AFTER BARNETT NEWMAN’S
STATIONS OF THE CROSS:
the horizon: my small
Mute, mute, mute
Fire above the fire:
We are two.
Never again. Never.
and the silence
I remember: white
Closed in: the lid
No. No. No.
I am not.
First blue, then rose,
dawn erases the street-
orange, adds a set
of footsteps, a solitary
motor, an infant’s
to the city’s
later, near those
mountains and far
from home, I came
upon that church,
and found your name
in the guest book.
I was entirely
alone in that small
I imagined you,
also alone, looking out
at the yellowing
grass, the road, that huge
sky. Once I asked you
what matters most
in your work.
It must be honest, you said.
Honest how? I asked.
Honest, you said.
--From "Time to Think"
May becomes June. Moths blizzard the porch light. Crickets jingle in the darkness amid a sparse galaxy of street and window lights. The hum of the world is sometimes intensified by the long, sad moan of a distant train, or the crunching whisper of rubber against asphalt as a car rumbles behind two advancing cones of illuminated roadway.
The hardest part of the dance is figuring out how much is art and how much life. Your ankle and foot doing that chop, chop, chop
between my knees. My thigh between your thighs. Okay: Here comes the passion part!
You are bent so far back you are practically lying on the cobblestones, and my face is so close to yours I can smell
the sweat on your upper lip. The crowds in San Telmo love this. Their silver overflows.
Have I seen you before?
Are you the woman whose
glance I caught last night
in that wanton moment
after the cheers when all
the glasses were refilled?
Have these wild beauties
to my rescue?
Loose webs of fluid light
racing over coral convolutions.
lanes of traffic
and fling their
against the hotel’s
suits into which
we insert our tiny
limbs, then totter
The sky is wild with snorts, the earth fragmenting with hoof falls. All the papers exclaim, in London
tube light, by lantern in Mumbai: The ringed noses are running again, their horn points blood-bright,
their wooly bellows billowing down our streets,
their red flags on our hillsides. We’ve reached another end, the papers claim.
The dolts are back at our tables, devouring our joints, fingering our entrails, taking their pleasures in our beds.
Every breast has been invaded, every eyeball cracked, every truth revealed as irony. “You thought you knew joy,”
they mutter inside our heads. “Now we will give you joy.”
Alone in the kitchen
on the window ledge,
We have failed so many times, but we are back
in the ditch, with our picks and our generous expectations.
All of us: mud from eyeball
to hallucination. That’s just how we were born. You know that business
with the gold watch, the cake and candles, that ongoing collaborative delusion? We fall for it constantly, every one of us
convinced he can build a better life out of what spills off a truck: Bang, bang!
Pass me the pliers, you idiot!
with smothered doves in our hats, monkey Rembrandts with fists
crammed in paint cans, beneficiaries of failure’s only grace: the ubiquitous proximity
of zero. You lose everything?
Big deal! It was all messed up anyway, and you can always
try again—which is the wafer of eternity that keeps us wanting, and that star there, that pink winker in the quitting-time sky.
I have no words of my own today, only these from Auden's beautiful, "September 1, 1939":
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Biking along the Hudson
this too hot November
afternoon, the low
sun browned by leaf
dust, time visibly
passing, yet every
So now I have my first
argument with hope.
It’s about money, of course,
though not in the sense
parasitism, more like
the doorbell chimes
on the stoop
but this person-
shaped hole in the middle
by which I mean
no payoff, I’m suckered
but myself, for what
am I apart
from hope? A filament
of appetite, sorrow
Here I am again, glassed,
gleaming amid vegetal
prolixity, a parallel
unity, a way of being
free in a way of being
indifferent. See me
here, this reflective
camber amidst blue
and green, this stillness
again, this warp of sky
and forest, untouched,
untouchable. Alight. Afloat.
The trees became the ragged
black frame of the sky—
and the sky so star-filled,
like daylight shattered
into brilliant motes.
of autumn, I walk
in flip-flops under
that old yearning
that ache of joy
that vision of
a better life—all
of life I have ever
is life, infusing
these mere facts
of sunlight, yellow
leaf and restless
air with beauty,
and this shambling
I’ve lost and all
I can never have
Last night I dreamed
we actually were
at that prairie
on the breakfast table.
The two of us
From "Himalayan Diary"
I like the term “lose your soul” for the way it implies that one’s most essential being is both precious and something you yourself can destroy.
Of course, the truth is that, short of death, one can never “lose” one’s being but one can change it into something less or more precious.
My being—essential or otherwise—seems especially precious to me this clear, cold morning at this camp in the Himalayas near the borders of Kashmir and Tibet, after a day during which I believed myself close to death many, many times.
Eight hours driving along the edges of precipices with nothing but cement blocks, rusting oil drums or, often, only the crumbling edge of a one-and-a-half lane two-way road to preserve us from plummeting a thousand feet into a rushing river.
Down the gravel slopes I could see cars so devastated by their falls that they looked like shredded tin foil, and in one village I saw a van that had been transformed into a crater of metal junk by a falling boulder.
We often had to drive around boulders, some the size of armchairs, others as big as houses.
Yet Indian families traveled these roads as happily as American families might trundle off to Cape Cod.
I am prepared to admit that I am neurotic.
But still I was abjectly terrified for hours on end.
And so, at this moment, my life now and all the thoroughly ordinary things I have to look forward to seem a sort of blessing.
But is my “soul” this life of “ordinary things” that now seems so precious?
In the Christian tradition the most essential part of one’s life is almost always understood to be one’s moral being, or virtue.
Too lose one’s soul is to cease to be virtuous, profoundly, within the depths of one’s being.
What actually is precious about the soul-as-moral-being?
Or what exactly is it about leading a life in accordance with one’s morality that might be described as precious?
The sense that what you are inside is the same as what you are outside, that you actually are the being you wish to represent yourself as to the world.
There have been periods of my life when I have felt, despite all my limits, confusions and weaknesses, that I am, morally speaking, more or less the person I want to be.
And there were still other times when I wanted to be a person who did things I could not justify morally.
And I became that person.
Or I became divided into two people: who I seemed to be and who I actually was.
Mostly I am thinking of one particular time, during which I felt a great deal of pain, and caused a great deal of pain, and yet never felt more completely alive.
There is a joy that comes from being in harmony with one’s own beliefs, and a joy that comes from abandoning that harmony.
Though there are limits to how much disharmony—or discord—one can experience and still feel one is living a life one wants to recognize as one’s own.
A limit to the intersection of discord and joy.
Maybe what I’m talking about is the kind of joy one feels when a jazz soloist departs from the melody, or even from the idea of music as we generally understand it.
A joyful crossing over into chaos and noise.
The joy of human freedom.
Which may be the same thing as the joy of doing what is forbidden.
All my life, my first response on being forbidden to do something has been a fierce ache to do that very thing, and my first impulse on being required to do something has been a fierce desire to do the opposite.
Our spirits rise as a jazz musician goes into a solo, but at the same time we are always waiting for the solo to end.
For our return to the comfort of the melody, or for the quiet joy of the melody’s simply being there to return to.
Continuity. Reliability. Refuge. The known world.
Even as our transgressions feel as if they are life itself, we are always longing for a return to that harmony of one’s life (or soul) and one’s belief about what one’s life is or ought to be.
And sometimes our return to that harmony brings us more joy than our discordant sojourn did, but not always.
It is a mistake to think we have a single, internally (and eternally) harmonious self, just as it is a mistake to think there is harmony between all good things.
There have been times when the very traits I had once thought virtues came to seem weaknesses.
The virtue of loyalty, for example. Or tolerance. Or the capacity to love.
Sometimes there can be no return to harmony.
The improvisation is almost always smarter, more thrilling and less sentimental than the melody it is based upon.
And so sometimes the joy we feel is not merely at the exercise of freedom, but at the discovery of a better self.
Or a self that possesses virtues different from those of that self we have grown used to thinking of as our own, that self we present to the world, or that we—or the world—designate as “real.”
And so sometimes the desire to reestablish the harmony between the self one actually lives and the self one wants to present to the world yields far more pain than joy.
Pain that can last a lifetime.
Sometimes simplicity is precious and sometimes it is a lie.
Sometimes the life in harmony with what we believe is a betrayal of who we are.
Maybe what is most precious is simply the fact that I am breathing this clear, cold air, that I am in this valley beside this loud, racing, silt-paled river, watching bronze sunbeams tip over jagged, snow-laced peaks to light the mountainside just in front of me, and that this is all so extraordinarily vivid, vital and beautiful.
Maybe my simple being is the primary good and precious thing.
Maybe my moral being is only precious insofar as it enables me to be more completely in this world as it actually is.
Certainly one’s morality ought to be consistent with the world as it actually is—or the human part of the world, since morality concerns only the effects we have upon each other.
So does this mean that my soul—my “most essential being”—is actually the part of me that breathes, sees, hears, feels, loves, loathes, thinks, wants, fears and hopes?
Is that a “part” of me, or “the whole”?
But still, there is something precious about being in harmony with the people in one’s life—though such harmony is not necessarily the same as living in harmony with one’s morals.
How often in human history have people avoided recognizing an evil in their midst so that they might live in harmony with their neighbors?
Discord: Middle English: from Old French descord (noun), descorder (verb), from Latin discordare, from discors ‘discordant,’ from dis- (expressing negation, reversal) + cor, cord- ‘heart.’
April 22, 2011
HOW I WRITE A POEM
I always start a poem by trying not to think—which is one reason why I prefer to write first thing in the morning, before I have eaten, when I am still partly in the associative mode of dreams, and the cares of the day have not yet taken hold of my mind. Often I am deeply groggy when (coffee in hand) I sit down at my desk, and it sometimes astonishes me that I can write at all, given how utterly incapable I would be of talking to another person.
My goal is to sink into that part of my mind where inspiration seems to arise of its own, without the influence of my will. I don’t want to bully inspiration with expectations or ideas; I want only to be a conduit for whatever it has to offer. But, of course, I can never really blot out thought, so I try to begin writing as soon as my computer cursor starts to flash, before any of my expectations or anxieties can develop full force.
As I type, I do two things simultaneously—although in some ways they are the same thing: I try to write whatever comes into my head without thinking about it, and I try to put only those things that surprise me onto the page. The reason I see these two activities as the same thing is that what surprises me is what I have not anticipated or intended—that is, what I have not thought about in advance. And, as this thing is not already established in my mind, it is less likely to be a cliché, and more likely to be a revelation, both to me and to my reader.
Poetry (like all writing) is about revelation, about showing readers the world in a way they have never seen it, or about giving them a perceptual, emotional, intellectual or linguistic experience they have never had before, and then doing that over and over again, with every new word, new line, new sentence, and in the work as a whole.
Something else I am alert to as I write is the sound of the words: to the rhythms of rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance and stress, and to the textures of syllables. The way the words sound is part of the revelation they deliver—at least if it is not predictable, if it comes as a surprise (though, perhaps, only a very small surprise). But my attention to sound is entirely unconscious. I never think about sonic patterns and textures as I write. I only discover that I have created them after I look at what I have written, and often I am amazed by how complex they turn out to be.
I just keep on writing like this—as unconsciously as I can—until I either get tired or I feel that I have reached a conclusion or climax, or have created some sort of unity. Then I look back over what I have written, and realize, of course, that almost all of it is garbage. I make the finished poem by finding those bits amid the garbage that seem redeemable, that seem fresh and true, and that seem to have some sort of natural connection to other passages. I put the best bits together in whatever order makes sense, and then spend a long period—days, at the very least, but usually weeks and sometimes months—trying to amplify and clarify meanings, emotions and sonic effects until, all at once, the assembled bits turn out to be an actual, finished poem.
It might seem that the poems coming out of this process would tend more toward the surreal or Language Poetry end of the spectrum, and it is true that I like poems that remain mysterious and that are filled with unexpected, and sometimes not entirely comprehensible juxtapositions—just as I love music that sometimes approaches and even crosses over into noise. But that said, my poems often end up making fairly straightforward statements, and can be entirely realistic evocations of moments in my life or of nature. I try not to be doctrinaire about poetry. I don’t see the point of turning my back on any form of beauty or any way of making meaning. I think it is wonderful that we can do so many different things with words.
I read my poems aloud over and over and over as I polish them. I try to feel them on my tongue and in my ears. I try always for the most pleasing sounds and rhythms, ones that—ideally—amplify the feeling and/or significance of what I have written. Sound patterns matter immensely, but still, I avoid all regular rhymes and meters. I feel that subjecting my imagination to any pre-existing pattern diminishes the precision, subtlety, truth and imaginative elasticity of what I write. This is purely a personal preference, however, one that—when I am reading Keats and Yeats, or Frost and Auden—I am sometimes tempted to abandon.
I work very hard never to fake meaning, that is, never to pretend that something is meaningful when it isn’t, and never to say anything to my readers that I don’t think is true, or that doesn’t seem to express, in fact, something I feel passionately. Oddly, this is not difficult to accomplish, because I find that my unconscious (which is only interested in the things that matter most, in those things I don’t understand but need to) has very little time for bullshit. Often, all I am really doing as I write and edit is discovering what my unconscious is trying to tell me.
It is probably true that ninety-nine percent of the time I spend on a poem I am only tinkering: trading this word for that, monkeying with line brakes, and trying always to make the poem more concise, more true, more clear and more surprising. Surprise is of the essence, of course, but not merely for its own sake. My goal is always to surprise readers with some kind of truth—though it could be a very small truth, say, about the smell of dead leaves after a rain.
The clarity I am talking about is more clarity of image. I avoid vagueness as much as I can. Had I written above “a small truth, say, about the perception of nature,” that would have been vague. When I say “the smell of dead leaves after a rain,” I am giving my reader a perception of nature, one that I hope is clear, evocative and—in the context of the poem, at least—significant.
We don’t live in the general. We live only in the specific: in a specific instant, a specific place, with a specific history, and amid very specific sights, sounds, feelings, etc. Writing that imitates such specificity feels more like life and so is more vivid, and brings readers closer to the world.
Although I talk about clarity and truth, I never intend the meanings of my poems to be obvious or simple. On the contrary, I think that poems must always be mysterious to a considerable degree, that what meaning they have (and the term “meaning” itself if fundamentally mysterious), should only filter out through repeated readings and through reconsideration of the poem over time, and, even then, should never be wholly accessible.
When a poem is mysterious, readers have to open themselves up to it, which is to say they have to open themselves up to surprises, to receiving things they don’t already have. In a way, they have to get into the associative state I am in when I write, which means they are opening themselves up to their own minds, to language, and to the world. Also, when readers are required to actively engage with a poem (rather than passively receive it), the experience is more intense, and they are more likely to retain what the poem has to offer… or, at least, I hope they do.
So that’s it: I write and write, then I tinker, tinker, tinker, tinker—hoping that I am making the poem a better poem, and making myself—over time, at least—a better poet.
One final thought: When I was an undergraduate, I took a class with Kenneth Koch, who once suggested that the best way to test the quality of a new poem was to imagine reading it to your girlfriend. At the time, consummately insecure about both the quality of my writing and the impression I was making on women, I found this suggestion utterly terrifying. But it stuck with me, and, over the years, it has come to seem increasingly wise, if not entirely practical. One thing I like about Koch’s recommendation is that it encourages us to think of poetry as an exchange between one human being and another, or as a dialogue between two hearts and two minds. But, more importantly, it encourages us to think of a poem as a gift to our readers. I don’t believe we should ever write because we want something from our readers—their admiration, their pity, or even their money. We should write only to give our readers something they want or need—a fresh way of seeing the world, an unexpected twist of emotion, a new idea, or just a good time. And I believe that this gift is all the more valuable because it is one we give to strangers, as well as to those whom we love.