P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.42 - March 2020
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE March 2020 No.42
Waiting For Lightning
“A good poet,” Randall Jarrell declared, “is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” This definition occurs in his essay “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” a poet Jarrell greatly appreciated without thinking his every word was gold. That seems a sensible reminder whenever we go loosely throwing around phrases like “great poet.” As anyone who has attempted to read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets knows, the famous few gems are famous for good reason, yet many others are merely OK, with a few lovely lines probably, but otherwise forgettable. Some are even dull, hackneyed, labored. Even Homer nods, as Horace famously observed. I admit I am perversely pleased to catch one of the immortals napping, as when Wordsworth pauses in “The Thorn” to take out his tape measure and calculate the dimensions of “a little muddy pond”: I’ve measured it from side to side; ‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide. That Wordsworth, assuredly a great poet if anyone is, was capable of such earnest flat-footedness gives me hope. As it happens, this passage was too much for his friend Coleridge, who protested that it was one of several “sudden and unpleasant sinkings” in the quality of the verse. Wordsworth then revised the lines as follows: Though of compass small, and bare To thirsty suns and parching air —which is certainly better, but even as revised the lines aren’t likely to appear in any collection of Notable Quotations. Stanley Kunitz could be a very strong poet indeed, and I cherish a few of his poems. But I admit I’ve never been able to get past one metaphor in his otherwise powerful “Father and Son.” Son is chasing father through a dreamy, mythic landscape, and the scene is described as follows: Raced through the sleeping country where I was young, The silence unrolling before me as I came, The night nailed like an orange to my brow. That final line strikes me as flat-out horrid. It makes little sense either as metaphor or in context of the rest of the poem, which is otherwise rich with quite explicable natural imagery, including sunlight, turtles, lilies, ponds, birds, and ripe plums. I suppose one could argue that the night nailed to one’s brow is a suitably violent image for an overpowering and dark emotion. But “like an orange” as a metaphor within that metaphor is not even close to the best way to express it. I find it unintentionally silly. I once read an interview in which Kunitz was asked about the oddity of this particular line, and as I recall his answer struck me as gibberish. For whatever stubborn personal reasons, he just loved the line. But that hardly makes it good. Nor does it mean that Kunitz wasn’t an able poet. As Randall Jarrell noted in his essay on Whitman, every great poet has written enough bad lines to scare away anyone. Robert Frost remarked that it was his ambition to “lodge” a few poems where they would be hard to get rid of. He has been gone long enough for us to be fairly certain that he succeeded. Poems like “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and a few others have indeed lodged themselves pretty firmly in our national consciousness. Likewise, when we page through the collected works of any notable poet, whether it be Whitman or Elizabeth Bishop, we will typically love, and remember, a handful of favorites. Others we may enjoy or at least appreciate as shedding light on the shiniest gems; and some we may just dislike. A handful of memorable poems may not seem like much, but Frost knew it was more than all but the greatest poets achieve. This situation seems utterly normal. And it works at the level of eras as well as for single books. What we call “the canon,” that ever-evolving, loosely defined collection of literary works that we collectively deem important, typically follows Jarrell’s definition. Time invariably sifts out a few classics from among the crowd of famous poets in each era. Lightning only strikes a few of the thousands of new books that appear each year, decade, or century. As for greatness, I would say that the jury’s still out on Kunitz. I like his poetry, but he simply hasn’t been dead long enough for his reputation to clarify. Will he endure as “major”? Only time will tell, as it always does. So let’s take a look at Emily Dickinson, then. Well over a century after her death, her reputation seems secure. The ten or twenty of her poems that routinely appear in anthologies and classroom discussions, that are sometimes quoted on Twitter or even Hollywood movies, are more than most poets get or deserve. By common consent, she is a truly important poet, and I concur with that evaluation. But while there are some excellent poems that for some reason don’t show up in anthologies, truth is her collected poems contain many that aren’t so wonderful. A great many are opaque, some seem frivolous, some sentimental or overwrought, and others just not too memorable. Scholarly investigations have determined that what we have in her collected poems is a real grab-bag. There are poems that were included in letters, some that accompanied gifts, others that seem to be mere rough drafts or fragments, and so forth. Many remain baffling without context. In a graduate class once I was struggling to make sense of her poem that begins as follows: Alone and in a Circumstance Reluctant to be told A spider on my reticence Assiduously crawled And so much more at Home than I Immediately grew I felt myself a visitor And hurriedly withdrew From there the poem gets more and more difficult, with metaphors of prison and lawsuits and court trials. What about that spider? Finally I just threw up my hands in confusion. Then the professor remarked that of course this poem describes Dickinson visiting the privy, with the “reticence” referring to the poet’s naked backside. Discovering a spider crawling there, naturally she “hurriedly withdrew.” The larger questions of lawfulness, ownership, and Home then started to make more sense. Not only that, but I realized anew how witty Dickinson can be. Frankly I love the idea of her referring to her naked ass as “my reticence.” But it’s also true that I never would have figured the poem out on my own. Nor would I argue that it’s one of her best, in part because it’s reticent to the point of cryptic. As more than a few of hers are. So where does all this sifting and evaluating leave us mere mortals—we who are not in all the anthologies, and thus unlikely even to be considered “minor” once Time does its relentless work? Well, it’s always possible—perhaps likely?— that among us walk one or three future Dickinsons. That is, poets largely neglected in their lifetimes who later come to be considered giants. History can provide striking examples of late or posthumous fame, it’s true. But let’s be honest. Chances are that you and I are not such poets, outside of our daydreams. Furthermore, there’s not much we can do about it, since history also tells that even the most heavily promoted and honored poets of any era can be utterly forgotten by readers of the future. Readers in every age have proven to be notoriously bad at predicting which poems of the moment the future will deem great. If you doubt this, take a look at the list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, for just one example. Ah, Leonora Speyer (1927), George Dillon (1932), Audrey Wurdemann (1935), and Leonard Bacon (1941), we hardly knew ye! Each of these poets was once judged to have written the best book of the year, yet only a few decades later not only are those works not considered masterpieces, but each poet has been largely forgotten. Such facts might seem disheartening, but I see things differently. Since any decision about our own “greatness” is not up to us and none of us will live to know what future readers think, my conclusion is that it’s pointless to devote much energy to worrying about such matters now. And that feels less like resignation than liberation. What interests me more is the here and now, where at least some things fall under my control. For if Jarrell was right about Stevens, as I think he was, I’d say that the same principle applies to any life spent devoted to writing poems. We write and write and only a few poems fork much lightning, to steal one of Dylan Thomas’s phrases. Obviously, this can be discouraging. And even our best poems, unfortunately, may not be masterpieces except in daydream. Still, there remains some unconquerable desire to create, to make something out of language that is artful, true, beautiful. Anyone who has done it for a while knows that the quest itself becomes addictive. And for me, at least, it assumes value entirely apart from all those bothersome notions of genius, reputation, and reward. Not only apart from, but in a real sense antithetical to. I stand out in my own personal field hoping to be struck by lightning not because I am convinced I am the next Dickinson or Stevens but because I deeply appreciate the process. Standing out in the field is itself fascinating and often fulfilling—why else would I spend so much time on something so challenging? The process continually teaches me things about myself, about the world, about my friends and family, and about this art that I love. The bolts of lighting that occasionally strike are unpredictable and perhaps minor-league, but believe me, even a small jolt is one you feel in your bones. I cannot call down the lightning on cue (even Shakespeare couldn’t do that), but I can recognize it when it happens. Which in turn teaches me something, and, I hope and believe, increases the chance of another bolt hitting me sooner rather than later. That’s really what it’s all about, why it’s worth putting up with the cold, the muddy shoes and rain-soaked clothing. I know of no other way to call down the lightning but by inviting it via repeated exposure. (OK, I’ll let the lightning metaphor go now, having probably pushed it to its breaking point.) As I round out my fifth decade of writing poetry (first poem, age sixteen), naturally I wonder occasionally if all that effort has been “worth it.” I have a whole bookcase bursting with the journals I’ve been filling since 1975—ninety so far. Poems I considered “finished” enough to type up and file in a folder currently number about two thousand— slightly ahead of Dickinson’s lifetime total. (These occupy several file drawers as well as computer memory.) And I literally have no idea how many thousands of scraps, drafts, revisions, and other such efforts I have thrown away or forgotten over the past forty-some years. The truth is that in the normal course of things, I’ve spent most of my writing time failing to write poems of significance or memorability—even to myself. So have you, if you’re mortal. The poems I am proud of and have published are a tiny crew indeed as compared to all the ones I’ve labored over. Which brings us back to Jarrell’s comment about how even great poets write a lot of bad poems. For any poet the mediocre efforts far outnumber the dazzlers. I would go so far as to say that such is the lot of anyone who devotes a life to creative work, perhaps even any skilled activity. It’s frequently been pointed out for baseball players that if your lifetime batting average is thirty percent, you’re a legend. If it rises toward fifty, you’re an immortal. Stevens’s lightning metaphor essentially says a similar thing about poets. The real question buried within “has it been worth it?” has to do with what “it” is. What feels very much like abject failure when you’re engaged in it can seem, from another perspective, not only normal, but essential. I am not merely arguing that practice makes perfect, though that is certainly true. Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand hours—his estimate of how long anyone must practice before getting truly expert at a skilled activity—makes intuitive sense to me. But rather than insisting on relentless practice as the only route to success, I am suggesting that “success” in the usual sense need not be the goal. And so-called failures, which are the inevitable result of relentless practice, have merit in themselves. They aren’t simply necessary steps toward success, though they are that as well. When rightly considered such messing around with language brings all sorts of benefits, including the pleasures of surprise. Occasionally it can even be life-changing. In his 1926 book The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant summarized one of Aristotle’s ideas as follows: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I love that. Now that I have been writing poetry with some degree of obsession for half a century, I have realized that this habit is my way of engaging with something essential. It’s not the only way, but it seems to be my main way. Writing poems forms a crucial part of my self-conception and my way of living in this world. I strongly suspect I would continue writing even if I could not publish. I believe this in part because what I’ve published is the tiniest fraction of what I have written. And I have not infrequently found myself sweating over poems that, even at the time, I knew I was unlikely ever to publish. Why? Well, it’s not because I’m under the delusion that everything I write is golden. But neither is gold always my aim. I’ve heard poets whom I admire insist that every time they sit down to write a poem, they are shooting for the stars. What’s the point of doing such a difficult thing if you aren’t seriously reaching for greatness? So goes this line of thinking: let’s call it the Heroic model of creativity. Such heroes may grudgingly admit that at some level even Picasso or Shakespeare must have known that their every sketch or metaphor could not be earth-shaking. But according to this argument, the ambition always to reach for greatness is nonetheless necessary to have any chance at achieving it. Furthermore, anything less cheapens the art and is a surrender to mediocrity. When young I might have subscribed to such notions, but the older I get the less satisfying I find the assumptions behind them, and the less they describe my own practice. For one thing, I am skeptical when poets tell me that they are always striving for masterpieces. Really? Looking at the poems some Heroic poets have published, I see, amid the ambitious works, a suspiciously large number that hardly reach for the stars. And what’s wrong with writing a few bagatelles? A lusty limerick or silly parody never hurt anyone. What’s the harm, if you’re T.S. Eliot, in turning from the lofty philosophical meditations of “The Four Quartets” to amuse some children you know with a bunch of quirky poems about cats? For another thing, bundled into the Heroic ideal is the assumption that a poem failing to achieve greatness is a failure, period. That just seems pointless as well as reductive. Pointless because as noted above the verdict of greatness can only be bestowed by the future. And reductive because especially when dealing with matters of art any either/or choice is reductive. Isn’t it obvious that there are many good reasons to write a poem, including but not limited to composing an immortal classic? While I admit I’ve aimed at greatness myself often enough, I no longer think that big, profound, or otherwise ambitious poems are the only worthy goal. Poetry has many purposes. Some poems are composed for purely private reasons, with little thought to reaching an audience. Nothing wrong with that. Others are written to amuse, to practice elements of craft, to capture memories or record experiences on the fly, or any number of other perfectly acceptable reasons. Some poems can be part of a religious or meditative practice. Others get written to commemorate a death or a significant event such as a wedding—and as such may not even aim at originality, just honesty and clarity. That hardly makes them worthless. At times poems may be private jokes, or epistles addressed not to the ages but to a single reader. More than a few lovers have been lured to bed by bad poetry. So if you think about it, such poems are the opposite of failures, given that they succeeded in achieving their goal. My long-term obsession with poetry and writing poems has brought me many benefits, tangible and otherwise. High on the list is my membership in the community of poets, which is a subset of the community of artists, which is a subset of the community of creators in the broadest sense. Which is pretty much everyone who is in touch with their better angels, I would say. I don’t mean to elevate poets above other people. My observation has been that there are many routes into this essential realm as I’m conceiving it—anyone with a passion for creation and a desire to share it can find their way there. The urge to create seems a universal human impulse. Cooks, painters, musicians, cabinetmakers, quilters, dancers—almost anyone can become some form of “maker,” to use the ancient Greek translation for “poet.” In other words, poetry has been my particular entree into this essential world, but the world itself remains almost limitless. It may be a minority taste, but poetry has led me into many friendships and contact with similarly driven oddballs. We generally can spot each other a mile away. Not every poet writes the way I do, or as much as I do—but if you have the fire in your belly I consider you my kin. There’s a good chance we could become friends. It can at times be a fractious subset of the larger creative community, and we all may not be in agreement on many fundamentals of the art. But even when I am discouraged by my own poems, I am still in love with the art and hungry to be around others similarly smitten. My thousands of poems, completed or not, successes or failures—constitute my passport into this essential community. In this regard I’ve often felt like Kerouac’s narrator in On the Road chasing after Dean Moriarty (Neal Casasdy) and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg): . . . I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. Waiting for lightning to strike or watching fabulous roman candles exploding, I feel more alive when I am in regular touch with this community.
© 2020 David Graham
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