Tuesday, November 20, 2012


November 20, 2012:

          My birthday tomorrow. Since it's also the day before Thanksgiving, it will be a busy day. Every day is busy, in a way, because my mind is the classic Buddhist monkey mind, flitting from subject to subject, seldom quiet, never empty enough for what Buddhists regard as enlightenment to find room. Crossword puzzles, reading, writing, more reading, errands, an occasional walk, meals in and the cooking thereof, meals out and the time they take, seeing friends, avoiding enemies, garden work, connecting with people on FB and via email, worrying about money, driving hither and yon, the movies, TV: thus my days get frittered away. Right now I'm writing a long contemplated book about Rome, started more than a decade ago, now returned to, with no prospect of publication but necessary to that feeling we all need that one's life has not been entirely wasted.

          And then, once in a while, I take the time away from all this bother and to-do to write something that's purely for fun. Poetry is one such pastime. And recently, inspired by a contest in a local paper, I've started to write short stories of 25 words or less. Here's my second try, in its entirety:

"Oh, hi" [that's the title]

She was very pretty before the accident.

He dated her twice more, to be kind.

Now he has trouble recalling her name.

The first such mini-tale went to the newspaper, where it will appear soon, I'm told. 

          It's a real discipline, to get something that, a, makes sense, and b, has some bite, into such a short frame. Hemingway did it with six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never used." That's a classic. I'm going to keep on doing it, because it's such a pleasure to work with the language just for its own sake. Poetry is that way for me, too. I decided after publishing some poems many years ago to forsake it as a career and write it strictly for myself. I couldn't make a living at it; to do that you have to teach, and I didn't want to teach, didn't think I would be good at it. That same impatient mind, mentioned above. I did teach for a year. Felt like a failure. Couldn't suffer the discipline of the hour, would let my students go when I was done, not when the hour was done. Very sloppy of me. No, not just sloppy: arrogant. I was arrogant when I was young.

          And then the poems. Here's one, published in TLS as long ago as 1968:

The French Revolution

At night in my garret room a crowd gathers
and you speak to them and sway them
until what they know and what they don't know
are the same thing, if it is you.
speak: to them it is falling in love.
What is it to you? You are walking
on the surface, on the backs of crocodiles;
you are air, or airy; you are a Queen.

One way they hold their heads up is on pikes.

          Here's another, published in the old, not the new, New York Quarterly:

Airplanes at Dusk

The jets take off from Newark,
Boeings more beautiful than mathematics,
and turn west.
                       Angels could not seem
more single-minded, climbing the heavens.

Beneath them, turning east, and blue,
vast stretches of the imagination
lie quiet, mooning, unoccupied.

And there you go. Because they've been published they have an air of authority about them, the cachet of some editor's approval, but in both the first and the last analysis it is you yourself you have to satisfy, and I have about thirty of them that make that grade, maybe six or seven of which have been published, the rest not. (Anybody out there want to print a chapbook?) And sometimes I think, not much for a life's work. But I know poets who survive on the strength of a single poem. The anonymous poet who wrote this, for example:

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down doth rain.
Christ if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

It dates from about the 14th century, "small" in this case means "thin," nobody knows who the author was, and the first time I heard it was in R. P. Blackmur's poetry class at Princeton. Blackmur was a great critic and he read it with such feeling that I have never forgotten the moment. Who would not give a life to have written so great a poem? I spent years, off and on, in my spare time, translating just four lines of Rilke that I thought were as perfect as poetry gets. Here they are, from a poem of his called "Liebeslied," which means "Love Song":

A stroke of the bow
draws one voice from the two strings.
Whose violin are we stretched out upon?
What virtuoso has us in his hands?

This is my final version, and I'm satisfied with it.

          Rilke survives in a whole body of work, prose as well as poetry, but there are other poets whose work survives in a single poem. Tichborne, for example, who wrote a poem in the Tower of London the night before he was beheaded, or was it hanged? for some political crime. It's unforgettable; I keep my anthology of Elizabethan literature specifically to have access to that poem. Or there's Thomas Nashe, whose collected work fills four volumes but who is remembered mostly for a song he wrote in one of his plays whose refrain runs, "Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair / I am sick, I must die / Lord, have mercy upon me."

          Can you feel it? The language takes flight in such words. What we write about, Roland Barthes once said, boils down to just a few emotions--love, hatred, despair, sorrow, guilt, fear; and what great writing aspires to is to evoke them in such a way as to say something meaningful about life and death. What I love about poetry is that it aspires to do this in the most condensed, intense way, so that the words explode in your mind, like a sip of great wine on your tongue. To make that happen is the most challenging task a writer will ever face. All writers want to be famous, very few achieve it, but for me, I would be satisfied if just one poem, written in my spare time, endures somehow. Maybe this one, which has never been published:

The Fast

In the evening the light flattens
against the walls, but it is empty
of meaning or expression. The darkness
that follows is empty in itself,
like a long absence. If you have
a soul it grows thin waiting.