite of small bright stories, sweetly realized, precisely phrased, set within a moral universe so purified of skepticism and doubt about the nature of goodness that I barely know what to say. Can you draw, I ask. A little, he says. I think if you could draw pictures to go with these that they would be perfect, I say. I mean it.
What is teaching? I don’t ever really stop to ask that question. I just do it. I am reflective about a lot of things, but there is this strange way in which I resist paying too much attention to what I do in the classroom, or even to the plans and lessons I create. I improvise. I try to provide a sense of presence—a presence of clear response, honesty, unmitigated positive regard. But I don’t do this in a calculated way—nothing is thoroughly planned or precise, and I know teachers who are far better than I am at the craft. I improvise. It is the one thing I do in my life in which my sense of self—my ego, my self-love or self-hate—seem entirely uninvolved. And in some ways I don’t care about it all that much. I mean, I care. I care. But part of it is like being one of those sign holders on the highway in a construction zone. Students are moving through. Their lives are…their lives.
I do like working with scientists, engineers, computer programmers. I see more of them these days. They have to take my class because it is a required course, but they know writing has nothing to do with how they will earn a living or make their way in the world.
My most accomplished student, an older fellow who will wind up designing computer systems or writing code or whatever it is that people like him do now in this emerging world I don't really understand, has a brilliant start to a piece to which he thinks he might devote the rest of the term. It’s a course in creative non-fiction, and he has the option of going long on his own project, or doing the prompts week by week. He makes clear that the story is incredibly important to him—central to his life, to his sense of self. He’s not sure that he wants to try to write it.
I tease him—I say that his talent is far too great to waste on engineering. No, he says, no. It’s the same thing! I want to be able to tell people how to do it right. I tell him that it is a moral issue. There is no higher calling than writing one’s truth. I am still teasing him, but in an edgy sort of way, to see what I get. I’ll think about it, he says.
And then there is the student who hasn’t written anything yet and never comes to class on time, bursting in late with a strained expression no matter how many times I have admonished him to respect the process of the class. I can get the paper to you by Friday, he says. Definitely. Friday comes, and he does not show up, even late. I realize that I am sorry he did not show up late. Another student, same boat—no papers yet—does come to my office hours, nothing in his hands. He loves math. He is brilliant—IQ brilliant, off the charts. I ask him if he would be willing to explain math to me in a paper.
Suddenly he is animated, almost rising from his seat in his excitement. I could do that? Sure, I say. What is it about math? Math is always right, he explains, it is perfect. Newton comes along and he is right for a while but he didn’t know about the speed of light, so he was wrong, but in math it is never like that. It exists apart from the physical world. He tries to explain Goedel’s theorem to me, drawing quick equations on a paper between us. Our time is up but he is just getting going, and I see students circling outside, but I let him go for a while. Finally he pauses, and I tell him that I have to kick him out. I tell him to explain his love of math to me. Do it in writing, I say. I can do that, he says. And he’s in class today, still animated, still engaged. I don’t think he will pass the class, but he’s on the right track, for now, at least.
I have not written anything since June, apart from one brief utterance and these occasional columns, which don’t count, since they are as much a way not to write as they are writing. Today, driving my daughter and her friend to school they are talking about the four humours, applying them to characters in Wuthering Heights. They agree that Heathcliff is choleric, and that Lookwood is phlegmatic. They’re not sure about Catherine. I mention how interesting it is that we still use these terms to describe people five centuries after they formed a certain kind of science, rather than metaphor. I’m wondering to myself if I am melancholic or sanguine. When I teach I am sanguine. I know that at least.
The sky was like November in the car, and the car itself, a 1998 Buick we took over from a grandparent who can’t drive anymore, is also grey and old like November. Now the sun is shining on the lawn, late October sun, late in the day, and the mid-season week is finished. Only winter lies ahead.
I wonder if I should start trying to write again. The dog needs a walk. I have a nice dinner in mind, for when my family gets home. And I think that November is also a time to imagine summer, and that December is also a harvest, and that these New England poets did a pretty good job of writing year round. And also, that if I read my student’s paper carefully, the one where her wrestling coach ran beside her, pushing her further, I will see that she is telling me something important, pushing me to run harder, that I need to keep pace.
Circadas and Time
A student came to my office to talk about his approach to a brief memoir I had assigned. He had chosen the person he wanted to write about, but as he had started writing he had found himself fascinated with his first encounter with his subject, that he had met her at a café he had never been to before, and that when they met it was for the first time.
He said it made him think of how much of life is repetition and how rarely you do something for the first time. He wondered if he might shift his focus from the person he had planned to write about to this instead, the idea of repetition and first times. Sure, I said. Sounds good. Go for it.
He made me think. I managed not to sidetrack him with my own interest in how one experiences certain things for the last time as life goes on, often without knowing it at the time. Perhaps this concept should be part of one’s mental armature as a young person. It was for me, after I read a short bit of Borges on the subject in college. But I didn’t want to get in the way of his momentum—why complicate things? First times and repetition. I am looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.
The idea that life consists mainly of repetition stayed with me, and when I woke this morning I found myself thinking of this summer’s irruption of the 17-year cicada. I don’t know why this came to my mind as I woke. Vermont is too far north for the species, at least so far, so I only read about it as it was happening this summer. As I did, I remembered the time I visited a college friend in one of the suburbs of New Jersey, the summer after we had graduated.
It was 1979. The cicadas were in full voice, and their empty carapaces littered the ground as we strolled through the green and well-kempt streets of the development where he had grown up. It was the first time I had visited him there, and it turned out to be the last as well—we fell out not long after, for reasons that were mainly my fault, and I have not seen him for thirty years. We had been close, in some ways, but it was just college and now I am not sure what the last time was, that I saw him.
The next time the cicadas irrupted, my wife and I had just bought a new house and I had left my work as a writing teacher and chair of the English department to take on a much broader administrative role, one that kept me busy for the next twelve years or so. It was a momentous year. Our second daughter was born, and between that and the new job my life changed in ways that were irrevocable and sent me rushing down a course of fast water from which I did not emerge again until just a couple of years ago, when I went back to full-time teaching and began to write again in earnest.
Musing on these milestones—college graduation, then that profound change of life in the 1990s, and then this past summer, when the cicadas irrupted again and I finally completed a book of poems over which I had labored in various ways for decades—I thought about that ancient question, whether there are cycles and rhythms, coincidences of time, that exist in some way apart from us and shape our lives, or whether we construct these in retrospect.
The realistic view says the latter. Science tells us that we invent our realities, make sense of them retrospectively, that there’s no one and nothing here but us and our subjective consciousness, which itself seems now governed by genes and neuronal connections that elude our control, rather than by some freedom of will. Or so the new neuroscience claims.
I am lying in bed in the grey light of a cloudy dawn as these notions run through my brain, and soon I will have to rise and go to work to give a presentation to parents that I have given often before. But I linger a moment and do a sort of math, counting back, to see that the first time the northeastern cicadas irrupted in my lifetime was in 1962. I had just turned five.
Not long before, my parents had moved back to New York City after a year in in rural Green River, and now I was about to enter the world of kindergarten and consciousness. Five is a big milestone, in every theory of development. I was five years old and the cicadas were sawing away on their mating calls, John F. Kennedy was president and in the warm dusk of late Manhattan summer I could hear teenagers playing new kinds of music on transistor radios in the park outside my third-floor bedroom window.
I count forward then and reflect that the next time they appear I will be 73, the same age my father was when he was diagnosed with cancer and began dying, a labor that took him four years and that ended six years ago, on precisely the date that I write this, September 27. The thought strikes me, not with any emotion exactly—just interesting, like saying hmm… Then I get up and go to work.
A couple of weeks ago, I had finished this piece with a last paragraph, which had a sort of dull, upbeat ending—“tomorrow I will do something for the first time.” Then I was felled by a cold and took to bed for a few days, and put the piece away. The work and the mild malaise of autumn came on, and now it is the present again, and re-reading the piece I deleted that paragraph. Ending something—any piece of writing—is like a trance from which one awakens, sometimes as though one has been given instructions that are hidden to the conscious mind, the way a hypnotist works.
Outside my window I hear the long buzz-saw of cicadas in the warm grass, and though it rained all night, a cool October rain, the full moon is shining now, and the stars shimmer in the heat. It is 1979 and I am walking with my friend on an abandoned field at the edge of the development. I can hear a siren in the distance, and then the sound of a jet coming in low toward the Newark airport. In just a few years I will marry, and then my first child will be born, and then my second child, and then years will pass in various ways, and then I will write these words.
This summer, I stocked the pond at the mill in Green River with a few trout, and in these last days of summer, when the rivers have been too low to be worth the effort of mounting a campaign, I have occasionally driven out to the old family home to cast a line for a while. Lazy fishing with barbless hooks. Almost like a census, to see which new fish rise to the fly and which are old friends I have caught and released before.
Today it seemed like it would be the last warm afternoon of the season. It was also the “calendar end” of summer, so I drove out for a final swim and a little fishing. It felt like I was enacting a ritual, purposeful and meaningless in the way rituals are. Too cold to swim, really, though I managed to get in and splash a bit in the green water. Fish still rose to the fly, but the exercise seemed stale, a poorly written coda to a poem that I couldn’t remember anymore.
Then, in a period of calm, mindless staring into the water after laying out a stretch of line to a part of the pond still in sunlight, I noticed strange objects, almost like manta rays, brown and elongated like jagged ovals, streaming upward through the water to the surface. The wind rising and the shaking of the trees with these strange upward-swimming shapes broke my concentration, and I looked up from the glass of the still water to see dead leaves falling from an oak tree on the far side of the pond. The shapes were their reflections.
The wind kept up for a bit and I watched the leaves, the leaves falling through bright air and their reflections rising through water that reflected the blue sky, watched how they met at the end and collapsed into still brown shapes drifting on the meniscus.
A metaphor there, I could see that, but not what it meant. The end of summer can seem much grimmer than the blaze of autumn that follows. These last days, the sweetness still on one’s lips, but vanishing…
I have lived almost my whole life without really paying attention to time. Until my thirties—until marriage, a house, settling down, the first child, then the second child—time was limitless in front of me, packed with meanings, events, memories, realities, still stuck together in a seamless web.
In the busy middle of my life I lost track of time—there was this day, and then that day, and the work got harder, the children more complicated, the houses larger; and the marriage became the web of our new family and a course of life cut loose from the mooring of childhood into what it means to have one’s own destiny.
Now our daughters are almost grown. The work is easier, at long last. We’ll be in this house a while to come. If I look back, I can see years that passed like minutes. I confuse events—was in 1996, or ‘98? And I have to count on my fingers or push off from some ineluctable moment—9/11, my father’s death, the birth of our second daughter—to figure out just when it was that this movie came out or that poet died.
I think that this is the first year that I have been able to watch time closely, to see each passing day, to notice which flowers have gone past and which are coming, to feel in a sort of pain the few minutes each morning now that the sun has delayed rising. It is easy to feel time’s arrow, paying attention to it. It only moves in one direction.
And reflecting on this I also find myself hoping that I might discover in the reflection a sense that finally time is slowing for me again, after such a quick thirty years that has brought me from a young man to someone old enough to be the father of a young man. Perhaps it is. Thinking back on the past summer it can feel as if I have measured each day--a small grace. Not a lasting one.
So I am thinking of these leaves falling and the way in which their reflections swam upward through the water to meet them at the surface, and it makes me think of how vivid my dreams are, in these past couple of years, since I pushed off from a certain mooring and began to think about the fact that I will die, not soon, I hope, but inevitably, and in much less time looking forward than I have looking back.
In my dreams, my father is still alive—he is teaching me how to throw a football, or talking to a team of foreign correspondents about a new war they have to cover—in the dream it is not clear where—and how important it is that they not let someone lie to them.
The pond is so filled with trout and the sun is so bright, and the bottom of it is covered with sand so you can see them clearly, swimming back and forth in the sunlight, and I show it to him—all those fish I put in there and how beautiful and large they are.
I am giving a talk to one of my usual audiences about teaching but suddenly I am eloquent in a way I never have been before, and afterwards all sorts of figures from my past, high school buddies, editors I worked with at Newsweek who are dead now, figures I can’t identify but who seem to know me in some fashion, crowd me to let me know how much what I have said has moved them, how important it is that I not stop what I am doing.
Sometimes I am walking in a dark street in a city I don’t know, and I have lost my way back to a room—a basement room—in a strange hotel, like one of the seedy pensions I stayed in when I was traveling, except it seems that I have killed someone, or done something terrible. It feels very real to me. When I wake it seems certain that I am guilty of a terrible crime.
The dreams are so vivid and concrete that I remember them days later, but not as whole scenes—instead I see that I remember my dreams in the same way that I remember the events of my waking days. Bits and pieces, small scenes, feelings, the flash of someone’s face or a sentence someone spoke.
It seems possible that the life that we live and the life we dream at night are just different versions of the reality that exists entirely within the borders of our own perceptions—our own minds, or as the neuroscientists would have it, our brains.
We test our everyday reality against the experience of others and manage a sort of social agreement that what we experience is real, while at night there is no one to ask whether that street actually leads to my hotel or to a train that takes me back to my childhood in Green River, where my father is casting a fly into a pond that he has stocked with trout, for precisely this purpose.
The leaves falling are the days passing, and today was the last day of summer. I took my last swim in a cold grey pond, then fished for a little while as the wind rose and leaves fell into the water. And tonight I will dream—perhaps I will dream that I am falling up through the sky like the reflection of a leaf rising up the mirror of the water, to meet myself and everyone I dream of, still alive, still whole, kind and amicable, asking me questions that I will finally know how to answer.
There is a moment in one of the early Star Wars movies when a planet is destroyed and one of the characters, Yoda, I think, says “there has been a great disturbance in the force." It is embarrassing to say that this shaggy reference was the first thing in my mind as I drove to work over East-West Road and heard the news that Seamus Heaney had died.
It was on NPR, and the calm, resonant intimacy of the newsreader as he read the sentences shook me and left me uncertain how to feel, and I had to pull over. After a minute of that, I felt that my body was being dramatic and took back control from it, driving the rest of the way in, thinking.
I didn't know Heaney well as a teacher, not like those who studied with him over time may have. He was visiting Harvard in the spring semester of my senior year, auditioning for the professorship that he would later take up. Robert Fitzgerald was soon to leave, Elizabeth Bishop was retiring, and Robert Lowell had died two years before. Heaney was the new team coming in.
It was hectic time in my life. I remember almost nothing about it except a few facts. Some close friends had joined a cult and gone crazy, which caused me grievous concern. I had no idea what I would do after school ended. I was obsessed most of that spring with a long paper about Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” which wound up at 65 pages. I handed it in on the last day of exams, a couple of days before graduation.
I was clinging to that work so I could postpone or eliminate the great diaspora that was about to occur. I remember that much. And how hot it was the day I got my diploma, and how we skipped hearing Helmut Schmidt, the German Prime Minister, give the commencement address, my girlfriend and I, and later went out for dinner with our parents. The cold war had just heated up. In a little while American hostages would be held in Iran and Reagan would be elected president.
Heaney was brand-new on campus that spring, and all of us, the apprentice poets who had been studying together in various courses over the past years, signed up for his workshop. He was 39 years old. I was 21. Field Guide wasn’t out yet. We read Death of the Naturalist and North, and Door Into The Dark, and we were excited to work with the poet, who had already had so much attention and would provide some novelty.
Of course we all thought we were very smart, and when Heaney turned out to be kind and filled with a gentle humility, and also physically large in ways that were striking but also confusing – and then of course there was his Irishness as well, which we didn't know how to parse – some of my peers decided that he just wasn't that smart, that we had been cheated in some fashion.
I didn’t feel that way. He seemed like a nice guy, and I had other things on my mind in any case. I was deeply engrossed in a dream journal I was working on for a fiction course with Jonathan Strong. I was having a strange spring.
It's true, though, this much I remember: his manner as a teacher at that juncture was diffident, kind and precise as it could be. Now that I sometimes teach poetry writing to undergraduates, I can see much more clearly how complicated it is to nourish hope and confidence when the poetry itself is at best juvenilia. Diffidence, kindness, and precision seem as good a way to go as any other.
I remember two things. One was a somewhat extended discourse, unusual for him, on the archaic word “polder,” a term meaning land reclaimed from coastal waters, or land protected from those waters. Dutch, I think. He was using it as an example of how important precision and diction is, and that our language has more resources in it than we tap at the surface of our vocabularies.
The word gives title to a poem he was working on at the time. Since then I have thought often about what single word can mean to a poem—and also of the subtle slyness of using a word reclaimed from disuse to denote low ground reclaimed from coastal flooding as a metaphor for memories dredged from time.
I also remember a question he asked about a short poem I'd written about hitchhiking up the west coast from San Francisco to Vancouver that previous summer with my girlfriend. In the first sentence of the poem I had inverted an adjectival phrase, which described the flowering bush outside our tent when we woke after camping off the coast of Oregon, from its usual spot, marking it off with commas, and he asked me why.
I didn't know. It was a gentle question, but I had literally nothing to say. Now I recognize, after three decades of teaching, that it was the most important question he could have asked.
Of course, the trivial reminiscence of school-boy times is like a feather next to the weight of the work itself. One thought that there would be time, that the life might have the sort of arc, like Stevens’ did, or Miloscz’s, or Frost’s, where one might feel confident that the best work was already there, nothing had been left out.
It doesn’t feel like that to me. The interruption saddens me. And yet, as I re-read his 2010 book Human Chain last night I realized that in some ways each poem he wrote contained the sort of wisdom one would wish from a poet’s last poems. I suppose that’s another lesson.
We mourn species when they are lost—passenger pigeons, dodos, in a few years the white bear of the north. The tiger. The whale. When Seamus Heaney died, we lost something like that—a voice that might have gone on singing as long as time goes on, Apollonian, clear, and also filled with the earth that makes us mortal and ends our songs.
Voting for the piano
Since the 1990s, as a writing teacher I have been mainly focused on how to help people who have been diagnosed with ADHD write academic papers. This may seem a somewhat narrow endeavor, and perhaps it is—most of my students have been bright, creative, and well-advantaged in American terms. Not the 1 percent, generally, but certainly the 10 percent, in terms of socioeconomic status. It’s hard to claim some great social value for this work, compared to other problems and other work.
Still, the work has seemed worthwhile. For one thing, almost all of my students have failed out of college somewhere else, generally because of an inability to write papers on demand, despite strong writing and thinking skills. For another, these students represent for me a larger population of young people who have been shoved to the margins, labeled, and stigmatized by an unholy alliance of the state, as manifest in our educational systems, and the psychiatric industry.
It is only in the past two decades that difficulty paying attention in school because of how boring it is, and difficulty doing work that seems meaningless, which it often is, have been reclassified as medical disorders and treated with drugs that have serious potential for abuse and have a host of unwanted side effects, including loss of appetite, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and failure to grow to one’s full height.
According to current statistics from the Center for Disease Control, one out of five males between the age of 14 and 17 has been diagnosed with ADHD, and most are treated with Adderall or Concerta. That is a lot of teenagers.
In most cases, especially among students from higher SES backgrounds, the set of traits we are calling ADHD is manifest mainly in school settings, which themselves are organized in ways that are deeply inhospitable to neurodiversity, partly for reasons of economics and efficiency, and partly because they have been designed according to social norms that have long outlived their usefulness and validity.
Human activities that for most of our history had high value—music, dance, theater, the visual arts, the making of literature, physical expressions of grace, strength, coordination, and endurance on the field—have now been entirely eliminated or marginalized in favor of a curriculum so focused on a couple dimensions of human capability that they seem fascist in their order. The two most important capacities for success in the workplace—social and emotional intelligence—are not part of the curriculum at all.
High stakes testing, the competition to get into a selective college, the sense of threat about post-college employment, deriving from an economic system that has spun out of reasonable control because of political infighting, all conspire to create an environment in which convergent thinking, diligence, compliance, and conformity are prized beyond any other traits—even though we know that human progress depends on divergent thinking, creativity, and nonconformity.
The great apostle of anti-psychiatry, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, said that the two most important and vulnerable things in life are children and liberty. Our current practices oppress both.
My students are victims of this new social order. What is worse, they think it is their fault. The child brought to a doctor’s office because he is bored and restless in school is given two alternatives within the frame of his own self-concept: he can continue to be bad, or he can accept that he is sick and take his medicine, which often makes him sick in other ways, ways that don’t often matter so much to the adult world that surrounds him.
I know why my students have so much difficulty writing academic papers. The nature of their brains, based on a genetic make-up that is shared by 30 percent of the human race, is such that their ability to filter out novel or interesting stimuli, whether arising from the environment or from within their minds, is thinner and more permeable than that of others.
Because of this, they are prone to distraction and impulse, have difficulty staying focused on things that don’t interest them, and in particular have difficulty holding thoughts, language, and visual information in their mind (a capacity called “working memory”) long enough to use them or to store them in long term memory—except when they are engaged. Then it is not an issue.
This trait is well-documented in the literature, and for psychiatry, it forms the core “deficit” of what we call ADHD now. Equally well documented, in a different research tradition, is the strong correlation between this trait—let’s not use the word deficit—and strengths in creative and divergent thinking.
These findings do not come from within the ADHD research tradition, which is largely funded on a medical model by the NIMH and the pharmaceutical industry. Instead, they come from a research tradition within cognitive psychology that focuses on creativity, and the finding that low latent inhibition (the core trait of ADHD) correlates with high creative and divergent thinking has been replicated in scores of studies.
This is not to say that all students labeled with ADHD are creative and divergent in their thinking, nor that ADHD in its classic form, when diagnosed by rigorous criteria, is not a significant impediment to success in life.
Rigorous research indicates that about five percent of the population has difficulty controlling behavior, impulsivity, and distraction in a way that causes problems across a broad range of human functioning—friendships, family, social interactions, as well as school. This condition may well benefit from medical care, where the costs of no treatment outweigh the risks of treatment.
But this is not the case with the students I serve, whose difficulties manifest only in school settings, and who otherwise live competent lives, at least as much as any of us do. With my students, I am continually reminded that the two most important human traits, in terms of human progress, are creativity and divergence.
Society is stabilized by social norms; progress is driven by deviance from the norm. It is hard not to feel that my students have been made victims of their deviance from the norm when, in fact, they should be celebrated for it.
What does this mean for me, as a teacher of writing? Two things. The first is personal. I share the traits that characterize my students. Like many of their parents, especially their fathers, I have the 1975 version of ADHD—no diagnosis, but a lifelong pattern of struggle with some things, especially mundane tasks, and a pattern of success in the work about which I have been passionate and engaged.
One does not reach the age of 56 without regrets or a sense of how one’s frailties and flaws shaped a course of life that could, at different junctures, have been better handled. We are all prey to the human condition and to our frailties. It is interesting to stop for a moment and think, what if I had been on Adderall all that time? Hmmm…. The answer is a null set. Having regrets is not the same as wishing one had a different life. I don’t. And I am grateful to have been spared the current hegemony and its practices, and that my wife and I have managed to spare our daughters as well.
When I teach my students I see myself, and I yearn to give them the same liberty I had when I was their age, to be free of labels, to see myself as just as normal as anyone is, since what, in the end, does “normal” mean, and to pursue my passions. To serve this end, I want them to know what I know about what “ADHD” means, and what it does not mean. I want to help them gain ownership of their own self-concept.
That part is easy, in a way. The second part is harder. My students, by and large, yearn to assimilate. When I teach composition, they are asking for me to help them find some way to fit in and make good, to write those papers that they dread, the ones that bore them to tears or leave them quaking with anxiety.
In this, I represent an academic industry that I believe in, and care about, and that I also know most of my students will never join in the way that writing research papers within the disciplines is designed to help them do.
When was the last time you wrote a research paper? It is a localized skill, particular to certain settings—postsecondary education and graduate schools—and while it is an extremely important skill, since we depend on our academies and professors to create new knowledge in fields as diverse as behavioral genetics and behavioral economics, the reality is that the vast majority of us live our lives and find our work in ways that have nothing to do with that kind of technical exploration and writing.
The ability to write and think well is essential, of course. I believe in my work as I try to support these capacities. All too often, however, college asks of students that they go through the motions of a kind of academic ritual, decontextualized from any meaning apart from some vague idea of practice and preparation. It is no wonder that my students, with their brilliant brains, hungering for stimulus, find these tasks difficult or impossible to perform.
I’m starting my fall course right now. I have about 16 students, and they all have ADHD. They all are smart—smart enough to have gotten into good colleges. And most of them have failed out of those colleges because they did not complete work, despite trying. They expect that I can give them something, some tools, some strategies, that will allow them to succeed, to assimilate at last. And I know how to do this.
Still, as I plan, I am torn between the project of assimilation and a different project, one more transgressive and subversive in nature. What if I simply focused on helping students to use writing in the ways that are most meaningful to them, screw the academy? What if I taught a course, not in academic writing, but in writing itself—in the meaning, the power, the beauty of writing in all of its forms?
They already know how to write. That’s not the issue. Doing assigned work at what we like to call “the point of performance” is the problem. What if I took that problem away entirely and let them take charge of their writing?
I don’t know yet. The course is still taking shape. I have some latitude in terms of assignments. Today, as I sit in cool, breezy sunlight listening to a brook murmur beside this old mill where I come to write, I am thinking of a small, elegant piece by Donald Barthelme called “The Piano.”
In it, the narrator writes a letter to his girlfriend’s psychiatrist. She has just come into a windfall—three thousand dollars. It’s enough to cover the next few months of treatment, but his girlfriend is torn, since she plays the piano and it is also just enough to buy a grand piano that would let her pursue her musical aspirations.
The letter is courteous and friendly, though the writer can’t help having a bit of fun with the shrink. His girlfriend has asked him for advice, and the writer acknowledges all of the reasons why perhaps she should stay in therapy. In the end, however, the writer says that he’ll vote for the piano. So do I.
Teaching is as close to a spiritual practice as I come in my mundane and ego-driven life. Though I hold poetry as a spiritual art, I can’t see my own practice, which has been driven by desire and absence, in quite that way. I hope someday it will be otherwise. Teaching is different. It feels pure to me, filled with presence and meaning. But in the summer I teach for money. I would not do it were it not for car payments and college tuition. I’d like more time to myself, but these bills come in….
When I had to start teaching again a couple of weeks ago after six weeks of solitude, reading and writing, I felt diminished. It felt like the loss of something, and the weekend before I started again I vacillated between anger, that I had to teach because we need the money, and anxiety, that I had forgotten what to do in a classroom. I was kind of a wreck that Sunday before classes started. I tossed and turned all that night, sleepless.
Now I have students again, and they make me forget that I am teaching because of money. They erase any resentment and their bright, eager, humor-filled presence, their regard and anticipation, quickly exchanges anxiety for the sense of craft that reminds me that after 25 years the classroom is a bicycle one does not forget how to ride, a kind of second nature. And also a goodness—a small, good thing, in Raymond Carver’s phrase.
My students are all in pain. They are in my writing classes—academic writing, a version of first-year composition—because they have failed somewhere else, places like Williams, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, Bard, American U., UVM, etc. Smart young adults with failure on their minds.
Mostly they failed because they could not write papers on demand and get them in on time. Most of them were trying to the end. Others tried and gave up, retreating. They are in my classroom now, and they expect that I can give them something that will allow them to stop failing.
Of course, all I am is the Wizard of Oz. I have tokens to offer of what they need, but what they need lies within themselves. I offer the tokens very bravely, making clear that they really work—the strategies I suggest, the stories and metaphors I use. But like the Wizard, all I can really say is that they already have what they are looking for. All I can do, and it is not a small thing, is help them to find it. My balloon takes off before Dorothy can get in it.
It is their nobility and kindness that moves me. One student is having a difficult time. He has had a hard life, institutionalized for a time. When he related it to me I felt very sad, though he had a small grim smile on his face the whole time. He had to leave class early yesterday. He was in too much pain to stay, and wanted to go lie down. He was afraid I would mark him absent if he left. Go, I said, go cool out. Don’t worry about absences—I won’t mark this down.
Today, he comes late, in the middle of an activity, so I set him up to work. They are writing maps for a paper about advertising, branding, and culture on large easel paper, the kind that sticks to a wall, using pastels and markers. A bit later I notice the student beside him, who wrote in a previous paper, a personal narrative, about his experiences in jail and then rehab, a stint that ended precisely a year ago, talking gently to him, helping him to see how to make the activity work for him. Soon, they are working beside each other on the papers they have pressed to the wall, touching base occasionally. I wonder if the student who helped him might be a messenger.
Another student asks to talk with me outside the classroom. He tells me that he has been too anxious to follow any step I have offered—he has been paralyzed and has not been able to write anything for the assignment. Instead he has been writing in his journal to see if he can find out what is making him so anxious about this paper. He thinks that it is fear of judgment, past experiences with papers that made him anxious, maybe that he doesn’t know how to do it. He is trembling and skittish, smart and self-aware.
I smile and try to fill my whole body with warmth and compassion. I tell him that this is so good to know—that experiencing this crisis provides an opening, that I don’t care about the paper at all, but rather that he gain some mindfulness in relationship to what the assignment has caused him to feel. I suggest that instead of trying to write the paper, that he just try to form a relationship with the assignment by working around the edges of it, close enough to feel where his fear lurks, but far enough away to stay mindful. Try that for a bit, I say. The paper does not matter. I can do that, he says. His smile is quick and fleeting. I can try that, he says.
Another student comes to class so excited, her notebook filled with sentences and equations. She has figured out the logic of her argument using set theory. She wants to know if she can use this in her paper—equations and diagrams, part math and part physics. It’s not an umbrella, she says, not a brand that covers multiple instances of advertising power, but rather a translucent mirror that both reflects back and transmits, creating processes that create a sort of feedback loop but at three levels. Set theory makes her argument clear to her. I don’t understand set theory myself. I barely passed trigonometry, and that was 40 years ago. She shows me her diagrams and I start to get it. Yes, I say. Use the equations and the diagrams. I can see that she is very brilliant. Math is so beautiful, she says.
I teach all kinds of writing—creative forms (fiction, poetry, non-fiction), journalism, and academic writing. There is always a tension between two versions of the craft. Is this work, this teaching, instrumental in nature, meant simply to help students master the ability to jump through some academic hoops? Or is it transformative, a way to connect students with one of our deepest and most essential modes of being? Both matter—getting citations right vs. expressing the self. Life is filled with paradox. It is always both, but they fight each other.
Writing this column, I am in the same place and mental space I inhabited for the six weeks I had solitude and nothing but my own work to pursue. I am in Green River, surrounded by beauty and the potential to lose myself in poetry, but I can’t afford it—writing this I’m simply delaying for an hour or two before I attend to papers that have been handed in and prep for tomorrow’s classes.
If I were given the choice—two versions of my life, one in which I have to teach tomorrow, and the second in which I have the day free to pursue my own ends—I don’t know which option I’d select. Probably the latter, though I’m not proud of it. It’s like answering the question, do you want oatmeal or ice cream? But my students have dignity, and they are noble. When I enter the classroom tomorrow I will have joy in my heart, or at least something not unlike joy.
I awakened, after a troubled and dreamless sleep in the humidity and heat of these recent days, and found myself possessed by a sort of telling that compelled me to write it down, and even as I did I could feel, tickling in some back part of my mind, a short dream I had had, as dawn wakened the songbirds, of a different ending to the story. Try as I could, it would not come back to memory, and I fear it is lost forever, though perhaps not. So here is what I wrote:
For a long period the committee in charge of the design disputed which form of locomotion the dominant species should use. One faction, perhaps the most powerful, argued for flight, as it was the most elegant form of movement through space, and the form that they naturally employed in those instances when they had to enter time. Another faction, composed primarily of engineers who had determined the physical structure they were creating, argued that swimming, through the vast waters that comprised much of the design, was the logical choice. However, in their battle to compose a world made mainly of water they had had to call in favors and make compromises, and the power of this group had diminished.
A smaller group, composed primarily of younger angels who shared their generation’s interest in toying with new-fangledness, argued that locomotion on the hard ground that rose from and separated the waters was an experiment worth trying. Even within this group there was no consensus on whether bipedalism or quadrapedalism was the most elegant solution. None argued for tripedalism. They had agreed in their first meeting that symmetry should be a basic principle, whether apparent or implied. There was one radical in that small group, however, who suggested, as a sort of thought experiment, the notion of slithering. This was tabled for a later discussion.
Deliberations had reached what seemed an intractable point, made worse by lingering personal enmity between Ariel, who chaired the committee, and his rival, who had suggested a world made entirely of water and had drawn many acolytes to that heretical and untried notion. (It was well known to some in the committee that Ariel had once proposed a world made only of air and received the backing to try it out, to disastrous results. It had taken him many eons to rise again to a position of power within the hierarchy of angels.)
Then a young angel stood, trembling with the anxiety of his youth. He was one of the most brilliant of his class, but he suffered from poor self-esteem because he was often misunderstood. Hesitant at first, and then, as his argument warmed, filled with passion, he said that it had been too long an eternity that only simple worlds had been made, with ease of locomotion and obvious symmetry, and that a world of difficulty, a world in which the least graceful form of locomotion should be the dominant one, and symmetry be hidden, and all creatures subject to the law of death, would provide a new sort of elegance and afford a different kind of pleasure, an ecstasy made sweeter by its elusiveness. Then, in the boldest move imaginable, he called for a binding vote and for dissolving the committee and leaving the world to chaos should no majority arise.
There was silence, and for a moment Caliban felt the bitterness of over-reaching and defeat. Then Trickster, who had taken no faction yet but was respected by all for her brilliant work on particles and waves, said yes. This is what we should do. We will make a world in which walking on the hard ground and death are the main principles, but—and here she paused, always dramatic—we will also have creatures that swim, and creatures that fly, and even ones that slither and creep, and we will give them all the autonomy of choice and play no games with their experience. Let’s have, at last, a world in which we play no role once we have made it.
Shouting broke out within the council—some of the older angels were enraged by the notion of giving up control, while others distasted the notion of death on moral grounds. Ariel, who had grown weary of this interminable project and the fractious group he had been summoned to lead, hammered his gavel hard and called for silence. Then he called the question. Second, said Caliban.
They voted the question, which won narrowly, and then marked their secret ballots, either for Trickster and Caliban’s notion of design, or for abandoning the contemplated world to chaos and dissolving the committee. By a very narrow margin, no more than a couple of votes, mainly from those proponents of a world made of water rather than air, the proposal for a hard, tragic earth, abandoned by angels and left to its own unfolding, passed. And then the committee disbanded, and the angels moved on to new work.
Still, from time to time, a few angels involved in that momentous and problematic event, one that became legendary and caused long discussion of new rules regarding the composition of committees, would check in on the progress of their work, and occasionally one assumed shape and entered time to experience directly the world that had been made.
There was no regulation in the agreement regarding the world’s composition against having some influence on its unfolding by assuming material form—it seemed a small point, since the cost of doing so was the experience of suffering and death, which most angels disdained. Even so, some of the younger angels, courting experience beyond the dull eternity they comprised, would try it, and it was later felt that this may have warped the unfolding of the planet in ways that prevented knowing whether the experiment was worth repeating.
In a very brief period, seconds in light’s clock, the dominant species developed and some became almost as angels in their knowledge and ability to shape space and time. Several angels involved in the original design felt that this was a great accomplishment, but even as they began to trumpet it and argue for the formation of new committees to make similar worlds, the life they had created began to feed on itself, quickly wrecking the design of the planet, which heated up unbearably in ways that had not been predicted, eventually destroying all sentient life.
A few young angels, fascinated, watched the end-game of the unfolding and the devastation that swept over a world made of water, air, and hard ground. And a couple of them, as they noticed the persistence of certain forms of life, bacteria mainly, argued that perhaps this world’s design would permit its own re-creation, as if it might start again. But in the end it was a dead planet, a failed experiment, one that was not tried again, and Ariel, Caliban, and Trickster were forced for many eons to work solely on the design of a new particle, a sort of make-work with no relevance to the true project of the divine, which remained hidden to them, as it does to all angels.
In the Catbird’s Seat
These hot, humid days I sleep sometimes in the basement, which has a bank of windows on the walk-out side and stays fairly cool, something the dog understands very well—I’m an intruder there and he sleeps beside me, both of us exhausted by our summer labors, such as they were. At dawn I am awakened by a catbird who has taken up residence in a nearby tree and opens the day with a cacophony of whistles and clicks, sounding mainly like a robin staggering home after a long night on the town, singing at the top of his lungs but off-key and forgetting a lot of the words, and also oblivious that there are people trying to sleep for christ’s sake, I mean come on, jeez, shut up will ya?
I love the catbird, our nonpareil native mimic, grey and dapper as a Mafia consigliore and not easy to scare. If Manhattan in 1975 had had the equivalent of a state bird the catbird would have fit the bill. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” I miss Manhattan in 1975.
My grandmother on my father’s side was an avid birdwatcher, and before she died in 1966 she helped me start my life-list, which sounds like a trope for something, but it’s not. I’ve always paid attention to birds since then, to the irritation of friends and family who could care less when I stop on a hike and say “listen--that’s a yellow-throat warbler!” Like a caption in a New Yorker cartoon. Still, one of the virtues of living in a place where the natural world is always close is that it allows one to play at the idea that nature’s chaos sometimes sends us messages.
The hermit thrush, our state bird, appears briefly in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the water-dripping sound of its fluted call a momentary contrast to the arid desert of Europe after the first war. When I think of this, I imagine it may say something about Vermont’s role in our unfolding national disaster. And if I were to write a thesis on the situation of contemporary poetry I might consider calling it “Catbirds,” since we are consigned to mimicry at this late stage of the tradition, and yet, in the way that catbirds do, we still have the opportunity to make something original from the songs we have inherited.
The very notion of originality, of course, is largely an invention of the Romantic period—the idea that one’s makings must somehow be fresh and novel. Pound said “make it new” and ever since he created modern poetry about a century ago we have held that idea quite close. I’ve written before of how powerfully Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence” ruled my sense of the tradition as a young poet in the 1970s. It entered my mind so indelibly that it is impossible for me now to read anyone, including myself, without identifying the precursors who made the poem possible, or to think of writing poetry in terms other than an endless wrestling with the past for a priority that is unattainable.
The catbird that forced me from bed at dawn this morning tells me that this line of thought is not useful, however accurate or defensible it may be. He says that his song, borrowed and cacophonous, is still new. He observes that while it is possible to imitate a robin’s song, or a song sparrow’s call, his own improvised bricolage of birdsong notes can’t be imitated, and I should learn from it. And he reminds me that it doesn’t matter in the end, that history will write us down and then erase us, that only decades after one is dead can one know whether anything one wrote will last.
In a week I go back to teaching, a grueling but remunerative summer session that will whisk me quite rapidly into the new academic year. I’ll miss these weeks of poetry and self-absorption, but like spring itself they could not last and, one hopes, will come again. I’m glad I finished a book of poems. The work left to do on it is perhaps better done by someone teaching than someone drifting through his days, as I have been. The irises and peonies are already past, the spring flowers have all withered, and now we’re at the fat heart of northern summer, with fall and winter starting to come back into view, spectral bystanders at the edge of the crowd.
Soon the catbird, and all the birds that animate the dawn with their territorial calls, will go silent. No mourning, since there is nothing to mourn—ripeness and fullness, such as they are, are the natural consequence of the rich potential and growth that spring gives us to know. “Ripeness is all,” says Gloucester in Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of King Lear.” “And that’s true, too,” says his good son, a line I used to read ironically. And it strikes me now that the end of Lear is not that different from Frost’s last lines in “The Oven Bird,” that wonderful poem about the August bird and the dusty heart of summer: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.”
The oven bird’s call goes like this: yackety-yackety-yackety-yack. I haven’t heard him quite yet. In the cool woods at dusk the wood thrushes and hermit thrushes still flute their melodious calls, a few more days at least. Some summer, though perhaps not in this world and time, the catbird will get them right. He keeps on trying.
Sunday Morning in Green River
A conversation in a secret garden, lush on the first day of summer, about cosmos and chaos, the statue perfected and the mad world swirling about us, and how the seasons in a northern clime might relate to these twins bound inside a larger circle beyond apprehension but, perhaps, real for all of that. Blake wrote in “Milton” that there is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find, so there was this hour, from 10:00 to 11:00, with children playing on the street outside.
Blake understood chaos and order as well as anyone, I guess. He understood that the religion of his tribe was an instrument of social order, the whip-hand that enforced the dark Satanic mills of newly industrial Britain. In the garden we bandy this about, why poets began walking about in the country-side, Romanticizing it as a new version of the god, and then making statues out of it.
But nature is, of course, quite silent on these matters. We bring to her our longing for the answer to the question that we must not name, and she obliges with summer and chaos, the wild fertility and anguish of spring, the blaze and annihilation of fall, and the strict, durable order of winter, when the trees show their skeletons.
It is Sunday morning, now two hours after dawn and two days after the solstice, the sun finally risen above the pine trees at the edge of the field in Green River, and so like Lear I say “Mark ye, I will preach.”
I thought our passage for today was in Stevens’ “Credences of Summer,” but when I looked in the book it is actually in “The Auroras of Autumn,” where he asks “Is there an imagination that sits enthroned / As grim as it is benevolent…/ Which in the midst of summer stops / To imagine winter?”
The question is better than his answer, in that poem at least, which I’ll let you read for yourself, dear reader. But with sunlight streaming full on my face, this second day of summer, my own answer is yes, and no.
Of course the winter skeletons of trees are shrouded within their chaotic green, a green only more chaotic and more lovely for the slight breeze that ruffles the leaves and sends the boughs rocking. And yet, this green existing now always exists—not because one knows green returns even when we do not, but because time does not exist except for us, and the green of these leaves, in its way, is permanent. I believe science has proven this. They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne.
A man lays bricks in a small garden at the hottest moment of a hot day. The bricks are part of summer, part of a garden. Cosmos and order take shape inside the chaos of a garden, built to last. The brown earth beneath them is carefully smoothed and leveled. The red of the bricks colors his hands. There are books on a table nearby, and he pauses for a moment to read in them.
In the movie the characters do not have much history and their characteristics are winnowed down to notes on an index card—a shy musician, a veteran with a hatred of order, a Vermont shop-keeper who likes his walk swept clean before the store opens, a child who saw something horrible on a highway. It is Independence Day, just at dawn, before anyone has assembled for the parade, and a dog is ambling down the middle of Main Street without a collar, intent on a destination that even he does not know. The cameras start to roll.
And there is a diagram of a circle that encompasses order and chaos which I am not permitted to see. It is not the endless cycling between this and that, but the thing that encompasses both. It is already winter in the garden, but I am picking lilies to make a bouquet for the banquet. Ferns. Queen Anne’s Lace. Orange Hawkweed.
What one wants, of course, is an interlocutor, someone to sit at the table and eat the lustrous pesto that I’ve made from basil so fresh and pure it would break your heart to taste it. But I am alone here. The dog will serve--handsome, well-trained, a bit stiff in the joints now, with a shorter lease than mine but still alive and vibrant in the last cool breezes of what looks to be a very hot day. “Here, Seamus!” He comes to my hand. The pond waters are cool, still in tree-shadow, and soon I will slip into them and let them wash all sin and language away from me.
Frank Bidart wrote, at the end of a long poem called “Confessional,” a dialogue with a therapist about the death of his mother, that “Man wants a metaphysics. / He cannot have one.” In the secret garden we agree that “meta” is the wrong term—not “above,” but “through.”
A phoebe has just alighted on the electric wire, wagging its tail-feathers, then thrusting back into the empty air to catch insects and bring them back to its nest below the eaves of this old house. We can’t have a metaphysics. That window is shut, though we can look through it. Love calls us to the things of this world. The brick terrace is made well, and will last a long time.
And since I am a pastiche of the things I have read, I’ll end with Frost’s “Directive,” having guided you, I hope now, into the chaos of the small stream that makes the rough music behind this house, which is an old mill, built in 1860, a mill for distilling jelly out of apples, the stream that has sung me to sleep for fifty years, and wakened me, and that I have drunk from with open hands as I have written these words.
In Frost’s poem he takes you on a journey into a mountain village that no longer exists, and then to a farmhouse that has fallen in, just a foundation now and a wild lilac at the vanished dooryard, and he shows you what is left, finally: the children’s goblet, the grail, hidden in a tree-stump by a small stream, so it can’t be found, as St. Mark says it mustn’t. Frost says: “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
NB: The reader of poetry in English will notice that I have borrowed phrases from Schwartz, Lowell, Stevens, Wilbur, and others without citing them in the text in order to preserve the narrative flow. Bricolage is our fate, now—what matters is to make what is already known fresh, so it may be known again.
Learning to Write
My father taught me to write. This sentence sounds like the beginning of a metaphoric exploration of his influence on me, which was, of course, profound, but I mean it literally.
One afternoon in 7th grade I brought home a social studies paper that I had labored over for weeks. It was about the civil rights movement, which was of central importance to my father as a journalist right then, in 1969.
It was a long project, and I had immersed myself in the various books he had given me—“Manchild in the Promised Land,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Black Like Me,” “Look Out, Whitey, Black Power’s Gonna Get Your Momma.” So I was devastated by the C- my labors had earned. I was in tears.
He sat me down that night, and elbow to elbow he walked me through the draft, and then he did that with most papers that year, and by the time he was done I knew how to write sentences and paragraphs, a skill that I’ve depended on since in my various professions.
My father had wanted to be a writer. He took a leave of absence from Newsweek when I was a toddler to spend a year in Vermont writing. All my earliest memories come from this period. Then he went back to Newsweek and became a major figure there during the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s.
Once I found some of the products of that one year tucked in a drawer—a Cheever-like short story about a suburban afternoon wrecked by the escape of a pig, a long play about Sacco and Vanzetti, co-written with Tom Meehan, who went on to write the book for “Annie.” I read them, then put them back.
It feels like a terrible lack in my understanding of him that I never asked him about that year and why he gave up on writing to become an editor and then a college president. But I didn’t. The whole thing is a mystery to me. I’m sure that part of it was about money—he hadn’t succeeded yet, and he had a young family, with a second child on the way by the end of that year. He probably needed to go back to work. I’m also not sure he felt compelled to write. Maybe it was something he put away again after trying it out.
After that year he lived his life, and writing was always nearby. He was a beautiful writer in the way that those old-style news writers were, economy and precision hard-wired in a fashion that I’ve never achieved, being prolix by nature. I still have a few brief letters from him, from that time when we still wrote letters, and they are beautiful. But after that year he never wrote anything of his own again, except for letters, memos, and speeches.
I don’t think he regretted it. He was a practical man, and also a family man. I’m not sure he ever missed a sporting event of mine when I was a jock in high school, an ethos I have tried to sustain with my own daughters. Even though he had come to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s in a circle of friends for whom writing and hard drinking were the main occupations, he wound up being a responsible company man, the one real anchor in the bunch of them, some of whom wound up doing well, and some of whom did not.
The thing is—the point of this long preamble is—that my father never had any interest in poetry. He was all about narrative and drama, when he tried to write. And, of course, poetry has been at the center of my life since I was fourteen years old and first read Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” I have managed competence in many forms of writing—academic research, essays, journalism, memos, reports, and speeches—but never fiction or drama. And it is poetry, a form my father did not read or write, and did not much care for, that has been my vocation for forty years now.
There are different theories I can propose about this—it was a way to escape my father’s influence and have an imaginative space of my own; my mother wrote poetry in college and actually did read and like poetry, and perhaps this was the tempering of his influence on me. Also, there was something cool about poetry in the small space of the private school Manhattan world I lived in during the 1970s and it was a way, as Freud said, to attract love and fame, etc., lacking the usual means to do so. But I don’t know. Freud’s insight that our being and actions are over-determined seems pertinent here, too. Maybe I just like writing poetry. Maybe I am compelled to do it.
When I started this essay, I did not intend it to turn into an essay about my father, so I won’t. Instead, I meant this as the third and last installment in this brief recent set of meditations on my relationship to writing poetry at this cusp of my life.
So I will say goodbye to my father, yet again, by noting that even though he did not read, write, or particularly enjoy poetry, he championed my right to place it at the center of my life, and even knocked me off course, in a subtle but permanent way, when it seemed I might settle into a career as a journalist instead. (He offered to sponsor me on a trip around the world to get me out of Manhattan. I took him up on it, though I only made it as far as Manila, and then Brattleboro.)
And another thing—he would read my poetry, and praise it well enough in his reserved and measured fashion, but he always enjoined me to be cautious about revising, and especially not to edit out the real heart of the work in order to make it palatable to some imagined reader or current fashion.
I don’t know whether he was right in this, or not—he was a romantic, and he believed we were our best selves when we followed our hearts, which was the last thing he said to students at Marlboro, in his last speech as president there. He said: “I know you well. You have good hearts. Follow your hearts, and all will be well.” I try to keep this in mind, and not revise too much.
So, I finally finished my book of poems last week, after five years of work toward it. At the last, it was mainly assemblage—picking and choosing among ten years and hundreds of pages of writing, creating a kind of order that finally seemed to make sense to me, and then writing a kind of coda to put a stop to the whole enterprise. No new poems will go in that book. They will have to find their own book.
Putting it together was a matter of making choices—what to put in, what to leave out (at least as many pages as I included, in the end), and what sort of order to put it in. It was this last part that was most difficult, and that, when completed, gladdened me. Not a matter of making choices so much as of making sense—giving some shape to the arc of the three decades that had gone into its making. And also, I think, the courage to say that the arc of those years had reached its far point.
In my first essay for these pages I wrote about the moment in my life when I willfully destroyed everything I had written before. It was about a decade ago, and I had decided that whatever was good in those first two decades of poems was already inside me, and that their utterance was flawed in a way that required a sort of exorcism, some sort of grand gesture. And when I published a sequence of new poems in 2008, I could feel how this was true—anything I had written before was contained in those twenty new poems, which in edited form now make up the first section of this completed work.
On this dull, damp June evening, I can feel the edges of that same train of thought, burning poems, teasing at me now, but the romantic impulse—the Promethean notion—has gone cold in me. The poems, once I am finished tidying them up, will have to stand for themselves, and it is not me who will make the decision about what life apart they will have.
It felt important to me that I had finished this book. It felt to me—still feels to me—that if I do not write any more poems, that is ok. I surely will—I enjoy it. But I did this one thing. The hard compulsion that forced these lines from me in such quantity and sometimes with such agony feels diminished now, not gone, still present, but like an old dog lying in a corner of a room by a fire, that once leapt fiercely to face each new stranger, but now in some fashion knows that strangers come and go, and that the warmth of the fire is the thing that gives grace.
I don’t know whether this is true or not. It feels true to me as I write this—or, perhaps, better to use the verb form: “trued.” Brought into shape or alignment. Perhaps this is the best sense of the word we can have—to true something, not to be true.
There is so much work still to do, to prepare a book to send it out into the world—to true it. But it is an editor’s work now, the kind of work my father was so good at, and that he also taught me to do, if I can remember how to do it.
W.S. Merwin has a very brief poem called “Elegy,” that goes “Who would I send it to?” Finishing the book, there was only one reader I wanted.
If some of the games that Borges wrote and that our contemporary physicists play with the nature of reality and the infinity of universes that all exist apart and together, in a true reality beyond the dreams we live, in which time no longer exists, he has already read it. I also know, of course, that the one reader I want has been dead for six years now.
After staying up for a long time, until dawn had turned into a rainy sort of daylight, I finished the composition of the work and then wrote this brief coda, with which I will end this essay. The title is also the working title of the work as a whole:
Waiting for the Light to Change
Often Hector would stay up late, reading
Or watching a movie, the scrim riffling like water,
Then ghosts would come, dog barking—
All the lights still on and he could not sleep.
He always had a foolish heart—
One day waiting for the light to change
A friend said just cross the street.
There were no cars. The street was empty
The sky seemed to embrace him but he shrugged it off,
No answer there to the question he had asked.
Now the firewood is gone. Dawn slips through the window,
Takes off her gown and shows her body,
Grey in the grey light, slim as a reed,
Soft patter of her feet like Eurydice, the rain
Softly falling on the thick grass, a patter—
Wildflowers bent and dim in the daylight.
O muse who burned in my heart like steel
I made these songs with my bare hands
I was sitting on a stone terrace in late afternoon sunlight after finishing another reading through Gary Snyder’s Rivers and Mountains, watching the dog drowse in a patch of sunlight, with almost nothing in my mind. It is a summer house, not winterized, that has been in my family for fifty years—fifty years of summer memory, starting when I was six years old. Being there can be like visiting a museum of memory and childhood, and often I indulge myself, going through the old catalogue to find hints and scraps of the gone world.
This time my plan was different—in a place without telephone or internet, or neighbors, I had gone to spend a few days reading and writing. I brought with me two quotes that someone I am working with had given me the week before. One was this koan: “show me your face before you were born.” The second was Steven Hawkings: “I know how the universe exists, but I don’t know why.”
I say that there was almost nothing on my mind, but really there was so much in my mind that I couldn’t think, like a computer that freezes when too many applications vie for limited working space. I had embraced a dilemma—or, rather, I had embraced a paradox that became a dilemma for me: I wanted an understanding that went beyond the kinds of understandings that bound me to myself, my identity, my past, my perceptions, the prison of the perceived world; but I also wanted to find a new language, a new way of saying as well as seeing, and language binds us to the prison of self. I could not have both, and so for a moment I could not have either.
It was such a beautiful evening, everything green, fresh, brilliant in the late sunlight, a crisp breeze rising and falling, all the tree-leaves swaying and dancing, then stilling, then dancing again, the full stream rushing nearby, a steady thrum, water sparkling and glistening as it splashed and played on the rocks. Everything was good, but it was not what I wanted—because I still wanted—something.
Snyder’s book is a sutra, a poem of 40 years of his life, 1956-1996. Each time I read it, I get closer to it, but I don’t reach it. It is a challenging work. I think it may be the greatest long poem of his generation, although his style has fallen out of style—the project of immediacy and an American idiom, without frills or irony and decidedly anti-formal, and with a resolute intention to make meaning in the deepest, most explicit sense of the word. No sentiment, no irony: very little to grab on to, climbing the hard, steep rock of its surface.
In the previous essay of this series in which I try to understand writing and my relation to it, and how reading and teaching connect to these, I wrote about syntax and mentioned that poets like Snyder had not influenced me, not because I did not read and admire them, but because of something missing in myself. I was reared in the school of Lowell and the poetry of the self—a very fine poetry, in his case, the strongest of his own generation in terms of mastery and scope. Reflecting now, I see how much of my work has been shaped by the terrible gravity of his commitment to the self and the self’s record and remaking of the “poor passing facts” of our days and our history—“warned by that / to give each figure in the photograph / his living name.” (“Epilogue,” the last lines of the last poem in his last book.)
A poetry that says “this is me—look at what I feel, what I think, what life I have lived, how I understand history and culture.” Nothing wrong with that—perhaps there is no alternative, or that to invent an alternative is simply to hide the same project in a new garb. That evening, after finishing Snyder and sitting mute in the late sunlight for a while, I wondered if there might be a different project, a poetry that says “this is Real—look at what it is, how it enlarges you and exceeds what you can grasp, how it tells you to sit still, listen, stop naming things for a moment.”
But what would that be, really? A poetry of silence?
The dilemma of wanting to be granted an apprehension of the knowing that surpasses the limits of our understanding while having to do so through the means of language is, perhaps, our fate, the paradox of being human, if one even gets that far. There was a time a few years ago when I was deeply engaged in the study of organizational systems and leadership—it was my work, and also my doctoral field of study—and for a few months I became preoccupied with the concept of paradox, mainly because it seemed to me that the role of leadership in the organization I led was about the management of conflicting truths—that there was never one clear path.
One line of thought that interested me at the time represented paradox as two points that could be mapped as extending upward on inclining ladders pointed toward each other, reaching a third point at the top. The teaching was that paradox requires that we embrace it, and then walk the two ladders up toward the point where they may finally meet. Not “either/or” but “both/and.” It was a useful construct, in organizational terms. It promoted comity, shared endeavor, and mutual understanding.
It is a few years now that I have cared about organizations and leadership, but the construct comes back to me with a new application as I thought about how to rise from the mute, sun-struck frozen RAM of that evening on the terrace and do some work again. There is a point where the self with its language and preoccupations meets the Real that surpasses understanding and remains relentlessly mysterious and beautiful. The point can’t be located, or achieved, but there is a ladder toward it—the only ladder one has. I climbed a rung or two that night, and wrote this poem:
Opening the House Again
-Green River, 2013
No day more perfect than this—
tree leaves dance
wind swirling—freshnew & joy
is by the kitchen sink, ultra concentrated joy, almost the color
of the sun with no clouds anywhere in the sky,
blue sky aching to break open,
One part of meadow left free from the mowing—
Early asters, orange hawkweed, leopard frogs.
Heal-all spiked, almost past.
Coltsfoot gone. Dandelion gone. Daffodils gone.
Crocuses gone. Forsythia gone.
First iris pokes from the ferns. Fruit-tree blossoms
Are gone. The river is lower.
Broken dam not much different from last year.
Dog lies in sun-patch, stone terrace, drowsing,
Fieldstones picked from stonewalls
Forty years ago, all askew—frost heaves—
Someday I will set them right.
Dog old enough to sleep in this brisk June breeze—
I can’t interest him in a stick.
Show me your facebefore you were born
River floods white over stones—granite & quartz grooved
where sandstone wore out—
thrum of water
over stone dog sleeping now
sun gone behind top branches of an ash
I remember it much smaller
when we visit places where we were young
things often seem larger to us
But not the trees—sun sets early now, after forty years,
Landscape carved near—we tamed it, then let it go again.
One autumn the dam cracked open,
Eight inches of rain in an hour.
I put my hand against the breeze, cool on my palm.
Soon there will be iris everywhere,
Then lilies, daisies, black-eyed susans—
Nothing lasts. Even the sun—
But I like how it feels tonight, last rays on my face,
Sweet scent of lily-of-the-valley,
The wind rising, then stilling, then rising again.
The Real that surrounds us, unapprehended, but true
Driving back to Brattleboro from Middlebury yesterday along Route 30, all that lush, open, flat farm land, and in each farm I passed, men and women busily working, as they have ever done, I thought about what it means not to “go to work,” as most of us mainly do, but to be at the place of one’s work, as in a farmer’s life, or the life of a professor when classes are not in session. My life right now, in other words. The work is endless—this book of poems I plan to finish, this article not yet begun (“On ADHD, Social Norms, and Oppression”), all the reading that sits silent but vaguely accusing on my shelves. A new course in the fall. Letters I haven’t written. The poem that is flitting at the back of my mind, without a name or language yet.
On the radio, Terry Gross is talking to Stephen King about his new book, and he mentions in passing a saying that strikes my interest: “When a professor dies, a library burns.” It is the same point about the universe of a person’s memory Borges made in the short fiction I referred to in my last piece, so it strikes me, and makes me think about reading and the strange universe of memory that one’s course of reading creates.
A college friend once made the comment, I think he was paraphrasing Montale, that there is a certain type of person who cannot pass a scrap of paper on a sidewalk without picking it up to see what is written on it. This has stayed in my mind for these decades because, of course, I am that person.
And so, working at home on this rainy May day, I cast about for reading—not for a course of reading, because that would require some sort of intention, and I prefer not to have one, but in the spirit of that scrap of paper on the sidewalk that, when opened, reveals a shopping list or a furiously scrawled love-note from a girl to her boyfriend.
I picked up Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” because it was handy and I had not opened it for a few years, and read through it, looking for the same excitement I had felt when I first read it as a boy, but of course it is very thin now, over-taken by time and its successors. A curio. But I didn’t want to give up on Berryman too quickly, so I took down his collection of essays, “The Freedom of the Poet,” which I splurged on in hardcover when it came out in 1976. The essay as a form is much on my mind these days, since I am teaching a course in it this fall, and I remembered that what I liked about Berryman, who wrote mainly about literature, was this quote: “My interest in critical theory has been slight.” Me, too, pal, I thought.
Leafing through it, I came across this passage: “Pound has always minimized the importance of syntax, and this instinct perhaps accounts for his inveterate dislike for Milton, a dislike that has had broad consequences for three decades of the twentieth century….” Now it happens that this comment held a great deal of interest for me, partly because I had been reading Milton lately—I’ve been looking at various versions of origin myths for reasons I’ll get to in the end—but mainly because I have been wrestling hard to find a new voice in my poems, and this comment seemed to create a window into one dilemma.
Syntax has to do with the arrangement of linguistic elements (words, phrases, clauses) in a fashion that conveys and shapes meaning, and a strong attention to syntax also represents a strong attention toward authorial control in shaping meaning. When one thinks of Milton, or Henry James, one thinks of syntactical complexity and a high degree of authorial control—and these are things for which we have little patience in the current age. I won’t mount an exegesis on this theme here, but Berryman’s insight did deliver to me, in a sort of flash, a clearer understanding of modern and contemporary poetry, and of the small disputes that take place within the poetry industry about what constitutes appropriate poetic form.
Pound’s shaping of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which still deeply influences modern poetry, is largely against syntax. His efforts shaped the poem into the disjunctive form that has seemed to fit the century and its devolutions. Pound’s own work, with that of William Carlos Williams, was a dominant force in minimizing the role of explicit meaning in favor of something else—disjunction, allusiveness. Some contemporary schools virtually eschew syntax—language poetry, for example. Another strand, running from Stevens through Ashbery and O’Hara, intentionally plays with syntax to convey a surface of meaning under which an essential lack of meaning—at least explicit meaning—can play out. Some poets, often formal in their training and inclinations, have stuck to syntax—Frost and Yeats lead to Auden, Lowell, Larkin, Heaney, and even Billy Collins. The problem for me is not that there is a dominant school and I am opposed to it, but that I have not yet settled on how these different modalities of syntax might be reconciled into an order that will work for me.
This may be a technical problem. For example, although I can do it, writing formal verse comes hard to me, and I lose patience, while I lack the habit of mind that resists making some sort of sense, so language poetry is not something I can try without feeling like an imposter. It may also be a problem with my lack of clarity about my stance as a poet—I don’t really have a settled or typical style, or rather, I am promiscuous when it comes to style, not ready to settle down, and I am too uncertain and confused about the nature of the Real and our human place within it to have any sort of consistent vision that satisfies me.
It is an inescapable truth that both style and stance in the contemporary age are inheritances that come down to us from the strong poets who came before, something Harold Bloom made into a manifesto in his “Anxiety of Influence,” which was enormously influential when I was in my apprentice period. Bloom would argue, perhaps, that I simply am not a strong enough poet to make my inheritances new and fresh, and that even my best work is derivative in ways that are too obviously displayed. I would not disagree. I wonder whether this is the reason that I have such a strong affection for failed poets, poets without inheritors like Clare and Smart, Delmore Schwartz and Weldon Kees.
When I was in my 20s, I would say that I aspired to a voice that brought forth a synthesis of the kind of prosaic clarity and avid sense-making of someone like Randall Jarrell, who is neglected now and died too young to have achieved the greatness that may have been potential in him, and the electric verbal display and almost-making-sense of John Ashbery, whose early work I still prize, though he now seems to have become one of his many imitators. Eliot and Stevens are the progenitors of these two strands, and they were the first poets that I burned for. The synthesis probably was an impossible project, in that the two modes—lucid sense-making and conversationally accessible non-sense-making—are basically inimical. Later, the formal strength and stylistic grandeur of poets like Larkin, Heaney, Thom Gunn deepened my quest for synthesis without quite ending my long love affair with the allusive and disjunctive.
Reflecting on these strands of influence, what I notice is how central syntax is to each mode, which is why Berryman’s off-hand comment seems so useful. The strong poets who eschew syntax and strong central coherence—let’s say Pound and Williams in the grandfather generation, and poets like Gary Snyder and Charles Olson in the father generation—have never influenced me. I like reading them, and prize some of their effects, but I have never felt the sort of compulsion to imitate, borrow, steal, overtake and overcome, that I have with the other three strands—versions of stance and style—that have shaped me.
This whole piece, re-reading what I have written so far, seems like “inside baseball” to me—of interest only to those who are already so deeply steeped in the esoteria of the endeavor that they have their own version of the story and will see the flaws in mine. Who are all these poets? Why is two balls and no strikes the best time to hit and run? What is my point?
I think two things, which both have to do with the intricate relationships between reading, teaching, and writing toward which I gestured at the beginning. The first has to do with reading and teaching—that library that burns when a professor dies. It is time for me to embrace, to give in to, to imitate—to read in an authentic sense—the poets of the tradition that I have neglected. A missing wing in the library, a place I can’t bring students because it is unpopulated by the kind of meanings to which one must provide access, when one teaches. So, that, but also this: what would it mean for my own work and development if I turned my back on syntax for a while, gave up control, became a lens instead of a projector?
It is natural as one moves into the last years of one’s sixth decade, after so many decades of wrestling with the perceived world, the world we live in, of work, love, children, the house that needs painting and the bills that must be paid, that one sees how all of these occupations that seem so real and so important are in the process of ending, not soon, one hopes, but inevitably, and it is natural to consider what more there may be to life than “I have lived.” The desire to have a controlling narrative, to turn one’s life into syntax, is very strong, yet it ultimately cannot be realized. The story eludes us, in the way in which something imaginary—a dream—eludes us.
I had the chance to use my favorite short story, Isaac Beshevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” in a course I taught this spring. I won’t summarize it—either you have read it, or you should—but it ends like this:
No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. At the door of the hovel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared. I carry them in my beggar's sack. Another shnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.
Modern science has proven that it cannot explain this world adequately enough to demonstrate what lies beyond it, whether on the far side of the singularity that brought the universe into being, or in the infinitely small divisions of matter that still have no end, and certainly not the origin and meaning of life itself. What lies beyond cannot be falsified, so cannot be part of science. We cannot know it, and so we can also doubt it and take it off the table.
I was raised in that tradition, which did the good work of ending the hegemony of organized religion, but tended to throw the spirit out with the bathwater. So I find myself wondering now why so much of the greatest expression of the human points past doubt to something beyond us, that we cannot know, but that still is, perhaps, a part of us. Perhaps this physical reality in which we dream and live is all that is, but we cannot know that, and it is at least possible that there is a version of the Real that surrounds us, unapprehended, but true. If there is, I know that syntax will not be part of it.
Goodbye, Mr. Fay
I had started this column and was well along with it when sad news came last night that Robert Sargent Fay, professor emeritus at Landmark College, had passed away, dying at home of natural causes. Robert was one of my favorite colleagues. He was wise, brilliant, artistically gifted, kind, and decent—decent in a fashion that reminds me now of how archaic the concept of decency can seem.
When I first returned to the faculty at Landmark after a long stint as the chief academic officer and then a hard year of being marginalized in a job I never wanted, I was given the office next to his in the basement of one of our academic buildings. The basement fit my mood. While I loved teaching again, I hated what was happening to the college, and it felt like hiding out to me as much as anything else. Robert cheered me. We would pass in our travels from our offices to the copy machine on the other side of the floor, and after a time it came to be a humorous ritual—we would give grand gestures, bow, and occasionally stop to talk about how we might be characters in a one-act play.
That was seven semesters ago, as academic lives are measured, three years and a winter. Things got better, for me, certainly, and also for the college, and Robert stayed inside my orbit. After he retired from teaching, he still worked in the writing center, and I would send students to him. My students called him Mr. Fay, although he held a doctorate. They loved him. They swore by him. And sometimes he would report back on his pleasure at working with them.
Just this spring he told me about a student who showed him an email I had sent, praising the student for diligence and hard thought. He told me that the student had said “look at this.” Robert had the most wonderful smile, as he said it. A few weeks ago, one of my students told me that he had told her that I was “hot stuff” as a teacher. What did he mean by that, I wondered. She gave me a big grin.
Someday I will write something more detailed and more thoughtful about Robert, but I realized today that this piece was really about his spirit, in a way, or at least had something to do with the way in which I would want someday to be as wise and kind as he always was to every person he encountered.
At the end of a long school year I think about what it means to teach writing rather than write—what it means to spend so much of my life teaching the craft I love so much rather than engaging in it. And I don’t know what I think.
James Wright, one of my favorite poets when I was young, has a lovely poem about lying on a hammock at a friend’s farm, experiencing the natural world around him. It is probably his most anthologized poem, with beautiful lines about “…the bronze butterfly, / Asleep on the black trunk, / Blowing like a leaf in green shadow,” and a chicken hawk floating over, “looking for home.” It ends: “I have wasted my life.”
When I think of that, I think at least I have been doing the equivalent of lying on a hammock at William Duffy’s farm all this time, rather than some lesser occupation. It is an interesting and beautiful world I live in, the teaching, and the reading of the work of young writers. I don’t think I have wasted my life, teaching.
My great teacher in grad school, George Starbuck, once told me that he was always struck by how unpredictable it was, which of his students would go on and achieve some success in the poetry industry, and those who turned away. He told me that it seemed it really had to do with a kind of drive or desire—not the native talent, but a kind of ambition. I always share this story with my creative writing students, because it seems true to me. There is no greatness without ambition, at least in this hard art.
It took me a long time—maybe 30 years—to finally let go of some elitist assumptions about whether there were some virtue to the pursuit of writing in the absence of any real talent or driving ambition. Is poetry something you can teach the same way one teaches an amateur to knit or to make a simple sort of cake? Well, why not?
Only the child argues for some special privilege, for some sort of boundary around what is authentic and not authentic, what is valuable and not valuable. Love is open-hearted. Fear likes boundaries, and needs them. At the end of this long year I come to recognize the courage and glory each attempt at art my students make represents.
Toward the end of the short fiction workshop I wanted to share some modern pieces that were different from the typical anthologized stories we had read—Chekov, Baldwin, Oates, O’Connor, Faulkner, etc. These were great stories, but they were also varnished by their greatness, and I wanted to get at something else—not sure what. I also had to fill the time. It was late in the term and we were all running on fumes.
I found a copy of Barthelme’s “The School,” a brilliantly funny and dark piece about a school in which everything dies—the trees, the goldfish, the gerbils, the puppy (“we were not even meant to have a puppy”), the sponsored adoptive child, grandparents, a couple of parents…mere life. Horrifying and humorous, wonderful to read aloud—humor as a way to face the reality that surrounds us every day.
Then two short pieces by Borges, my two favorites of these short bits he left us from his decades of traveling the inner labyrinth.
The first imagines an old man dying on a rough bed of straw, at the end of the Anglo-Saxon time in England, after the new church had taken over from the old ways—the last man, now dying, to have seen the pagan rites before the bells of Angelus took over the land. Borges in this short piece imagines that each of us, when we die, takes with us memories that will never live again—the last person to see Christ, or the Buddha, or someday the last man to have known Martin Luther King, Jr. personally, or you, or me.
And then the second short piece, which is hard to find, describes saying goodbye to a friend after a lunch and an afternoon spent together, and watching her depart across a boulevard into the dusk, then not catching up for a while in the way that friends may not, and then to learn that she had died—that the boulevard was actually the river that separates the living and the dead. Borges imagines then the question—of when and how they will meet again, on the far border of that river, and whether they will know themselves when they do.
A couple of days after that class one of my students came by to chat, and he told me that the last class had been cool—he thought the Barthelme story was hilarious, which it is—and then he asked me what was up with the fact that all three stories were about death. It was so sweet—like an expression of concern, like I might have something on my mind.
Of course, I had not even thought of it that way. “The School” is an incredibly dark and funny story about the inevitability of death and the difficulty of explaining it to children and ourselves, and the two Borges’ pieces were actually located in the gloomy but lustrous mysticism in which he entertains questions about the nature of memory, time, and the potential for, and limits to, ideas of immortality. I was actually in a pretty great mood when I taught that class, but his concern was touching.
We shifted our discussion, things brightened, and that was that, but much later I thought about what that conversation was about. I wondered whether in our desire to protect our young from sorrow and harm, we also are protecting them from learning about the reality of things and the hard truths that they should know. I wondered whether in some instinct of which I was not fully aware that I hoped to give my young writers a sort of brief playbill for the theater of mortality in which we all must live if we are to perfect our craft, whether as writers, or teachers, or anything else for that matter.
I realized today that these three stories were also a way to make sense of the loss I feel at my colleague’s death. Barthelme’s story—how else can we explain death to our child-adults but through the use of dark humor? My dearest memory of Robert will always be the very low bow he gave me one dark February afternoon as I stalked back to my office with a thick sheaf of handouts. “Good day, sir,” he said. “And to you as well, my fine sir,” I said, bowing in my turn. Tears smart my eyes as I write this.
And more than that: that when Robert died the world lost the universe of his memories, lost forever, never to be replaced. He left us so many lovely images, but we can never know the world of thought and perception that led to them. And I did not know when we passed each other in a hallway a couple of weeks ago and greeted one another kindly that the space that opened between us as we moved on was not a corridor in an academic building but the River Acheron, and that we cannot know whether we will recognize one other when we next meet.
Both darkness and light surround us, but it is the light that embraces us, and this is what I forgot to tell my classes this year. Some year I will get it right. May is my favorite month. I have not wasted my life. Thank you, Mr. Fay.
Let There Be Dragons
One of the things that is interesting, working in academia, is the way each year cycles into the next, like seasons, like plantings and harvests, in a fashion that is Apollonian and quotidian, one year fading into the next like a kind of time-lapse photography.
There is a lulling quality to it—a sameness that belies the difference. You have to swim upstream against it, to stay on your game. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how different the students I work with now are from those with whom I used to work.
So it was interesting last fall when one of the students in my poetry workshop, a second-year college class, read a poem that concentrated on a close, personal battle between two dragons, one of which was very powerful, and the second, smaller and newly formed.
It was not a particularly good poem, and I could see a couple more skilled students in the class angling for the kind of assault that creative writing classes in college can create, so I said, innocently, wow, a dragon. Dragons. I don't think I've read many contemporary poems with dragons in them.
The dragon is a metaphor, she said. I mean, it stands for something else.
It was a pretty sexual poem--a lot of bare skin and some howls, some chains clanking. The setting was dark and filled with fire.
Yes, I can see that, I said. Another student, a friend of hers, said I like it a lot, and for a brief time we discussed the virtues of the poem and the sharks were held at bay.
They weren't really sharks--just two skilled writers who happened to be in this class of less-skilled writers, and they knew how to be kind enough to stay quiet.
Still, when the second poet to read his work that day also had a dragon in his poem--this one wasn't sexual, it was sort of a warfare thing, with a lot of bells and whistles--I gave a good hard look at them before I said, wow, two dragons in two poems in a row.
I was nonplussed, but we got through it somehow without doing any damage to the writer's sense of self, and then a third poet got ready to read.
I hope you don't have a dragon in this poem, I said. I mean...then my voice trailed off. The sound in the classroom stilled.
Actually, I do, he said. This one is based on...and then he named some video game that I didn't know, but other students did. And then he read his poem.
We talked about it for a bit--one of the virtues of the class was that the smart sharks were smart enough to catch my glance, and the others didn't have too much to say besides I liked it, or what color was the dragon again.
Everything was going along pretty well, but I felt that I did have to say something for the real writers in the class, so I told them about a Chinese statement--a saying? a proverb?--that I used as the epigraph to a poem when I was about their age.
Of course now I am not sure whether I invented this quote or found it somewhere, and have no idea where it came from, or what it even means. But I said this:
All of these dragons remind me of a Chinese saying about paintings of dragons--that while paintings of dragons themselves may achieve excellence, the greatest painting is the one in which the dragon has just flown away, leaving no trace.
Six months later I was fishing with one of the real writers from the class, an older fellow with great talent, and we were recalling how tough that class had been to teach, and I remarked how frustrating it must have been to sit through three dragons worth of bad poetry.
Yeah, he said, but you told that Chinese thing about painting the dragon. That was pretty cool. And it was always interesting to see how you dealt with what came up--like, I just decided to go with it, see how you handled it.
Sometimes it was amusing, he said. It was interesting to watch how you handled it.
Of course I am partly making this up, since what is memory but a reinvention? And writing is pure invention, no matter how close we want to keep to the truth of things.
So, in the context of a different class, one in short fiction, another student brought me a short story that involved an enormous battle between two dragons, with the white dragon seeking to rescue maidens from a dark dungeon, locked in a death struggle with a black dragon.
The story was unfinished. It was not clear which dragon would win.
I did my usual encouraging thing, and he asked me if I knew what the story was about. I'm not sure, I said. It seems like some sort of battle between good and evil, and the maidens seem to represent some sort of purity and innocence...
Yes, he said. But what is one of the greatest human crimes in the world today?
Well, I said. Well… I wasn't sure where he was going.
Human trafficking, he said. It's a metaphor. The white dragon is trying to rescue his daughter.
I'll stop here. Enough stories.
What I realize is that for many of the students I work with, the world they live in is largely a fictive world created through the manipulation of images and language online, across a range of platforms, from FaceBook to videogames, and everything else, and so dragons have become real again, in a way that could not have been imagined before now.
Today I was waiting in the library to meet a student and I leafed through the current issue of The Atlantic, a cover story about smart-phone apps for toddlers.
The world is changing now in the same way it changed in the 1500s after the invention of the printing press. We have known this for a while, but now we are seeing, I think, the frontier of a new world.
If I were to map it, I would say that we have uncharted territory ahead, and I would write these words across the unmapped space:
There Be Dragons
Spring and All
I started teaching a workshop in short fiction this spring, without much claim to any accomplishment in the art of it, which seems very hard to me. But I do know how to teach writing to sophomores in college. One of the things I say is don’t write yourself into a box you can’t get out of.
Last fall, when Phil Innes suggested I might do some sort of column, I had some fun with the initial idea of it, but it turned out it was a box I had written myself into. I’m not sure the initial idea was a box, as Phil and I mooted it at the start, but I certainly found my way to turning it into one. And this makes me also think how often I’ve created boxes for myself, rather than windows, in my progress through life, which is of course the one life one has.
But what would not be a box? Ok. Let me tell you a story about a student who came to my office hours a few weeks ago carrying a banjo. He wanted to talk about a story he was working on, about an old guy, a loner, a good guy who had somehow managed never to make any close connections in his life, despite traveling around and having many fine experiences and meeting many fine people, and being loved in his life.
My student, let’s not give him a name right yet, he thinks that if he can set a fire in the small house where this guy lives, let’s call him Jake, after a pleasant night with some friends, one of whom crept away again before he had fully awakened, maybe a coal spun out from the fireplace that settles into the rug and starts to smolder—maybe that will set him going on his life. But then what happens next?
It seems like a good idea, but what I really want is for Jesse to play the banjo—to show me how it works. So he obliges, an easy-going guy, he shows me the fingering and plucks out a tune for a bit, pretty cool, and it’s early enough—the building is empty enough—that I’m not worried he’s disturbing anyone. The professor next door, I happen to know, plays a really mean guitar.
That’s really cool, I say, and then we discuss the fire. What will happen next? He’s not sure. He’s not actually an old loner who has lived a cool life without ever making any meaningful and lasting connection to anyone. He thinks he should set the guy on his way—get him moving. I don’t know why I would disagree. I think how beautiful it must be to be 22 years old and to imagine an old loner guy with a long, sweet back-story, about to go on a journey.
As he leaves my office—no, let’s say, as he leaves this artificial space called writing in which I have him leaving my office, which in actuality is the space in which I am simply writing these words at some distance from any of the events that I have related, all of which may be invented—actually are invented, since whatever really happened, it is not the same as the words I have conjured to tell the story—I am thinking about what a column would be like for Phil Innes if somehow I could keep it from being a box that I created for myself.
I’m not sure I have an answer for the question. I don’t know how to play the banjo, or any instrument, really.
A few weeks later, my friend wrote a story about a ventriloquist. He’s an ok ventriloquist, gets some local gigs, but not good enough to get anywhere with it, and we meet him in a library where he is studying through joke-books—mainly dirty jokes—muttering them under his breath, because he really wants to try to make his way as a stand-up comedian. That’s where the money is. Stand up. He says it aloud. Me, I’m reading a book about gardening, and I am watching him as he mutters under his breath, so there’s this guy, he comes into a coffee shop carrying two poodles, and then he…
Of course the rest of the joke, and the rest of the story, are opaque to me. Here’s your new column, Phil.
What Makes a Poem “Good”?
I don’t really know how to answer this question, though it seems as if I ought to have some idea about it, after forty years of paying close attention to poetry and writing continually during all of that time. Oh, I can think of words like “clarity” and “concision,” ideas like “the unexpected,” “freshness,” “newness,” and also of deeper thoughts—that good poetry reveals truths that had not yet been expressed, or brings the familiar to us in ways that make it strange and original. But these just seem like platitudes that conceal as much as they disclose.
Perhaps a more rigorous study of aesthetics might have given me better ammunition to face this question, which seems very important to me right now, as I try to assemble a life of work into a book and send it out for prizes. But I’m not sure. The cynic in me wants to say that “good poetry” is simply what someone with influence has decided it is. Blake and Dickinson, in different ways, come to mind—disregarded in life despite a few attempts at notice, they got picked up later and now are part of the canon. I have a colleague who is hundreds of pages into a long poem, a rich, terrifying interior monologue about a single day in childhood, that may never be published—it seems essentially unpublishable, in the same way Blake’s Four Zoas is. It may be great.
The opposite can also happen. A friend from college had her early work picked up by The New Yorker, which certainly made her career, but I’m not sure did her any favors. Her later work is brilliant, but I’m not sure she’ll want those undergraduate poems in her last collection. A few years after graduate school I picked up the new edition of one of the Norton anthologies and was startled to see that one of my classmates from that time had had a couple of her poems selected for that august volume. She was quiet, kind, and very bright, but her work had never attracted much notice or praise in our workshops together. Yet there she was.
John Berryman labored in relative obscurity for much of his career, then flamed onto the scene with his first 77 Dream Songs, and then a few years later with the whole collection of them—perhaps the most important long poem of his generation. Nothing he wrote after that compared, and he jumped off a bridge at the age of 57. Berryman’s friend Delmore Schwartz wrote his best work before he turned thirty, and perished alone. I once asked my teacher George Starbuck what distinguished the students who really made it from those who did not, and he said that it wasn’t really talent, at least not in graduate school, so much as focus and commitment—some of his best students, he said, were now lawyers or journalists. George’s poetry, sadly, has disappeared from the most recent version of the Norton anthology.
This all seems like an argument that influential notice and fashion define what’s “good poetry,” and I think that there is something to it. Certainly, once a poet has achieved a certain level of notice and fame, everything after that qualifies as “good,” or at least good enough. Getting that first book published well is the challenge. Ashbery’s early work seemed stunning and new, but it is very hard to remember when the last time it was that I found anything new in his work—he has turned into a style, rather than a poet. It reminds me of that story about Picasso—asked to judge whether a work attributed to him was a fake, he said it was. When told that he had certainly painted it—the signature was authentic—he said, “I often paint fakes.” To say that a handful of poems by Weldon Kees seem more important than anything Ashbery has made, or that Clare is a more interesting poet than Shelley, may risk ridicule from the corridors of fashion, but there you go.
And yet. Some work seems unassailably, uncontrovertibly great. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” a poem that probably will turn up in anthologies a millennium from now, perhaps under “anon” next to Dylan’s “Forever Young,” also anon. The slim output of Bishop and Larkin contain poems that will certainly last as long, unfashionable and even unlikable as each poet was. Robert Hayden’s “These Winter Sundays,” Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Skill in the making of verse sings an ageless tune unbound by fashion.
So two thoughts come, neither of them original to me, as a way of reconciling the unanswerable question. The first is Jarrell’s line, which I have quoted before, that a poet is someone who stands in lightning storms all of his life, and if he is struck by lightning a couple of times he is a good poet—ten or twelve times, a great poet. And then my friend Andy McCord’s comment (Andy’s first two books are each very fine in my view, though they are both unpublished so far): “we won’t find out if we were any good until at least a century after we’re dead.” I’ll take these together as a kind of thin solace, on this cold, sullen November morning—a morning without lightning and at least a century too early.
As a sort of coda, I’ll close this with a poem that seems to me as close as I’ve come to being struck by lightning. It’s the penultimate poem in a sequence that was published a few years ago. I’d wanted to call the sequence after it, since it seemed like the title poem, but the editor decided that a book called “Among the Ruins” would not sell as well as one called “The New City,” after the poem that closed the sequence. Contrary as always, I plan to title my new book, which will include this sequence, after this poem:
Among the Ruins
For about a week the sky was clear, no contrails
In the satellite photos in the Times, the empty ache of blue sky
A gift no one opened
We waited for word in the provinces & soon,
Soon everything was whole again, just like it was
Last night I dreamt about the time I waited for Stryker McGuire to pick me up
Under the towers, to drive north and see my father, still filled with life then--
It must have been late June, the landscape was empty, a Sunday
I sat under the endless sky of the buildings, the unimaginable vertical
In clear June sunlight, the streets empty
Waiting for one of my editors, my dad’s protégé seeking counsel, & my heart
Was empty & glad at the same time, for a moment
Some kind of meaning—everything made sense to me, I was 26
& soon we would drive north to Vermont,
Everything was whole then, for a moment, as I waited there.
The ruins we live in are time’s cost, the wars a mere sideshow
Who knows what I wanted then, who knows --
Air bitter and sweet drifting off the harbor, the mountain of stone
Not fallen yet, still suspended, the ruins still unflowered, still incomplete
As now, as I tell you this, my song my night my love--
Your voice soft and low, so sly, recognizable still
At whatever distance, the rain and towers still falling,
My love, my muse of water and ruin.
Autumn, and Keats’ “To Autumn”
Autumn has always terrified me. I suppose part of it had to do with how much I hated school as a child—the end of summer and the first cold nights in our summer sojourn at the mill in Green River meant nightmares about Monsieur Bernier and math, and the end of a kind of freedom to roam that seems like Tom Sawyer to me now, looking back in the fondness of nostalgia.
As I grew into adulthood, being pessimistic by nature—when I was 23, my graduate writing teacher, George Starbuck, told me I wrote like I was middle-aged—the season seemed always a metaphor for the human condition. Later still, real deaths began to happen, as they do in anyone’s life—a close friend suddenly, one November; grandparents, my father—and these thickened the metaphor into something more direct, an identity, not a figure. Although I am emotionally volatile, depression has afflicted me only three times in the past thirty years. Each time it started around this time of year, deepening steadily until the first days of April created some sense of new life, and now that I am somewhat older the season also brings these reminders as a warning to stay close to home base, emotionally speaking.
Anyone who writes a poem about the season has to wrestle in some fashion with the greatest precursor, Keats’ ode, “To Autumn,” as near to a perfect poem in English as one can find. Keats evokes the meaning of the season in an understated way, first invoking the season itself—“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness / Close bosom-friend of the expiring sun,” then personifying it as a gleaner pausing a moment among sheaves of wheat, and then concluding with a passage of fall’s subdued, “soft-dying” music, a “wailful choir” more beautiful for being so dispassionate, as “gathering swallows twitter in the sky. It seems that Keats may already had some premonition of his impending death from tuberculosis, although this was still a couple of years away. It is the last of his great odes. It’s the anniversary of his birth today (10/31/1795).
At only one point in the poem does Keats intrude a personal note. In the first line of the final stanza, he asks “Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?” His response—“Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”—is one answer, but not, of course, the only answer. The poem has been praised for a kind of wisdom, an acceptance, a beautiful resignation, and all of these seem quite true to me, in a way. Sometimes I aspire to the state of mind that might both ask the question—posing the anguish of what has been lost—and then answer it with such equanimity and beauty. Mainly I don’t, perhaps because autumn still terrifies me, perhaps because acceptance and resignation are not in my nature. I prefer anger, irony, and a kind of stoicism—Larkin’s harsh, late poem “Aubade” seems better to me, in its way, than any attempt to make death less than what it is.
So here is a poem about autumn, one that I wrote last year around this time. By setting it next to Keats, I’ll try to underscore that I don’t make any claim for it—I like it in its own way, but the poems I share here are decidedly minor poems at best (not that I am holding back the good stuff.) I wrote this one in connection to a creative writing class I’ve taught the past two fall semesters—an indirect connection, nothing to do with the process of the class itself. Here it is:
You’ve seen this movie. You mail desire
A short letter but it comes back
“Address unknown,” the weekend when leaves fall
And also the pine needles, piles of them
Brown and spindly on the front walk,
And when you answer the phone
It says you are disconnected, night is falling,
It’s getting cold now, and somewhere
Across the vacant fields
You hear a dog keening, locked out,
Waiting for its owner, but it is your own voice
And the answering machine says “we’re not
Home right now, but we miss you,
Leave this message.”
When I wrote this poem I had just covered Keats’ ode in class, so this was on my mind. I also had a very gifted student that fall—an exceptionally gifted student in his early 20s, about the same age I was when I held a graduate fellowship at BU, whom I knew suffered very much from swings of mood, and who seemed to be slipping into a bad time. Of course, it was the time of year when “slipping into a bad time” seems available to me—not now as an option or something to guard against so much as a presence, an awareness that I neither fight nor embrace, but just try to hold, more or less at arm’s length. As I wrote it, this student, whom I liked a great deal, and my own sense of how the season had afflicted me in the past, were both on my mind.
For a few days I had had the idea in mind of a riff on “desire” as a person as well as a state of being or feeling, and with it the idea that “desire,” who is also a trope for “the muse” in my iconography, might be someone you could try to contact only to find that she’s moved out of town with no forwarding address. This notion was beating below the surface when I was taken unaware by the utterance of the poem with the words “You’ve seen this movie,” which in essence was a gesture toward how predictable and repetitious the advent of autumn is in one’s life, after almost six decades, and also a phrase that compelled everything that came after it.
The rest of the poem wrote itself in a continuous sentence that I have barely revised in later iterations—I have fiddled with line breaks and tried to tighten the voicing of it, adding at one point a delaying phrase-- “across the vacant fields”-- to relax slightly the tight downward movement of the sentence, but when I look at the first version, this current version, 20 tries later, is pretty much identical.
My students had asked me to share some of my work in class, so I read this one, which left most of them a bit confused and noncommittal, for good reason I suppose—almost none of them were practiced readers, and the stance of it is not one with which I would want a 19-year-old to easily identify.
Then I tried to explain, very briefly, the idea of the poem: that the descent of winter can come with a feeling of dislocation, and even disembodiment, and that I was trying to get at this sense in the poem, desire gone missing, disconnection, the ambiguity of who was calling and who was answering, the animal body keening somewhere as one discovers the noise inside one’s body, the answering machine that the self left behind asking that this message be left as a kind of record.
More uneasy nods from the group, and then the student for whom, in a way, I had written the poem, said, in the dry and understated way he had, “well you got that pretty well.”
I wrote this poem, which I have never tried to publish, at an odd juncture of my life. I had been the chief academic officer at my college for eleven years, and then was almost randomly reassigned to a new, different job, with a new title and a big raise, and then after a year at that job I was reassigned again for reasons that were equally random and obscure, and I decided to quit the administrative game, give up the salary, and escape the madness that seemed to be overtaking the higher reaches of the place I worked. I rejoined the faculty, where I had started.
Oddly, the day I made this decision was also the eighth anniversary of 9/11—a date that everyone remembers and that for me was particularly memorable because during that day in 2001 and the days following I was essentially in charge of managing the college’s response to the tragedy. I was proud of the way my staff and I cared for students in those few days before things returned to normal.
By impulse, almost on automatic pilot, perhaps in a way affirming various meanings that the difficult decision I had just made held for me—the meaning of being a poet, the meaning of 9/11 in my own life, the meaning of time and distance and the irrelevance of so much that seems to matter for a moment but then doesn’t later—I wrote this poem:
Time’s Edge, 9/11/09
My daughters are tall. They are beautiful.
One night I was translated into a story
In another language, then taken
To that country, & watched the sun there
Slowly sinking into the sand, each moment
Carried our pulse on the glide of our being,
& what happened before was beautiful, too, a sentence
In a phrasebook, translating each day
In the mirror that surrounded us, mere life…
Then one day bodies fell swift, like arrows,
From a building taller than desire, & then
Another day came—sunlight brilliant
On the broad avenues, the clean paving stones,
The new commercials, the flowers
In a new country, lavender & coltsfoot
Pale as skin, emblems we touched but lost
In the relentless beating of these waves
That never quite crash, though they are written clearly
& in the end they have our names spelled almost right,
These simple translations our children will read.
Stevens writes in his Adagia that a poem is the “cry of its occasion.” When I read this one again, which I like fairly well, that’s what I think. On the day I wrote it I had abruptly given up on one version of myself and chosen another. The version I had given up on was one that I knew very well. I was actually pretty good at my work—it was a role I knew almost by heart, and in abandoning it I threw myself open to a sort of vacancy—not a new role, but rather the absence of any defining context.
Perhaps that day, which was a very strange day for me—nothing made much sense—it was most natural to just write a poem. This one was a first draft—I just wrote it. I’ve never tried to change a word or fiddle with anything like line breaks.
By the time I wrote this poem, by the time I jumped off the train and tried to find some shelter before it crashed, I had been writing poetry seriously again for about three years, so it’s not like saying this was a first draft makes any claim. I just never have wanted to touch it—it contains that day, what I wanted to say about that day.
I started the poem with my best work in life—the daughters my wife and I have raised, and how tall they had grown. And then a kind of compressed narrative that contained a past that was also the near present, a period of difficulty in my sense of self, various translations that life brings—in the dispensation of the poem, all of them beautiful.
Then the tragedy, the horrific fall of bodies from the towers on 9/11, and then the forgetting that happened so quickly, which this poem forgives—the need to heal, in the way that lavender and coltsfoot heal—and in the end the stories our lives make, almost understood, translated into stories that our children will make sense of in their own ways, in the inevitable passages of one generation and time to the next.
I suppose in a way this was a sort of epitaph for a phase of my life. I didn’t know what would come next—there were several months ahead in which I would finish old duties, including training gigs in the Chicago school system and in Riyadh, before I would assume the simple role of professor. My sense of identity was very thin.
Perhaps writing this poem that day—it was a sunny day—in fact I can’t really remember an anniversary of 9/11 that was not sunny, like the day the planes hit the towers—was a way for me to thicken my sense of self a bit, grounding it for a moment in elements of identity that persist.
Will & the Imagination
About eight years ago, I think it was 2004, I burned everything I had written to that point in my life. Some early stuff escaped. There was the book of poems I wrote for my Master’s thesis when I was 24—I didn’t have a copy, but my father had kept one. Some poems and stories I had shared with friends over the years. Some undergraduate tries in boxes in the attic. But I was pretty thorough. When I was done the house was clean of my work—twenty years of work.
This sounds more dramatic than it was to me, at the time. I had spent my entire life, since the time I reached adolescence, seeing poetry and the writing of poems at the center of my identity. Early on, I had had some success—studied with teachers like Robert Fitzgerald and Seamus Heaney at Harvard, earned a fellowship at Boston University’s elite program when I was 23, a free ride with a stipend. Several friends and acquaintances from those years slipped easily into the role of professional poet, and a couple have already been admitted to the canon of the Norton Anthology. I didn’t, and haven’t, of course.
When I was done with school I went to work, first as a journalist, then as a college teacher, and one thing led to the next until I had spent fifteen years as a college administrator, and while I still wrote seriously during all of that time, accumulating boxes of drafts, by the time I was in my mid-40s I felt as if I had taken a wrong course in some fashion—that I was adrift from my moorings, as a poet at least. One night in mid-October I decided to burn everything I had written, and I did.
It’s hard for me to understand or describe this very well, partly because a number of years have passed now. It seems to me that there is always a distance between the person who writes poems and the person who lives a life—in writing, one goes to a place where others are not allowed and cannot follow.
The quintessential New England poets—Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens, each had their version of this separation of selves. Dickinson’s poetic self, of course, stayed private to the end, apart from one brief foray. Frost developed an external persona—the charming country poet—to mask the darkness that he plumbed in his work. Stevens compartmentalized, composing meditations on meaning and the nature of reality on his walk to work as an insurance executive in Hartford. The story goes, perhaps apocryphal, that one of Stevens’ colleagues heard two academics discussing him over drinks at a New Haven bar: “You’re talking about Wally Stevens,” he exclaimed. “Wally? Poetry?”
In my own case, the disparate elements had grown so far apart that what I wrote—all that I had written--seemed entirely willed, secret, and meaningless. There was no ritual about it when I burned the pages, no cleansing moment, nor do I look back and see it as a stubborn and willful act of self-abnegation, though friends have hinted at that version of the story. For me, it was like spring-cleaning. I needed to start fresh.
Yeats famously remarked how poetry degrades to mere rhetoric: “the will doing the work of the imagination.” This is the great fear of any poet—that one is writing imitations of poems, engaging in the rhetoric of poetry, not imagining the new poem itself. It is not a matter of any particular style or fashion—experimental tries by the latest language poets are not less susceptible to being mere instances of rhetoric or fashion than formal poems by backward-looking classicists.
Randall Jarrell once said that a poet is someone who stands in lightning storms all of his life, and if he is struck by lightning several times, he may be a good, or even great poet. When I burned my poems I knew that I had never been struck by lightning, however “publishable” some of my work might have been. I also had come to realize that for many years I had stopped standing in the storm but instead was hiding in the cellar, letting will do the work of the imagination.
Many things have happened in my life since that moment eight years ago, none of which bear recounting here, except that I did start fresh, with a clean slate, and have managed to fill a few new boxes with poems, some of them published now.
When Phil Innes suggested after several conversations that I entertain writing an occasional column, a sort of diary, in which I talked about the creative impulse that gives rise to poetry, I embraced the chance to try a new form of self-exploration in writing and the possible dialogue that might come from it.
I liked best the idea of having the chance to talk about poetry as a process and a discipline of mind, and equally the chance to avoid making any claim for anything I have written, beyond some discussion of where it came from. Phil challenged me to find a title for the diary, and I chose “Will & The Imagination,” since this seems to me the challenge I face each time I sit to make something new.
And I knew immediately that I would start with the first real poem that I wrote after the boxes were empty. When I go to find it on my computer, I see the file name I gave it was “Burning Poems,” which gives title to this diary entry. In the book in which it was published, The New City (21st Editions, edited by John Wood, Photographs by Jefferson Haywood), I called it something else:
Song for Two Decades
The poems and songs, I threw them away—
They didn’t matter, they don’t matter now.
Two decades of words, many words
Don’t matter now.
I watched the sun rise and I wrote about it,
A girl’s eyes at dusk, somber, as fireflies started on,
Soft and random against the dense grass,
I wrote it down, the midsummer night, sweet and cool.
I knew how to rhyme any word.
The songs don’t matter now, they are gone
Like lightning, heat lightning of July,
Two decades of words, I said goodbye.
I watched stars spark on in the gap above an alleyway,
Saw jets circling down above an endless crowd.
I felt the tide’s ebb draw hard on the sand.
I felt night fall in a country strange to me.
These old poems, these songs, the words I threw away
Were light in my hands, light as paper
As they left me, the fire they made
Kindled and darkened as dusk fell on a damp night.
They were a place I had been, a lost place,
Not forbidden, but like a river
In another country, a place I could not stay.
They didn’t matter, they don’t matter now—each word
A rhyme in a song I knew already by heart,
Sweet grating of maple branches in a wind
That returns each season, the wind that writes down things
That don’t matter, that don’t matter, the voice
In which we invent, without thinking,
—Like the songs of nesting birds
At the end of April, when April snow has vanished,
And the hard ground shows some promise of turning green again.
When I read this again now, in the context I have tried to create, I notice a few things. The first is how willful it is. In its own way, it is an elegy, or an epitaph, and I tried to write it in stone, which is why I used the quatrains, and why the lines flirt so much with iambic tetrameter and pentameter.
It seems clear I was trying to do something formal without being bound by any form—nothing really scans, and nothing rhymes, but at the same time I was being very careful to work in a way that evoked traditional forms. The last line of the first stanza is the same meter that Keats uses in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”—“and no birds sang.” I’m sure that echo was somewhere in my mind.
Along the lines of will, I see how the second stanza stakes a claim—makes a space—for the poems I had discarded. One of my impulses in burning everything I had written was my belief that to the extent to which any good, true poems had been contained in the feelings, memories, and thoughts that had created those pages, these were still available to me. I was throwing out the utterances, not the thing itself. This stanza makes this claim.
So, too, in the next stanza a kind of pride or hubris comes in—“I knew how to rhyme any word.” This seems a bit defensive now, in its way—staking a claim to craft, although a legitimate claim in its way. It’s a pretty interesting variation on the iambic tetrameter line.
The fourth stanza doubles the second one, another summary of what has been discarded, this one harkening back to time I spent in another country when I was younger and still working at being a journalist. The third and fourth line are passable blank verse—I like the third especially, from a formal standpoint, with the four even stresses in the middle relaxing into the close of the line.
It is worth noting that part of the trouble—part of what caused me to burn all of those poems—is that I had got stuck, in my writing, in the two years I spent in my mid-20s as a free-lance reporter in the Philippines during the “snap election” and the “People’s Revolution,” and the eventual aftermath, when I went more or less native for a year. This stanza was an epitaph for that time and for the continual circling back on it that had frozen my poetry in lost time and prevented me from making contact with the real in my present life.
I notice also that the first seven stanzas alternate between a kind of indefinite present in which the poems are burning, and evocations of the past that the poems were about. It is interesting to me to notice this, since it wasn’t intentional—it wasn’t willed, but rather a natural sort of dialogue between two states of mind, one accepting, perhaps justifying, the version of self that committed the act; and the second remembering, elegiac in tone.
The seventh stanzas circles back to the third, invoking the idea of rhyme again—not now as a formal term but rather a condition of being, the idea of things rhyming being about harmony, repetition, and a kind of inner stability. This stanza comprises a sort of turn in the poem in which the lost poems are recaptured as a kind of rhyme known already by heart—a sort of promise to myself (which I believed at the time) that whatever was good in the poems that I had burned still remained with me. It is interesting to me how intentional—how willed—this turn toward the finish reads now, in retrospect.
The ending of the poem seems formulaic to me now, in a way—a kind of late Romantic evocation of the seasons, the idea of nature’s cycles and the way in which bird songs are the same each new season even when the birds are new. In the book, this poem is section IX in sequence of 21 poems, and maybe that excuses the formulaic quality a bit; the next poem is about spending an early summer afternoon in an old pond with my young daughter watching dragonflies and frogs and so on.
It’s interesting to me how melodic the seventh stanza and first three lines of the eighth stanza try to be, then set against the hard prose of the last line, which doesn’t really come close to any meter: “And the hard ground shows some promise of turning green again.” At fourteen syllables, this line doesn’t bear relation to any of the lines before. I knew this when I wrote it, so it was intentional in that sense—it wasn’t as if I suddenly forgot how to flirt with the pentameter line. At the same time, I really don’t know why I made this choice. Sometimes when I re-read this poem I think, “I really should fix that line.” Other times, I think, well maybe I was on to something there. Reading my own poem as if I hadn’t written it, I can see how the sudden turn to prose at the end was an attempt to end the poem on the ground, to turn away from the elegy and the making of poetry to a kind of work that lay ahead. Certainly this is what the poem meant to me—the end of one phase of my work, the start of a new phase that hadn’t begun yet, but that would ask something different of me, more authentic, less willed.
Looking at this poem from the standpoint of will and imagination, intention and serendipity, I see the way I engineered the formal elements, and how intent I was to justify what I had done while gesturing toward what I had destroyed in a way that also promised that nothing had been destroyed, that captured what I had destroyed in a better, more beautiful and cleaner way.
I am also struck by elements that I notice in this formal analysis, reading the poem as if it had been written by someone else (which it was, of course, because I am not the person who wrote this poem seven years ago), that had no intention behind them, that were, in essence, unwilled. If this poem has any merit, which it may, it would be because of these unintended elements.
Untitled Work, First Folio
June 1, 2014 at 9:40 AM