December 6, 2010:
I sent four of my poems to TLS (the Times Literary Supplement) on Saturday. I wrote them all many years ago, when I still had ambitions to be a published poet. At the time I had no reason to think I couldn't be a published poet; TLS had taken a poem of mine at that time, and shortly after several other publications took poems. The late Ian Hamilton was the poetry editor of TLS then, my college friend Michael Fried was Hamilton's friend and living in England as a Rhodes Scholar, he recommended the poem to Hamilton, and voila! there I was, in print. TLS was the first publication to pay me for something I had written; ultimately a check came for $7.63, or something close to that--three pounds in English money. The poem ran right above a review of one of Norman Mailer's books.
But in the end I was not moved to pursue poetry as a career path. I had always wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily a poet; I wrote poems mostly because I had no time to do anything else. I was working full-time, I was married, I had children, I commuted back and forth to the city, and the work I was doing involved writing. Under those circumstances, writing anything more ambitious than a poem was more or less out of the question. So that's what I did, write poems, working in the little spare time I had, and learning in the process how to bring a piece of writing to an end. In lyric poems, the end is everything; if you can do endings you have taken a very big step in learning how to write.
Poetry as a career path, however, was something else. Just about nobody makes a living at it. In those days, and even more so today, to survive as a poet you either had to teach, like almost every poet then and now who didn't have an independent income, or you had to have another job. Wallace Stevens, insurance lawyer. William Carlos Williams, doctor. John Ashbery, art critic and editor at Art News. I disliked teaching and wasn't very good at it, so that was out. I could have gone on with poetry after the peculiar writing job I had came to an end--I was a wealthy businessman's personal historian; when he died, so did the job; but he left me and his other personal employees seven years salary, tax-free, as a parting gift--since I then had a bit of money. But the money wasn't going to last all that long, and then what? Another job? Try teaching again? No thanks. It wasn't only the lack of an income, it was a certain amount of distaste for what a poetry career involved, especially the nasty competitiveness that was part of it, too many ambitious people striving for too few rewards. I wasn't that ambitious. I knew I was good, but I didn't think I could be great. I still wrote poems from time to time, but getting them into print no longer seemed that important. I wrote them for myself, for my own pleasure, and as a form of verbal play. When a line came to me, I pursued it. Many of them emerged from pain. Poetry is one of the great clarifiers when it comes to pain.
Ultimately I wound up with about twenty, maybe twenty-five unpublished poems that I liked well enough to keep in my files, and in the past couple of years I've been looking at them again and fiddling with them. And it's interesting: the original feelings that led to these poems have softened, if not entirely dissolved, and I can see their faults much more clearly. With that has come the insight necessary to find ways to make those faults go away. They are now much better poems than they were originally. Michael Fried and Thomas Carnicelli, who was our official "class poet" and I, all of us trying to write poems at the time, used to talk in college about the poem as a made object, a verbal artifact, and we all knew that what we were writing didn't have much to do with what bad poets think of as "self-expression." We were trying to make art. Our feelings had little to do with it, they were merely the occasion, the spark that kindled the process of making. And that process is fascinating, both to pursue and to watch oneself pursue. It's a little like doing a crossword puzzle, but much more intense and much more difficult, and you find yourself wondering every time, can you do it? Can you find the right word, the turn of phrase, the gut punch at the end that doubles your reader over with its power? And because I have no attachment to publication, though that would be nice, or to a career as a poet, the whole thing has a purity about it that I really like. So I'm back to it.
How long does it take, then, to write a poem? Sometimes thirty or forty years. I remember reading Rilke on this, in his Letters to a Young Poet, where he talks about the poem working its way into your blood; not until then, he said, should you write. Or Alexander Pope, who advised the wannabes who sent him poems to read to put them in a drawer and lock that drawer and not open it for a year or two. I speak from experience; it's good advice.
I have no idea whether TLS will take these poems, and it doesn't matter. I'd like to see them in print, but I'll be happy to have written them even if they never see the light of day. They're good, I know that, and I'm satisfied with them, and I'll send copies to my friends who read poetry, or write it, and let it go at that. Or maybe to the handful of people who follow this blog.
Here's one of those poems:
Sunlight folded into the window curtains.
The five doors into the house, the seventeen inside.
A cherry table we both wanted once.
Your translation of Proust, and mine.
The wall clock in the kitchen, still ticking.
The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.
Lamplight and solitude in the long evening.
Train whistles at night, with their associations.