Friday, September 21, 2012


September 21, 2012:

          Readers of this blog may remember that I wrote some time ago about how long it took to write a poem, and gave an example of one of my own called The Inventory that I was still working on after thirty years. Well, since then I've continued working on it, if you can call it work, trying to get the last line or lines right, and I think I may have done it, although you never know with these things. So I bring it before you again, asking your forbearance.


Sunlight folded into the window curtains.
The four doors out of the house, the seventeen inside.
A cherry side table we both wanted once.
Your translation of Proust, and mine.
The wedding photograph in its Tiffany frame.
Lamplight and solitude in the evening,
and the shadows under the chairs.
At night, train whistles at the crossings,
darkness pressing its face against the glass.

          Now for a little history, an explanation of how these things have worked for me. I started writing poems in college when I became friends with a couple of poets, one who wound up being the Class Poet at graduation, the other who was the only student at Princeton who was ever allowed to write a group of poems for his senior thesis. The Class Poet got a poem into Ladies Home Journal, of all places, while we were still in school, while the other published in the Kenyon Review, an enormously prestigious venue at the time. Talented, no question about it. I wanted to join that little club and they let one of my poems into the campus literary magazine, a fact that has embarrassed me ever since, the poem in question being just plain awful. After college I continued writing poems, partly because it was hard to write a good poem, really hard, and partly because it was all I had time for. I was working full time, supporting a wife, then children--let me add my wife was working, too--and that left little time for writing. But a poem is a little thing, so for years that's what I wrote, and since they were little things I could finish one in a reasonable amount of time. Say a month, when the poem was especially difficult, less when it wasn't.

          I think it took about nine years to get the first one published; it went to Prairie Schooner. Then another there, then one in TLS, through that same friend who had first published in the Kenyon Review. At the time he was in England, a Rhodes scholar, and knew Ian Hamilton, who had started the Review and who was also poetry editor at TLS. Contacts mean a lot in the poetry business, as in every business. But by this time I was working full-time writing a business history for a wealthy businessman, I had come to realize I wasn't going to be a major poet, and I wasn't writing that much poetry any more; two writing careers at the same time are pretty much impossible to sustain. And then something about the business put me off. Partly it was the fact that I would have to teach to make a living, and I was not a good teacher. And the poetry world is very small, the rewards are very slim, and the politics were, and are, consequently quite nasty. I didn't want to get involved in it, just in order to make my name.

          So I stopped for long periods, but never entirely gave it up. It was the difficulty--good poems are hard to write. It is a great challenge to bend the language, which is intractable, to your will, to say something new or different, to put together images in a suggestive way, and at the same time to leave the poem open, say what you want to say without closing off possibilities so that it can go in unexpected directions, multiply the layers of response. In just a few lines. I have done that about twenty-five or thirty times and now have a collection I'd like to publish as a chapbook. Call it a life's work.

          If it happens this poem will be among them. It was always meant to be a gentle, sad poem. You take an inventory after something is over, a life, a marriage, and the passion has washed out of the relationship, leaving only regrets, sadness, and loneliness. Like most mature poems it is both personal and impersonal. I have never owned, for example, a translation of Proust, or a Tiffany frame. My mother, however, did have a cherry side table that my brother and I both wanted; but he got it. It was in her house, when she was beginning to die, that I used to look at the windows and the sunlight in the sheer curtains that had hung there all my life. But none of that matters. It's how it works when you put it all together that matters. That's what we learned in college: poems were made objects, artifacts, not expressions of how we "felt" or of "ourselves" or a record of experience, but works, things constructed out of words. Formed things. Writing poems, I learned how to do endings, how to bring works to a close. Writing poems, I learned what a piece of writing is, and how to make it good.

          This poem is about endings, in fact, about sitting alone in an otherwise empty house, counting up your losses. I have never done that in a literal sense. But I have in other ways, and haven't we all? It's an honest poem, despite the artifice. I've been there, imagined the scene. And I have definitely, many times, seen the darkness pressing its face against the glass.