Writing off the Subject
I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry writing class.
You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don’t start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.
When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of poems to the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative-writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good poem.
If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let’s pretend it is right now because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don’t know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing – try to stop us.
One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, “How do I know what I think until I can see what I’ve said.”
A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated of discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may mot be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.
Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poem puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obliged to go on about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain, start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.
Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.
Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.
To write a poem, you must have a streak of arrogance – not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there. You, the person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.
The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject. One way is to use words for the sake of their sounds. Later, I’ll demonstrate this idea.
The initiating subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem. If it doesn’t, it may not be a valid subject but only something you feel you should write a poem about. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it, a wise man once told me. Not bad advice but not quite right. The point is, the triggering subject should not carry with it moral or social obligations to feel or claim you feel certain ways. If you feel pressure to say what you others want to hear and don’t have enough devil in you to surprise them, shut up. But the advise is still well taken. Subjects that ought to have poems have a bad habit of wanting lots of other things at the same time. And you provide those things at the expense of your imagination.
I suspect that the true of valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics of details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself. For me, a small town that has seen better days often works. Contrary to what reviewers and critics say about my work, I know almost nothing of substance about the places that trigger my poems. Knowing can be a limiting thing. If the population of a town is nineteen but the poem needs the sound seventeen, seventeen is easier to say than if you don’t know the population. Guessing leaves you more options. Often, a place that starts a poem for me is one I have only glimpsed while passing through. It should make impression enough that I can see things in the town – the water tower, the bank, the last movie announced on the marquee before the theatre shut down for good, the closed hotel – long after I’ve left. Sometimes these are imagined things I find if I go back, but real or imagined, they act as a set of stable known that sit outside the poem. They and the town serve as a base of operations for the poem. Sometimes they serve as a stage setting. I would never try to locate a serious poem in a place where physical evidence suggests that the people there find it easy to accept themselves – say the new Hilton.
The poet’s relation to the triggering subject should never be as strong as (must be weaker than) his relation to his words. The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words. This may mean violating the facts. For example, if the poem needs the word “black” at some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator may have to be black in the poem. You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.
Let’s take what I think is a lovely little poem, written in 1929 by a fine poet who has been unjustly ignored.
I found him sleepy in the heat
And dust of a gopher burrow,
Coiled in loose folds upon silence
In a pit of the noonday hillside.
I saw the wedged bulge
Of the head as a fist.
I remembered his delicate ways:
The mouth as a cat’s mouth yawning.
I crushed him deep in the dust,
And heard the loud seethe of life
In the dead beads of the tail
Fade, as wind fades
From the wild grain of the hill.
from Against the Circle
by Brewster Ghiselin
I find there’s much to be learned about writing from this excellent poem. First I think it demonstrates certain truths that hold much for art. The poem grows from an experience, either real or imagined – I only recently found out that this particular experience was real. The starting point is fixed to give the mind an operating base, and the mind expands from there. Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy of social criticism.
The need for the poem to have been written is evident in the poem. This is a strong example of the notion that all good serious poems are born in obsession. Without this poem the experience would have been neither validated or completed.
The poem has elements of melodrama. All art that has endured has a quality we call schmaltz or corn. Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentaliy we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches fiction writing, has pointed out: if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.
The poem is located in a specific place. You don’t know where, but you know the poet knows where. Knowing where you are can be a source of creative stability. If you are in Chicago you can go to Rome. If you ain’t no place you can’t go nowhere.
The snake is killed gratuitously. The study of modern psychology may have helped some of us become better people. We may treat our children better because we have gained some rudimentary notion of cause and effect in behavior. But in art, as seemingly in life, things happen without cause. They just happen. A poem seldom finds room for explanations, motivations. or reason. What if the poem read
Because I knew his poison
Was dangerous to children
I crushed him deep in dust . . . ?
The poet would be making excuses for himself, and the fierce honesty with which he faces his raw act of murder would be compromised. Nothing in the drama King Lear can possibly serve as explanation of the shattering cruelty of Regan and Cornwall when they blind Gloucester. From a writer’s standpoint, a good explanation is that Shakespeare knew a lot of creeps walk this earth.
But there’s more to be learned from this poem than just artistic principles. They are always suspect anyway, including those I think I find here. Let’s move on to the language of the poem.
Generally, in English, multisyllabic words have a way of softening the impact of language. With multisyllabic words we can show compassion, tenderness, and tranquility. With multisyllabic words we become more civilized. In the first four lines of the poem, seven of the twenty-six words, slightly better than one out of four, are two syllable words. This is a fairly high count unless you are in politics. The snake is sleepy. He presents no threat to the speaker. His dwelling is that of a harmless creature, a gopher. It’s almost as if the snake were a derelict, an orphan, a vagabond who sleeps wherever he can.
The words “noonday hillside” suggest that the world does not have rigid topography but optional configurations. At 4 p.m. it might not be a hillside at all. We take our identities from our relationships, just as the earth takes its configurations from the time of day, the position of the source of light. This is a warm, fluid world.
With single-syllable words we can show rigidity, honesty, toughness, relentlessness, the world of harm unvarnished. In lines five and six, the snake is seen as a threat, the lines slam home heavy as the fist the poet sees as simile for the head of the snake. But of course, men, not snakes, have fists, and so we might ask: where does the danger really lie?
The speaker then has a tender memory of the snake in lines seven and eight, and we get two three-syllable words and a long two-syllable word, “yawning.” You might note that the poet is receptive to physical similarities of snakes and domestic cats – they look much alike when yawning – just as later he sees and hears the similarity of rattlesnakes to wheat (grain), the way the tail looks like the tassel, the way the rattle sounds like wind in the grain.
In the final five lines the poet kills the snake, faces himself and the moral implications of the act without a flinch or excuse, and we get no multisyllabic words in the entire passage. All single-syllable words, and the gaze is level. the whole being of the speaker honestly laid out, vulnerable on his private moral block.
If one acts on the rigid prejudicial attitudes expressed in lines five and six (which the speaker did), and not on the fluid, tender, humane attitudes expressed in the first four lines and lines seven and eight, then in return one is faced with the fully developed, uncompromising picture of what one has done. Forever.
In this poem the triggering subject remains fully in view until late in the poem, whereas the generated object, what the poem is saying, just begins to show at the end but is nonetheless evident. The snake as such is being left behind, and attitudes about life are starting to form. The single-syllable words in the last five lines relentlessly drive home the conviction that all life is related, and that even if life isn’t sacred, we might be better off if we acted as if it were. In this case, the poet got off the initiating subject late.
I mentioned that one way of getting off the subject, of feeling yourself from memory if you will, is to use words for the sake of sound. Now I must use four lines from an earlier poem of mine, simply because I can’t verify any other poet’s process. I know what mine was at the time. There are the first four lines of the fourth stanza of an early poem called “At the Stilli’s Mouth.”
With the Stilli this defeated and the sea
turned slough by close Camano, how can water die
with drama, in a final rich cascade,
a suicide, a victim of terrain, a martyr?
When I was a young poet I set an arbitrary rule that when I made a sound I felt was strong, a sound I liked specially, I’d make a similar sound three to eight syllables later. Of course, it would often be a slant rhyme. Why three to eight? Don’t ask. You have to be silly to write poems at all.
In this case the word “cascade” fell lovingly on my ear and so, soon after, “suicide.” I wasn’t smart enough to know that I was saying that my need to see things dramatically was both childish and authentic. But “suicide” was right and led to “victim of terrain” and “martyr,” associative notions at least, but also words that sound like other words in the passage, “martyr” like “drama” and “water,” “victim” like “final’ and “Stilli” (Northwest colloquial for Stilliguamish, the river). Instead of “suicide” I might have hit on “masquerade,” but that would have been wrong and I hope I would have known it. I might have simply because “masquerade” sounds too much like “cascade,” calls attention to itself, and to my ear is less interesting. What I’m trying to tell you is that by doing things like this I was able to get off the subject and write the poem. The fact that “suicide” sounds like “cascade” is infinitely more important than what is being said.
It isn’t of course, but if you think about it that way for the next twenty-five years you could be in pretty good shape.
The Triggering Town
hear me make extreme statements like “don’t communicate” and “there is no reader.” While these statements are meant as said, I presume when I make them that you can communicate and can write clear English sentences. I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.
Let’s take language that exists to communicate – the news story. In a news story the words are there to give you information about the event. Even if the reporter has a byline, anyone might have written the story, and quite often more than one person has by the time it is printed. Once you have the information, the words seem unimportant. Valėry said they dissolve, but that’s not quite right. Anyway, he was making a finer distinction, one between poetry and prose that in the reading of English probably no longer applies. That’s why I limited our example to news articles. By understanding the words of a news article you seem to deaden them.
In the news article the relation of the words to the subject (triggering subject since there is no other unless you can provide it) is a strong one. The relation of the words to the writer is so weak that for our purposes it isn’t worth consideration. Since the majority of your reading has been newspapers, you are used to seeing language function this way. When you write a poem these relations must reverse themselves. That is, the relation of the words to the subject must weaken and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength.
This is probably the hardest thing about writing poems. It may be a problem with every poem, at least for a long time. Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words. For our purposes I’ll use towns as examples. The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated motional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you c an assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you’ve never seen it before, it must be a town you’ve lived in all your life. You must take emotional possession of the town and so the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can’t understand, you must feel is your town. In some mysterious way that you need not and probably won’t understand, the relationship is based on fragments of information that are fixed – and if you need knowns that the town does not provide, no trivial concerns such as loyalty to truth, a nagging consideration had you stayed home, stand in the way of your introducing them as needed by the poem. It is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem.
Once these knowns sit outside the poem, the imagination can take off fro them and if necessary can return. You are operating from a base.
That silo, filled with chorus girls and grain
Your hometown often provides so many knowns (grains) that the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns (chorus girls). I just said that line (Reader: don’t get smart. I actually did just write it down in the first draft of this) because I come from a town that has no silos, no grain, and for that matter precious few chorus girls.
If you have no emotional investment in the town, though you have taken immediate emotional possession of it for the duration of the poem, it may be easier to invest the feeling in the words. Try this for an exercise: take someone you emotionally trust, a friend or a lover, to a town you like the looks of but know little about, and show your companion around the town in the poem. In the line of poetry above, notice the work “that.” You are on the scene and you are pointing. You know where you are and that is a source of stability. “The silo” would not tell you where you were or where the silo is. Also, you know you can trust the person you are talking to – he or she will indulge your flights – another source of stability and confidence. If you need more you can even imagine that an hour before the poem begins you received some very good news – you have just won a sweepstakes and will get $50,000 a year for the rest of your life – or some very bad, even shattering news – your mother was in charge of a Nazi concentration camp. But do not mention this news in the poem. That will give you a body of emotion behind the poem and will probably cause you to select only certain details to show to your friend. A good friend doesn’t mind that you keep chorus girls in a silo. The more stable the base the freer you are to fly from it in the poem.
That silo, filled with chorus girls and grain
burned down last night and grew back tall.
The grain escaped to the river. The girls ran
crying to the moon. When we knock, the metal
gives a hollow ring –
O.K. I’m just fooling around. (God, I’m even rhyming.) It looks like the news I got an hour ago was bad, but note the silo replaced itself and we might still fill it again. Note also that now the town has a river and that when I got fancy and put those girls on the moon I got back down to earth in a hurry and knocked on something real. Actually I’m doing all this because I like “I” sounds, “silo” “filled” “girls” “tall” “metal” “hollow,” and I like “n” sounds, “grain” “burned” “down” “ran” “moon” “ring,” and I like “k” sounds, “back” “knock.” Some critics, I think Kenneth Burke, would say I like “k” sounds because my name is Dick.
In this case I imagined the town, but an imagined town is at least as real as an actual town. If it isn’t you may be in the wrong business. Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn’t. It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.
This gets us to a somewhat tricky area. Please don’t take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can consider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let’s use as examples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn’t lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn’t necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private of personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the word, at least key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation – the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary – is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art. With Hopkins this is evident in words like “dappled,” “stippled,” and “pied.” In Yeats, “gyre.” In Auden, no word is more his than yours.
The reason that distinction doesn’t hold, of course, is that the majority of words in any poem are public – that is, they mean the same to writer and reader. That some words are the special property of a poet implies how he feels about the world and about himself, and chances are he often fights impulses to sentimentality. A public poet must always be more intelligent that the reader, nimble, skillful enough to stay ahead, to be entertaining so his didacticism doesn’t set up resistances. Auden was that intelligent and skillful and he publicly regretted it. Here, in this room, I’m trying to teach you to be private poets because that’s what I am and I’m limited to teaching what I know. As a private poet, our job is to be honest and to try not to be too boring. However, if you must choose between being eclectic and various or being repetitious and boring, be repetitious and boring. Most good poets are, if read very long at one sitting.
If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions. It doesn’t bother me that the word “stone” appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that “wind” and “gray” appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.
So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, generate things to say. Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.
The imagination is a cynic. By that I mean that it can accommodate the most disparate elements with no regard for relative values. And it does this by assuming all things have equal value, which is a way of saying nothing has any value, which is cynicism.
When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed. My gold detector told me that the man had been right. Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral of aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting – he must have – and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded. If the relative values of his details crossed his mind at all while he was painting, he must have been having one hell of a good time.
One way of getting into the world of imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words – if you can manage it you might even ignore the meanings of words for as long as you can, though that won’t be very long. Once, picking up on something that happened when I visited as antique store in Ellettsville, Indiana, I wrote the lines
The owner leaves her beans to brag about the pewter.
Miss Liberty is steadfast in an oval frame.
They would have been far harder lines to write had I worried about what’s most important: beans, pewter, or liberty. Obviously beans are, but why get hung up on those considerations?
It is easier to write and far more rewarding when you can ignore relative values and go with the flow and thrust of the language. That’s why Auden said that poets don’t take things as seriously as other people. It was easy for me to find that line awhile back because I didn’t worry about the relative importance of grain and chorus girls and that made it fun to find them together in that silo.
By now you may be thinking, doesn’t this lead finally to amoral and shallow writing? Yes, it does, if you are amoral and shallow. I hope it will lead you to yourself and the way you feel. All poets I know, and I know plenty of them, have an unusually strong moral sense, and that is why they can go into the cynical world of the imagination and not feel so threatened that they become impotent. There’s fear sometimes involved but also joy, an exhilaration that can’t be explained to anyone who has not experienced it. Don’t worry about morality. Most people who worry about morality ought to.
Over the years then, if you are a poet, you will, perhaps without being conscious of it, find a way to write – I guess it would be better to say you will always be chasing a way to write. Actually, you never really find it, or writing would be much easier than it is. Since the method you are chasing involves words that have been chosen for you by your obsessions, it may help to use scenes (towns perhaps) that seem to vivify themselves as you remember them but in which you have no real emotional investment other than the one that grows out of the strange way the town appeals to you, the way it haunts you later when you should be thinking about paying your light bill. As a beginner you may only be able to ally your emotions to one thing, either triggering subject or word. I believe it will be easier right now if you stick to the word.
A man named Buzz Green worked with me ears ago at the Boeing Company. He had once been a jazz musician and along with a man named Lu Waters had founded a jazz band well known in its day. Buzz once said of Lou McGarrity, a trombone player we once admired, “He can play with any symphony orchestra in the country but when he stands up to take a jazz solo he forgets everything he knows.” So if I seem to talk technique now and then and urge you to learn more, it is not so you will remember it when you write but so you can forget it. Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and come forth mysteriously when needed.
Once a spectator said, after Jack Nicklaus had chipped a shot in from a sand trap, “That’s pretty lucky.” Nicklaus is said to have replied, “Right. But I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get.” If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down. Lucky accidents seldom happen to writers who don’t work. You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems to come out right.
Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work.
You found the town, now you must start the poem. If the poem turns out good, the town will have become your hometown no matter what name it carries. It will accommodate those intricate hunks of self that could only live in your hometown. But you may have found those hunks of self because the externals of the triggering town you used were free of personal association and were that much easier to use. That silo you never saw until today was yours the day you were born. Finally, after a long time and a lot of writing, you may be able to go back armed to places of real personal significance. Auden was wrong. Poets take some things for more seriously than other people, though he was right to the extent that they are not the some things others would take seriously or often even notice. Those chorus girls and that grain really matter, and it’s not the worst thing you can do with your life to live for that day when you can go back home the sure way and find they were there all the time.
Assumptions lie behind the work of all writers. The writer is unaware of most of them, and many of them are weird. Often the weirder the better. Words love the ridiculous areas of our minds. But silly or solid, assumptions are necessary elements in a successful base of writing operations. It is important that a poet not question his or her assumptions, at least not in the middle of composition. Finish the poem first, then worry, if you have to, about being right or sane.
Whenever I see a town that triggers whatever is inside me that wants to write a poem, I assume at least one of the following:
The name of the town is significant and must appear in the title.
The inhabitants are natives and have lived there forever. I am the only stranger.
I have lived there all my life and should have left long ago but couldn’t.
Although I am playing roles on the surface I appear normal to the townspeople.
I am an outcast returned. Years ago the police told me to never come back but after all this time I assume that either I’ll be forgiven or I will not be recognized.
At best, relationships are marginal. The inhabitants have little relation with each other and none with me.
The town is closely knit, and the community is pleasant. I am not a part of it but a happy observer.
A hermit lives on the outskirts in a one-room shack. He eats mostly fried potatoes. He spends hours looking at old faded photos. He has not spoken to anyone in years. Passing children often taunt him with songs and jokes.
Each Sunday, a little after 4 p.m., the sky turns a depressing gray and the air becomes chilly.
I run a hardware store and business is slow.
I run a bar and business is fair and constant.
I work in a warehouse on second shift. I am the only one in town on second shift.
I am the town humorist and people are glad to see me because they know I’ll have some good new jokes and will tell them well.
The churches are always empty.
A few people attend church and the sermons are boring.
Everybody but me goes to church and the sermons are inspiring.
On Saturday nights everyone has fun but me. I sit home alone and listen to the radio. I wish I could join the others though I enjoy feeling left out.
All beautiful girls move away right after high school and never return, or if they return, are rich and disdainful of those who stayed on.
I am on friendly terms with all couples, but because I live alone and have no girlfriend, I am of constant concern to them.
I am an eleven-year-old orphan.
Terrible things once happened here and as a result the town became sad and humane.
The population does not vary.
The population decreases slightly each year.
The graveyard is carefully maintained and the dead are honored one day each year.
No one dies, makes love, or ages.
Lots of excellent music coming from far off. People never see of know who is playing.
The farmer’s market is alive with shoppers, good vegetables and fruit. Prices are fixed. Bargaining is punishable by death.
The movie house is run by a kind old man who lets children in free when no one is looking.
The movie house has been closed for years.
Once the town was booming but it fell on hard times around 1910.
At least one person is insane. He or she is accepted as part of the community.
The annual picnic is a failure. No one has a good time.
The annual picnic is a huge success but the only fun people have all year.
The grain elevator is silver.
The water tower is gray and the paint is peeling.
The mayor is so beloved and kind elections are no longer held.
The newspaper, a weekly, has an excellent gossip column but little or no news from outside.
A series of brutal murders took place a few years ago. The murderer was never caught and is assumed still living in the town.
Years ago I was wealthy and lived in a New York penthouse. I hired about twenty chorus girls from Las Vegas to move in with me. For a year they played out all of my sexual fantasies. At the end of the year my money was gone. The chorus girls had no interest in me once I was poor and they returned to Las Vegas. I moved here where, destitute in a one-room shack on the edge of town, I am living my life out in shame.
One man is a social misfit. He is thrown out of bars and not allowed in church. He shuffles about the street unable to find work and is subjected to insults and disdainful remarks by beautiful girls. He tries to make friends but can’t.
A man takes menial jobs for which he is paid very little. He is grateful for what little work he can find and is always cheerful. In any encounter with others he assumes he is wrong and backs down. His place in the town social structure is assured.
Two whores are kind to everyone but each other.
The only whore in town rejected a proposal of marriage years ago. The man left town and later became wealthy and famous in New York.
Cats are fed by a sympathetic but cranky old woman.
Dogs roam the street.
The schoolhouse is a huge frame building with only one teacher who is old but never ages. She is a spinster and everyone in town was once in her class.
Until I found it, no outsider had ever seen it.
It is not on any map.
It is on a map but no roads to it are shown.
The next town is many miles away. It is much classier, has a nice new movie house, sparkling drive-ins, and better looking girls. The locals in my town dream of moving to the next town but never do.
The town doctor is corrupt and incompetent.
The town druggist is an alcoholic.
The town was once supported by mining commercial fishing, or farming. No one knows what supports it now.
One girl in the town is so ugly she knows she will never marry of have a lover. She lives in fantasies and involves herself in social activities of the church trying to keep alive her hopes which she secretly knows are futile.
Wind blows hard through the town except on Sunday afternoons a little after four when the air becomes still.
The air is still all week except on Sunday afternoons when the wind blows.
Once in a while an unlikely animal wanders into town, a grizzly bear of cougar or wolverine.
People stay married forever. No divorce. Widows and widowers never remarry.
Lots of rain.
Birds never stop. They fly over, usually too high to be identified.
The grocer is kind. He gives candy to children. He is a widower and his children live in Paris and never write.
People who hated it and left long ago are wealthy and living in South America.
Wild sexual relationships. A lot of adultery to ward off boredom.
The jail is always empty.
There is one prisoner in jail, always the same prisoner. No one is certain why he is there. He doesn’t want to get out. People have forgotten his name.
Young men are filled with hate and often fight.
I am welcome in bars. People are happy to see me and buy me drinks.
As far as one can see, the surrounding country is uninhabited.
The ballpark if poorly maintained and only a few people attend the games.
The ballpark is well kept and the entire town supports the team.
The team is in last place every year.
People sit a lot on their porches.
There is always a body of water, a sea just out of sight beyond the hill of a river running through the town. Outside of town a few miles is a lake that has been the scene of both romance and violence.
Stray Thoughts on
Roethke and Teaching
Some of this is from memory, twenty-five years of it, and some of it may be wrong. But I’m sure of one thing, on the first day of class in the fall quarter of 1947 he shambled into the classroom, and the awkward, almost self-degrading way he moved made me think he was dressed in “rags and rotting clothes,” when actually he was probably in an expensive tailor-made suit. His addiction to bourgeois values, his compulsive need to be loved by all, but most of all the rich, was of course the obverse of the way he felt about himself. In his mind I believe he was always poor and unwashed, and he showed it when he walked.
So I’m certain he wasn’t poorly dressed, though I still see him that way. Then I didn’t but now I do know he was frightened. “Look,” in W.C. Fields-as-gangster voice, “there’s too many people in here. If I had my way, I’d have nothing but young chicks, the innocent ones you can teach something.” We had to submit poems and be judged. He had to weed. One girl asked if he could be more definite. “You want a quick answer? Get out now.” But he laughed. His tenderness toward students often showed through.
He was probably the best poetry-writing teacher ever. That’s impossible to prove and silly, but I had to say it just once in print. He was not intellectual in his approach in those days, though I think he changed later. Sometimes he read poems aloud and then couldn’t explicate them clearly when he tried. I think he often didn’t understand it the way a critic or good literature teacher would understand it. I believe he so loved the music of language that his complicated emotional responses to poems interfered with his attempts to verbalize meaning.
When he read his favorites aloud, Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, Thomas, Kunitz, Bogan, poets with “good ears,” something happened that happens all too infrequently in a classroom. If a student wasn’t a complete auditory clod, he could feel himself falling in love with the sound of the words. To Roethke, that was the heart and soul of poetry. And that was his strength as a teacher: he gave students a love of the sound of language. His classes were clinics. He performed therapy on the ear.
It was important to some of us in Seattle that he came when he did. It was just great luck. The English Department at the University of Washington in 1947 was in a rut. Vernon Louis Parrington was dead but his influence was not. The approach to literature was Parrington’s and little else. Many of the teachers had taken their Ph.D.’s right there years before. They had been friends of Parrington’s, and while many were able teachers, they taught literature as a reflection of historical and sociological patterns of its time. Writers who didn’t fit the method were usually ignored – Poe, Henry, James.
I lacked anything near an academic imagination, so I just assumed that literature could not be approached any other way. Worse, I simply didn’t know who had written what. I’d never heard of Auden, Hopkins, Thomas, or even Yeats. Just the exposure to such poets was worth any tuition fee. But to be exposed to them by a man so passionately committed to their rhythms and tonalities was to be born.
One sad thing about university reputations is that they lag behind the fact. By the time you hear how good an English department is, it is usually too late to go there. But by all accounts Roethke got even better as a teacher as the years went on, though it’s hard to imagine his being any better than he was in ’47 and ’48.
He was a dangerous teacher too. And the danger is a natural one for good poetry-writing teachers who are also good poets. Good poets have obsessive ears. They love certain sounds and not others. So they read aloud what they love, responding to their own obsessive needs in the poetry of others. If he is worth a damn, any poet teaching poetry writing constantly and often without knowing it is saying to the student, “Write the way I do. That’s the best sound you can make.” The student who shakes this, who goes on to his auditory obsessions and who writes the way the teacher never told him, may become a poet. Roethke, through his fierce love of kinds of verbal music, could be overly influential. David Wagoner, who was quite young when he studied under Roethke at Penn State, told me once of the long painful time he had breaking Roethke’s hold on him.
For many this hold had enormous psychic proportions because for all his playfulness in poems, it was in poems and poetry that Roethke was playing a profound and dangerous game. Many of Roethke’s poems suffer from triviality of spirit for just this reason. When he played ad the play didn’t unlock the man, only the game remains on the page. Some things are just not meant. But that was the risk he took. A lot of poets don’t have the nerve to risk failure.
He was also playful in class, arrogant, hostile, tender, aggressive, receptive – anything that might work to bring the best out of a student. A young man might turn in a poem, read it aloud, and then wait, his heart on the block, and Roethke would say quietly, “Gee.” It was withering. Yet for all Roethke’s capacity for cruelty, it was not a cruel act. Roethke knew that poetry is an art form and a difficult one and that the enthusiasm and hope of the young poet are not enough. You have to work, and you had better get used to facing disappointments and failures, a lifetime of them. Other times he would roar laughter at a funny poem, no matter how inexpertly written. Most students respected his authority not because what he said was intellectually defensible – what an absurd consideration – but because the man was so emotionally honest. Emotional honesty is a rare thing in the academic world or anywhere else for that matter, and nothing is more prized by good students.
He pushed as models the seventeenth-century lyricists – Herbert, Marvell, Herrick. Whoever he pushed, whatever poem he purred or boomed aloud in class, he was always demonstrating that this, your language, is capable of power and beauty. Those of us who had always loved it found out we loved it. Some who hadn’t loved it, but had the capacity to, came to love it. The others?
When our poems were coming in void of rhythm he gave demanding exercises, and his finals were evidence of the cruelty in him. I don’t have a copy of one of his exams, but here’s an exercise I give beginning students once in a while to take home and return in a week or so, and it is very close to what he would give you one hour to do on the final.
Nouns Verbs Adjectives
tamarack to kiss blue
throat to curve hot
belief to swing soft
rock to ruin tough
frog to bite important
dog to cut wavering
slag to surprise sharp
eye to bruise cool
cloud to hug red
mud to say leather
Use five nouns, verbs, and adjectives from the above lists and write a poem as follows:
1.) Four beats to the line (can vary)
2.) Six lines to the stanza
3.) Three stanzas
4.) At least two internal and one external slant rhyme per stanza (full rhymes acceptable but not encouraged)
5.) Maximum of two end stops per stanza
6.) Clear English grammatical sentences (no tricks). All sentences must make sense.
7.) The poem must be meaningless.
Item 7 is a sadistic innovation of my own.
The point of this exercise will probably be clear to poets. Too many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say – now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will writer their best poem of the term. It works, and I’ve seen it work again and again. While the student is concentrating on the problems of the exercise, the real problems go away for a moment simply because they are ignored, and with the real problems gone the poet is free to say what he never expected and always wanted to say. Euphonics and slant rhymes are built into the vocabulary of course, and as for item 7, it simply takes the exercise one step further into the world of the imagination. Without it, the exercise is saying: give up what you think you have to say, and you’ll find something better. With item 7, it says: say nothing and just make music and you’ll find plenty to say. Item 7 is an impossibility of course, but when the student finds out it is, one hopes he will have increased faith in sound and the accidents of the imagination.
Some traditionalists seem to think that forms exist to be solved for their own sake, as if the poet is an engineer. That’s just foolish. If a poet finds himself solving the problems of a form simply for the sake of challenge, he has the wrong form. After you’ve written for a long time, to do it in the forms at all is a little like cheating because you are getting help. But the forms can be important, and when Roethke felt himself going dry he always returned to them. For some students, the exercise will not work because the form is not theirs. They need another or, in some cases, none. Though I can’t defend it, I believe that when the poem is coming on with imaginative honesty, there is some correspondence of the form to psychic rhythms in the poet.
The second half of the Roethke final usually consisted of one question, a lulu like, “What should the modern poet do about his ancestors?” “Do you mean hid blood ancestors or the poets who preceded him?” I asked. “Just answer the question,” Roethke growled.
Roethke could read so effectively that he could set a student’s mind rigidly in favor of a poem for years. I came to realize that “The Golden Echo” is not good Hopkins, or even much good for that matter, despite Roethke’s fine reading of it. On the other hand, “Easter 1916” still remains a favorite of mine. I think of it as possibly as good a poem as we have in the language, and it was Roethke’s reading of it that first prejudiced me.
Just calling attention to what the student is hearing but doesn’t know he’s hearing can be a revelation. A student may love the sound of Yeats’s “Stumbling upon the blood dark track once more” and not know that the single-syllable word with a hard consonant ending is a unit of power in English, and that’s one reason “blood dark track” goes off like rifle shots. He’s hearing a lot of other things too that I won’t go into here. O.K. Simple stuff. Easily observed. But how few people notice it. The young poet is too often paying attention to the big things and can’t be bothered with little matters like that. But little matters like that are what make and break poems, and if a teacher can make a poet aware of it, he has given him a generous shove in the only direction. In poetry, the big things tend to take care of themselves.
When I started teaching at the age of forty I was terrified. It was bad enough to hold Roethke up as an ideal and to hope to imitate his methods and techniques rather than my own, but to be told my first day on campus that I was Leslie Fiedler’s replacement was a bit too much. I hope I’ve found my own way of doing things in the classroom, but if I have I didn’t find it easily. I found it much easier to shake Roethke’s influence as a poet than as a teacher. Only in the last few years have I dropped a phony, blustery way of teaching that was never mine but that I assume was his, though twenty-five years of memory can kink a lot of cable.
Roethke’s life would have been easier today in the classroom. Students are far better writers than we were then. Jim Wright was one of the few students who was writing well in Roethke’s classes. I have at least six who are excellent and another good dozen good enough to appear in most literary magazines. For one thing, they’ve had much more exposure to good poems than we ever did. They work hard and have no illusions about writing being easy. I don’t think poems come easier for them either, just sooner. They seem to absorb methods of execution faster and to assimilate technique faster than most of us could then.
Mark Strand remarked recently in Montana that American poetry could not help but get better and better, and I’m inclined to agree. I doubt that we’ll have the one big figure of the century the way other nations do, Yeats, Valery. Giants are not the style of the society, though the wind knows there are enough people want to create them. I think we’ll end up with a lot of fine poets, each doing his own thing. There are a lot of good poetry-writing teachers available to help them, poets who earned the title the hard way and who are generous enough to pass on all that they learned for themselves. Donald Justice and Marvin Bell at Iowa, A.R. Ammons at Cornell, John Logan at Buffalo, David Wagoner at the University of Washington are just a few who come to mind.
Then there’s that banal, tiresome question: can writing be taught? Yes it can and no it can’t. Ultimately the most important things a poet will learn about writing are form himself in the process. A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on, like trying to will originality of trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts (but that’s the way it really happened). Roethke used to mumble, “Jesus, you don’t want to say that.” And you didn’t but you hadn’t yet become ruthless enough to create. You still felt some deep moral obligation to “reality” and “truth,” and of course it wasn’t moral obligation at all but fear of yourself and your inner life.
Despite Roethke’s love of verbal play, he could generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around. Real experimentation is involved in every good poem because the poet searches for ways to unlock his imagination through trial and error. Quest for a self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all costs. The process prohibits any chance the poet has to create surrogate feelings, a secondary kind of creativity but in most poems all the poet can settle for. The good poems say: “This is how I feel.” With luck that’s true, but usually it’s not. More often the poem is the way the poet says he feels when he can’t find out what his real feelings are. It makes little difference to the reader, since a good poem sounds meant enough to be believed.
“Each newcomer feels obliged to do something else, forgetting that if he himself is somebody he will necessarily do that something else,” said Valery. And Roethke told students to “write like somebody else.” There are those unusual people who try desperately to appear unusual and there are unusual people who try to appear usual. Most poets I’ve met are from the latter and much smaller group. William Stafford, at his best as good as we have, is a near-perfect example. It doesn’t surprise me at all when the arrogant wild man in class turns in predictable, unimaginative poems and the straight one is doing nutty and promising work. If you are really strange you are always in enemy territory, and your constant concern is survival.
Roethke would probably take issue with that. He had all sorts of odd notions about what makes a poet. Once he told me seriously that we, he and I, being physically large, presented a presence to others, and the pressure we felt from this role dictated by our physical proportions was fundamental to creating poems. He didn’t put it that way but that’s what he was saying.
Other ideas deserved more serious consideration. Roethke was fond of quoting Rimbaud’s idea of “the systematic derangement of the senses,” but he always left off the “systematic.” When I was in grad school in ’49 and ’50, the smartest faculty member I knew at that time told me he believed that omission to be important. He felt that Roethke might actually be cultivating madness because he believed it essential to writing. That may or may not be true. I suppose it could be argued that all madness is self-created. But what a great compliment to Roethke that people could believe it of him. How many great artists, including Yeats, could be credited with risking their very being for their work, like Dylan Thomas, but most prepare themselves for the long haul.
I vaguely recall a class in ’48 when Roethke defended madness as important to creativity. I disagree plenty. Madness is crippling anywhere but in art where it belongs and can always find a home. It is obvious that all art is screwy and it is equally obvious that most men who create it are not. They are often “silly like us.” Some of them – William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens – aren’t even particularly silly. What is remarkable is that men handicapped by periods of mental aberration can still fight through and create, while others are simply incapacitated, sometimes forever.
But we know almost nothing about creativity, where it comes from, what causes it. People who profess to be astounded that Wallace Stevens could be a corporate executive an still write are really saying, “How could he be a poet when he’s not like me?” There are a lot of poets who aren’t like you, even if you’re a poet.
Most creative-writing teachers in Roethke’s day worth mentioning were formalists, and formality was an end in itself. Obligation to play “by the rules” remained paramount. As a teacher Roethke stood virtually alone at the time. For Roethke the rules were simply one way to help a poet get to the gold. Certain areas he wisely left alone. I think he instinctively knew that fool’s gold is what fools end up with, and a teacher can do nothing about that.
In one are Roethke lacked sophistication at moments. He was for too competitive for his own good, and while I’m far more competitive than I admit, I believe that it is only in periods when you can transcend your competitive instincts that you can write. A sound analogy could be made with hitting a baseball. If you concentrate on beating a particular pitcher, your chances of hitting him are not as good as they are if you can ignore him until he disappears and you can concentrate on the ball. And your chances of writing a poem are greatly reduced if you are trying to beat Robert Lowell or T.S. Eliot or anybody else.
Roethke’s love of prizes, rave reviews, and applause would sometimes prevent him from emphasizing to the student the real reward of writing – that special private way you feel about your poems, the way you feel when you finishing a poem you like.
Yet he knew it, and in rare moments it showed. Once he said to me, that nervous undergrad who wanted the love of the world to roar out every time he put a word down. “Don’t worry about publishing. That’s not important.” He might have added, only the act of writing is. It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work. You wouldn’t trade your poems for anybody’s. To do that you would also have to trade your life for his, which means living a whole new complex of pain and joy. One of those per life is enough.
Nuts and Bolts
That's what these are. Nuts and bolts. My nuts and bolts. For me they helped, or once helped, and some still do. I’m stating them as rules, but of course they are no more than suggestions – I find the axiomatic tone preferable to a lot of qualifiers. If these work for you, good.
Use number 2 pencils. Get a good pencil sharpener and sharpen about twenty pencils. When one is dull, grab another.
Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed.
Pen or pencil, write with gives you the most sensual satisfaction. When I said use number 2 pencils, I was really saying that when I use number 2 pencils I feel good putting words on paper.
Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white paper seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page? The lines tend to want words. Blank paper begs to be left alone. The best notebooks I’ve found are National 43-581.
Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
When young it’s normal to fear losing a good line or phrase and never finding anything comparable again. Carry a small pocket-size notebook and jot down lines and phrases as they occur. This may or may not help you write good poems, but it can help reduce your anxiety.
Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things. When the poem starts, things should already have happened. (Note: White unlined paper gives you the feeling nothing has happened.) If Yeats had begun “Leda and the Swan” with Zeus spotting Leda and getting an erection, Yeats would have been writing a report.
When rewriting, write the entire poem again. If something has gone wrong deep in the poem, you may have taken a wrong turn earlier. The next time through the poem you may spot the wrong path you took. If you take another, when you reach the source of your dissatisfaction it may no longer be there. To change what’s there is difficult because it is boring. To find the right other is exciting.
If you want to change what’s there, use the same words and play with the syntax:
This blue lake still has resolve.
This lake still blue with resolve.
By playing with the syntax we’ve dropped a weak verb and left the sentence open with a chance for a stronger one. But maybe you can’t find a stronger verb, or you may still want to end the sentence:
This lake’s still blue with resolve.
You may object that the meaning has changed, that you are no longer saying what you want to say.
Never want to say anything so strongly that you give up the option of finding something better. If you have to say it, you will.
Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is. You can seldom be certain of the source of your annoyance without justification. Sometimes you may feel dissatisfied without justification. The poem may be as good as it will get. Often a word is not right but very close: dog – hog, gill – gull, hen – hun.
When you feel a poem is finished, print it. The time needed to print a word is a hair longer than the time needed to write it. In that extra moment, you may make some lovely changes. Had Auden printed his poems he might not have needed the happy accident of the typist inadvertently typing “ports” for ‘poets,” a mistake that helped a poem considerably.
Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” ( I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
Once out of nature I shall never be taking
My bodily form from any natural thing.
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths are makingOf hammered gold and gold enameling . . .
If you ask a question, don’t answer it, or answer a question not asked, or defer.
What stunned the dirt into noise?
Ask the mole, he knows.
If you can answer the question, to ask it is to waste time.
Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
Use any noun that is yours, even if it has only local use. “Salal” is the name of a bush that grows wild in the Pacific Northwest. It is often not found in dictionaries, but I’ve known that word for as long as I can remember. I had to check with the University of Washington Botany Department on the spelling. when I first used it in a poem. It is a word, and it is my word. That’s arrogant, isn’t it? But necessary. Don’t be afraid to take emotional possession of words. If you don’t love a few words enough to own them, you will have to be very clever to write a good poem.
Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
Temporality: meanwhile, while, as (at the same time as), during, and (implying “and at the same time”)
But no one comes
and the girl disappears behind folding doors
while the bus grinds and lurches away.
No one comes.
The girl disappears behind folding doors.
The bus grinds and lurches away.
Here, the words “and” and “while” point up a relation that can be provided by the mind. “While” simply means that two things happed at the same time. Without “ while” they happen at the same time. What was funny about “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” was the superimposition of the words on the screen over a shot of the ranch. We are told what was being demonstrated. It would be boring if not maddening to live in a world where all things were labeled. Where “house” would be stamped on the house.
In my skull
death echoes the song of the wind as it
hands up each winter defeat.
In my skull
death echoes the song of the wind. The wind
hands up each winter defeat.
I’m not saying eliminate these words from your vocabulary. I’m saying don’t use them out of grammarhobia to make connections clear. Note in the above example the relative values of the two statements were eliminated by removing the “as.” With the “as” the temporal relation of the two statements was stated, and the mind gave or wanted to give more value to one than the other. Now they are equal. Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.
Causality: so (as a result), because, thus, causing
So I wait here, high outside the city, while in
your reality dreams come only at will.
I wait here, high outside the city.
In your reality, dreams come only at will.
Don’t put signposts to relationships.
Opposition: yet, but
My hard bed waits for me
yet that room is cold now.
My hard bed waits for me.
That room is cold.
We knew that prairie would stay empty
but horses filled the dawn.
We knew that prairie would stay empty.
Horses filled the dawn.
Often the opposition is far more dramatic if you don’t call attention to it. Sometimes, the opposition isn’t opposition.
The sun rises slowly like an old man,
Fish rise in shadows
but elude me like virtues.
The sun rises slowly like an old man.
Fish rise in shadows.
They elude me like viruses.
= = = = = = = =
All these trails we can follow,
the tails of comets that disappear at sunrise
but stay on the dark tablet on the eyes for a month.
All these trails we can follow,
the tails of comets that disappear at sunrise
stay on the dark tablet of the eyes for months.
The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.
All these trails we can follow,
the tails of comets that disappear at sunrise
stay for months on the dark tablet of the eyes.
Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence.
Our cows have eaten grass turned brown so long
and wind just barely lifts and stirs the leaves
Our cows have eaten grass turned brown so long
the cows turned brown. Wind barely stirs the leaves.
This leads to more complicated problems, so lets shift into a higher gear. More happened in the revision than I expected. By obeying one silly “rule,” I found myself forced to cut the fat from the statement that followed. That is the advantage of making up rules. If they are working, they should lead you to better writing. If they don’t, you’ve made up the wrong rules. Almost all young poets are using more syllables than necessary, more words than needed. In the above example, by using four additional words to avoid the phony sound of “so,” a word used for emphasis that begs our reaction in some way that I find annoyingly undignified, I found four unnecessary words in the next line – “and,” “just,” “lifts,” “and” – and took them out to make the statement fit this line. Here, I’ll rewrite a first stanza to make it adhere logically, then offer the stanza as written by the student, then suggest other versions.
In St. Ignatius the swallows hit
the dead end of the sky
then turn on themselves. They fly over Indians
who thanked the Church long ago
and changed into trees, and over the boys
who are tired of fishing and throw a dog off the bridge.
Here, the swallows remain to account for the Indians and the boys, as if Indians and boys had no right in the poem without some relationship with the swallows. Here, the stanza as submitted:
Is St. Ignatius the swallows hit
the dead end of the sky
then turn on themselves. Indians
thanked the church long ago
and changed into trees. Boys are tired
of fishing and throw a dog off the bridge.
Much better. Once something is established it is left, not used to make sure the next thing belongs. The reader may object that here I’m limiting the young poet’s chance of writing a good poem early, and that is true. Letting the birds hold things together is perfectly good technique. But to prepare a young writer for the long haul, I believe it is better to emphasize style (his or her way of writing) as the blinding force and to promote faith in the imagination. If it means making more problems for the moment, it may result in fewer later on. Creating artificial problems early on can help the poet through major problems later. No need to worry it will ever get too easy. Plenty of problems will remain. A few problems left. Too many “the”s. Now if we take out the first one we risk sibilance by having the s of “Ignatius” run into the s of “swallows.” Maybe a comma will do.
In St. Ignatius, swallows hit
the dead end of the sky
then turn on themselves.
In the next two lines the words “long ago” seem somewhat flat because they follow what is dramatically important. Let’s try:
Indians thanked the church
and changed into trees.
The next two lines seem too leisurely for the pace of the poem to me. A possibility:
Tired of fishing
boys throw a dog off the bridge.
Putting it together:
In St. Ignatius, swallows hit
the dead end of sky
then turn on themselves. Long ago
Indians thanked the church
and changed into trees. Tired of fishing
boys throw a dog off the bridge.
But three lines in a row we’ve withheld the subject a moment. Too much stylistic monotony? Let’s pop the subject home first at least once:
the dead end of sky in St. Ignatius
then turn on themselves. Long ago
Indians thanked the church
and changed into trees. Tired of fishing
boys threw a dog off the bridge.
Note that the monotony of self-introspective life in St. Ignatius is implied by the approximately equal length of the sentences (work count fourteen, ten, ten, syllabic count eighteen, fourteen, twelve) and the relatively flat tone. Connections are not stated, yet we know the three statements are connected. They are connected because the same poet wrote all three. That is, they are the products of one vision that, along with style, becomes the adhesive force. This adhesive force will be your way of writing. Assume the next thing belongs because you put it in there. The real reason may be cleared later.
Whatever the merits of the stanza (the inevitability of the progression remains in doubt, a risk normal to the flat tone), at least it moves from one thing to another without excuses and for no reasons external to the poem, such as narrative logic, of description. When writing assume the right of all things to be resides in the things themselves.
But that can get you in trouble too.
Check Your Barometer
Feeling alone, they reach for the stars,
Making sure they have ten sides.
Higher, puffs of cotton hang motionless,
Mist fills the air an drops of water
Too heavy to stay aloft make targets on a mirror.
Men from the tower will never believe.
They are protected.
Dead, gray with what might be age, the tree
Becomes encased in flame
Trails of perspiration race down the furs
It will be gone soon
That will give the snow a chance to melt.
Flat-toned as the St. Ignatius stanza is, we had a sense of someone behind it. In this poem, the world seems separated from the poet’s capacity to respond to it. What is missing is a stance. Since I believe any stance, no matter how melodramatic, is preferable to none, I’ll rewrite the poem and take liberties to stimulate some inner landscape that, if not now missing altogether, is at least negligible.
They hate me, the men who reach for the stars
and save export for those with ten sides.
Outside my window, puffs of phony cotton
on the cottonwood hang high as stars
and I can’t reach them. Mist dots my mirror
mornings, and my face stays vague.
Men in the tower, between the big dipper and dew,
with disdain look down where I wave.
Grey with age, with fatigue, some day the cottonwood’s
bound to explode in flame, the sweat
that runs the bark will be my sweat,
some old shame perspiring again, the hurt.
The cottonwood will drift down warm to my hand.
The snow will run.
Not much better, but certainly, in all its corn, more human. Perhaps, in some ways the first poem seems just as good, but did anyone write it? At least a fool wrote the second version.
Formal verse can help the young poet locate things to say but can also obligate him to say things he wouldn’t say except to fill out the form. Here is a far better than average try by a young man just starting.
From Eola, in the Summer
My brother left today before the storm.
His Buick raised the dust along the road,
then he was gone. He left behind the farm,
and, in the place we once had talked, there showed
the weathered white planks our barn turned old.
The roads are paved for miles beyond our town,
where the women sit in the afternoons alone.
And somewhere east Chicago grates across the ground.
Our cows have eaten grass turned brown so long
and wind just barely lifts and stirs the leaves.
We’ve lost our dogs. Our summertimes are wrong,
our town grown old with hear. And no one gives.
At home, in stores, our men complain of sleeves –
But then, we like our town and all its ways.
We never went so wrong they had to build a bar.
The afternoon he went away we sat
outside the house to eat and talk out loud.
We said that Illinois was always flat,
so goddamned flat it wanted to be plowed.
We hate the mountains. We would rather crowd
or sprawl across the plains. Our farms are dead.
But while we talked the clouds rolled in like lead.
so hat and dark we finally moved inside to talk.
That something hard about the storms out here –
we watched it move among the farms to ours
and felt it shake the tree. We heard it near
the gate, then rain began to pelt the cars
and slosh the yard and spatter down the flowers.
For once, at least, the streets could look that bare
without excuse – but who would ever care?
We have our houses still, my friend, and they are white.
So nothing came, and nothing went, it seems.
We all had talked about the chance of hail.
tornados, floods. But now we know they’re dreams,
and all that ever really comes is mail.
And sitting on the porch, it’s just as well.
But sometimes thoughts about those raging storms
that crack the peaks creep up and touch our arms.
We hate our lives. We hate our farms.
Obviously there’s much padding, but there’s also more honesty than usual for an early poem. Two problems strike me as important. The form is often forcing the poet to make the line unit a unit of grammar as well al of sound. This could easily be remedied. For example:
The afternoon he went away we sat
outside the house to eat and talk. We believed out loud
that Illinois (etc.)
The poet said “talk out loud” because he wanted to make the rhyme, and the easiest way to make it is to make the unit of sound also the unit of sense. Consequently he is over-end-stopping, padding, and being redundant. The form is forcing him to excesses of words.
The other problem is a failure to realize that rhymes are often effective if they come at unexpected moments. Let’s go to work on the last stanza.
Nothing came. And nothing went. It seems
we talked and talked about the chance of hail,
tornados, flood. Now we know they’re dreams.
All that ever comes is mail.
It’s just as well.
Sitting on the porch we dream those storms
that crack the peaks an tingle in our veins.
We hate our lives. We hate our farms.
That isn’t right either. But we are getting there. A sudden shortening of the line from the established pattern can make a rhyme more interesting. (I don’t know why he numbered the stanzas. I forgot to ask him.) Of course, there’s much more work to be done.
A few possibilities. Since he’s paddling, the form may be too big. He might try a seven-line stanza, rather than an eight. Given that English is deficient in good full rhymes, he might consider using slant rhymes to give himself more chances. Too many of his rhyme words are words that can be used only as one part of speech. Others could be used more than one way. “Farm” and “storm” can also be verbs, for example, but by limiting them to nouns he increases the possibility he will write end-stops. For all the faults of the poem, the effort is commendable. The impulse to write seems strong and immediate, and he should much working in this way.
Let’s take one more complete poem because it demonstrates several important problems.
Old, one of the first to know; he senses
but does not care.
There are no fathers and sons, only old bucks,
and young ones,
He is tough, strong, in his prime at five, or
He tests the air in impatience, his nose impassioned
from the burning smell.
Real memory is beyond him, but lying somewhere
in the unmeasured distance is instinct.
Testicles pulsing with life, becoming strong
after the long dormancy of winter, flood his
body with hormones of desire.
Restless, he urinates, paws and stamps, his
range smelling to high heaven.
She is ready, close to estrus.
She came easier than the others,
His defense still sleek and shiny
Madness, heat, fondness nearly between them.
This is a good example of a poem that does not move. It contains more information than necessary. The poet is milking every last detail out of the situation. He is depending on the drama of the event the mating of deer, to carry the poem. The suspense lies outside the poem, and by referring to that suspense, the situation itself, the poet hopes to build suspense in the poem with rhetorical devices: “testicles pulsing with life,” “Restless, he urinates, paws and stamps,” “She is ready, close to estrus.” The Swan is fooling around and Leda is ready.
The first seven lines are description, characterization, and scene-setting. When the poem says “Ready?” it is really asking if we are ready for the poem to begin. The poem is starting way too early.
The poem cannot be written because the poet reduced the possibilities by sticking with one established subject. He wanted one subject to carry the poem and felt that everything must refer to what prompted the poem. Here are some things the poet could have done to avoid trying to wring every last drop of drama out of a single event. He could have located the event. Where did it happen? Was there a river nearby? If not, does the poem need one? If so, put it there. A wheatfield? A mountain? What if the deer mated in an abandoned mining town? That would give the poem many more things to work with. For example, the following words would be available: sluice, flume, gold, silver, ore, slag, lead, graves, miners, church, photos, gun, rifle, grub, shaft. Certainly with words like those available the poet need not have been forced by the limitations he put on himself to use “impassioned,” “unmeasured distance,” “instinct,” “life,” “dormancy,” “hormones of desire.” If he had located the poem, he might have found a vocabulary that could make the poem dramatic in itself. What if the deer mated on the streets of Butte? How do deer mate in Burma? The poet might have expanded the possibilities, even if he had to fictionalize the situation to do it. He could have introduced elements that are alien to the subject yet could be part of the scene: submarine, pyromaniac, tyrant, crocodile, gangster, saint, begonia – but, you may be saying, how could they be part of the poem? That may be the wrong question. Asked seriously and often it could lead you back to those frustrated hormones of desire.
Statements of Faith
Behind several theories of what happens to a poet during the writing of a poem – Eliot’s escape from personality, Keat’s idea of informing and filling another body, Yeats’s notion of the mask, Auden’s concept of the poet becoming someone else for the duration of the poem, Valery’s idea of a self superior to the self – lies the implied assumption that the self as given is inadequate and will not do.
How you feel about yourself is probably the most important feeling you have. It colors all other feelings, and if you are a poet, it colors your writing. It may account for your writing.
Mr. Auden believed that the fear of failure is the nemesis of American writers. We are so competitive, he says, that we want to destroy all other writers, want to write the one book that is so great it will eliminate the competition forever. Since the imagination cannot cope with such a task, the result is creative impotency. That, he says, is why so many American writers write one book of considerable promise and then nothing else.
Auden may have found this idea reinforced by his relations with Roethke. If you were beating Roethke in a game of 21 in basketball, he would complain throughout the game that he had thrown his right shoulder out years before and it had never come back. You didn’t have to be Jerry West to beat Roethke at 21, but his implication was clear. Were his shoulder all right, you or Jerry West wouldn’t stand a chance. He’d wipe you out Buster.
Despite Roethke’s unconvincing and often endearing machismo, as a poet he found that failure haunted him far less than success. The possibility that the poem might fail some inner ideal may have been haunting, but acclaim from the outside demanded terrifying adjustments.
Many American poets seem to feel personally worthless unless they write. One can easily imagine that, given the conditions of the mind, the feelings of worthlessness may become indistinguishable from the impulse to write.
When people tell a young poet he is good, they may be doing him some disservice. They are telling him he is not worthless and so unwittingly they are undercutting what to him seems his need to write. I’m not suggesting that we run about telling young poets how awful they are to ensure they keep on writing. They will tell themselves often enough without our help.
I’ve known of cases where the poet’s behavior was adversely affected by “success,” that is, acclaim.
Yes, I really am great and everything I put down is great and so I don’t have to work hard anymore.
Yes, I am great and so have license for whatever I do to others. no, I am not great. I am unworthy of this praise and once others see how outrageous I really am they’ll disdain me and I can get back to writing. I am great and will be a part of literature. Therefore, I must constantly grow through style changes to ensure my worth as an artist of stature.
It would be ideal if some instrument could be developed that could measure a writer’s capacity for success and then just enough acclaim, money, and praise could be doled out to keep the writer going.
Two classic American short stories: Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” and Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” In Hemingway’s story, the protagonist, Krebs, by birth and circumstance is an insider. As a result of his experiences in a war and his own sensitivity, he feels alienated and outside. In Faulkner’s story, the protagonist, Snopes, a little boy, by birth and circumstance is an outsider who wants desperately to be in.
He wants to be a part of what, from his disadvantageous position, seems a desirable life. His father is criminally insane and in his own mind can justify anything he does. Snopes is torn between loyalty to his father and the urge to protect “decent” people from his father’s viciousness. In the end, he informs on his father and as a result his father is killed while committing a crime.
Not from birth and circumstance, but by virtue of how they feel about themselves and their relation with the world, as revealed in their poems, many American poets see themselves as (or really are) Krebs of Snopes.
Krebs: William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Richard Wilbur, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg.
Snopes: T. S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Louise Bogan, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, A. R. Ammons.
Of the two, the Snopes poets would probably have a harder time handling success, since the Krebs poets could be successful without feeling they violated their heritage. The Snopes poets would feel that their heritage gas some deep emotional claim to their loyalties. The Krebs poets could write their best poems without fingering their fathers. The Krebs poets would feel that if something is wrong with their relations with the world, the fault is not entirely theirs.
Both would find success hard to adjust to. For a Krebs poet success means accepting values he knows are phony. For a Snopes poet, success could mean he has cast aside all people (including himself) he believes are doomed to failure and whom he continues to love. In both cases the result could be self-hatred and creative impotency.
Certain feelings can lead to certain stances in the poem. If the feelings are strong enough the stances may be over-stances, or poses. This might result from extreme feelings of shame and degradation (Roethke) or intense self-hatred (Dylan Thomas). Such poets I find especially rewarding because they looking silly in the posturing. That may be why they appeal to the rest of us.
The mind, no matter how antisocial it seems, attaches outrageous importance to things others consider unimportant or dull. Poets of overstance admit this. When I read Eliot’s definition of the objective correlative, I sometimes have the urge to add at the end the words “in polite society.”
To feel that you are a wrong thing in a right world should lead a poet to be highly self-critical in the act of writing. Just as you must assume everything you put down belongs because you put it there (just to get it down at all) you must also assume that because you put it there it is wrong and must be examined. Not a healthy process, I suppose! But isn’t it better to use your inability to accept yourself to creative advantage? Feelings of worthlessness can give birth to the toughest and most welcome critic within.
Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem. They resist the role of a wrong thing in a right world and proclaim themselves the right thing in a wrong world (not the same thing as Krebs if that’s what you’re thinking – Krebs doesn’t care much for the world of himself). In a sense they are not honest and lack the impulse (or fight it) to revise and perfect.
I feel so strongly about these matters that I am superstitious. I don’t know how many young people I’ve heard (usually men) proclaim themselves great artists and then fade into the woodwork. I believe that the moment you declare yourself great you put a curse on yourself. You can get away with it in baseball (Johnny Bench) or boxing (Muhammed Ali) if you have the physical gifts to back it up. But the poet who says, “I am the greatest” has damned himself forever.
Jealousy is impossible for a poet because he has written every poem he loves. Among the beautiful poems I’ve written are “Leda and the Swan,” “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” The Farm on the Great Plains,” “A Guide to Dungeness Spit,” and perhaps a hundred more.
When I meet a poet who is jealous of the poems of others (reputation is another matter), I’m sure that the poet has not yet written as good as he knows he can. When you have done your best, it doesn’t matter how good it is. That is for others to say.
If your life must be validated in all its anger and hostility to a world you don’t want (Krebs), or in all its regret and loneliness in a world that doesn’t want you (Snopes), the validation waits inside you to find itself in words on the most ordinary sheet of paper.
There are as many ways of feeling about oneself as there are people. What I am talking about is not limited to poets. In others it is often far more sad and far more seriously damaging.
However a poet feels about himself, he feels it in such a way that at moments he can play with the feeling.
I once believed Mallarme’s statement that within him was that which would count the buttons on the hangman’s vest was a claim to cold-blooded objectivity. Now I believe it was acceptance of a world where the trivial and definite can vie for attention with the emotionally overwhelming.
Is Mallarme’s notion so much different from the man who, after surviving a terrible auto crash and with his wife lying bloody in the car, steps out and begins to pick up small bits of glass? Are words his bits of glass? Buttons on a hangman’s vest? On a lover’s clothes?
Should you reject yourself because you count buttons and pick up glass when all civilization tells you: please, this is hardly the time?
An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.
One reason many poets drink so much may be that they dread the possibility of a self they can no longer reject. Alcohol keeps alive a self deserving of rejection. If the self as given threatens to become acceptable, as it often does after years of writing, it must be resisted, or the possibility that the poet will not write again becomes a monstrous threat.
When Faulkner, replying to the question, “Why do you drink so much?” answered, “For the pain,” he may not have meant to cure the pain. He may have meant to keep it alive.
Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure.
A long time back, maybe twenty-five years ago, a reviewer (Hudson Review, I think) ridiculed William Carlos Williams for saying one reason a poet wrote was to become a better person. I was fresh out of graduate school, maybe still there, filled with the New Criticism, and I easily sided with the reviewer. But now I see Williams was right. I don’t think Williams was advocating writing as therapy, nor the naïve idea that after writing a poem one is any less depraved. I believe Williams discovered that a lifetime of writing was a slow, accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid. What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: my life is all I’ve got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if as our method of learning it is painfully convoluted.
When you write you are momentarily telling the world and yourself that neither of you need any reason to be but the one you had all along.
I believe the reason Roethke sought out the wealthy for companionship during his last years was that he had come close to accepting a self he had once spitefully rejected. But he couldn’t believe it and wanted proof that the self he was starting to accept was truly of worth. In his mind, only the right and “well chosen” could verify this.
I believe the political conservatism of many poets in this culture is a personal conservatism mistakenly appropriated to politics, where it least belongs. If you are a wrong thing in a right world, then you should change and the world should remain the same. More important is the imagination’s impulse to create unknowns out of knowns (my thanks to Madeline DeFrees for this idea). If the knowns keep changing, the process of creating the unknowns is constantly threatened because the base of operations is unstable.
It is natural though not necessarily healthy for poets to prefer a world left alone to remain just as it is forever.
A Snopes poet obviously finds conservatism natural. If Snopes grew up to be a political radical (an understandable development and perhaps a laudatory one), it’s doubtful he would be a poet. Though it is possible he would call himself one.
One problem for modern poets is the wholesale changes in what we see – the tearing down of buildings, the development of new housing, the accelerated rate of loss of all tings that can serve as visual checkpoints and sources of stability. There is more than just temporal correlation between the destruction of the Louis Sullivan buildings in Chicago and the Tate murders in Los Angeles.
With the accumulated losses of knowns, the imagination is faced with the problem of preserving the world through internalization, then keeping that world rigidly fixed long enough to create the unknowns in the poem. (Rilke spoke of this.) Today, memory must become thought’s ally. Though the process becomes more complicated and challenging, I believe the accelerated loss of knowns accounts for the increasing number of people writing poems.
The self as given is inadequate and will not do. I remember when I was distrustful of both Eliot and Roethke when late in their careers they announced they were happy. But they were being honest. Every poem a poet writes is a slight advance of self and a slight modification of the mask, the one you want to be. Poem after poem the self grows more worthy of the mask, the mask comes closer to fitting the face. After enough poems, you are nearly the one you want to be, and the one you want closely resembles you. The happiness Eliot and Roethke spoke of is one that cannot be observed by others because it is only a different way one has come to feel about oneself. “Nearly” and “closely,” not “exactly” and “perfectly.” Hope hard to fall always short of success.
I’ll tell you some stories. I won’t press the point, but I hope these stories demonstrate some of the problems involved in writing. Problems of how memory and the imagination modify and transform experience, problems of stances you might have to take or drop to order language into a poem. Some of that heavy stuff.
In World War II I was a bombardier based in Italy. I was on the American side, but let me assure you the history books are right. We won. If you had seen me bomb, you might have doubts.
I was the world’s worst. One day I missed not only the target in the Brenner Pass, but the entire Brenner Pass itself, thirteen miles wide at that point. My fear made hard concentration difficult and I didn’t trust the equipment. I would glance over the bombsight as we approached the target, having made the sitting and adjustments, and think: That doesn’t look right. The sight must be crazy.
In 1963 I went back. It was not so easy. I was almost forty. My wife and I quit good jobs in Seattle and went to Italy to live for a year on savings. Once our savings were gone we would be broke and jobless. That worried me. I’d never had much confidence in my ability to find a job. If it hadn’t been for my wife’s courageous resolve, I could not have made the break. I tried for a grant – a Guggenheim, I think – but no luck.
Some friends urged us to go. Some people I worked with at the aircraft factory found it hard to understand what I was doing. One colleague asked me seriously why I was going to a land with all that violence. What violence? Imagine living in the United States and thinking Italy violent.
I really didn’t know why I was going. When people asked, the only answer I could find was: I just want to see it again. Italy was filled with sparkling fountains, shiny little cars that honked and darted through well-kept streets, energetic young men and beautiful, well-dressed women, huge neon signs that said CIT and COMPARI and CINZANO in bright blue or red or green.
The 1944 Italy I remembered brown and gray and lifeless. Every city, every small town reeked. No young men in the towns and no cattle in the fields. The war had taken the men and the Germans had taken the cattle. That was the Italy I expected to find when I came back. I hate to admit it, but that was the Italy I wanted to find. I fell in love with a sad land, and I wanted it sad one more time.
I must confess to a perverse side of self. I will give and give to beggars, but there is in me something that feeds of the now of things. Of course I want it all better, want poverty gone forever from the world. But I also have the urge to say, “Stay destitute three more days, just until I finish my poem.” I’m ashamed of that in me.
There were good reasons for loving the sad early Italy, the best being that Italy was Earth. The sky became more and more frightening as I neared my thirty-fifth bombing mission. If I made thirty-five I would go home. In the air I could disappear forever in one flash, fall to my death when my chute failed to open, or fall in my open chute to a German mob that would beat me to death as they had others. In the sky there seemed as many quick ways to die as there were thermals and flak bursts jolting the plane.
I could age on earth, die slowly enough to make some final, corny speech – I’m a going partner – the way they did in the old movies. On earth, you can say good-bye.
My first memory of Italy is a stone wall, about three feet high, grape vines, and a soft evening sky, a blue I’d not seen before. The wall and vines were close to the tent where our bomber crew spent one night on the outskirts of a town called Goia. I never saw Goia again. The next day we flew to the base where we would live for the next eight months. It took us eight months to fly thirty-five missions because the winter turned bad in 1944, and we lost a month of good flying weather in the fall when our squadron was assigned to fly gasoline to a British Spitfire base in Lyon.
The closest town of any size was Cerignola, eleven miles away. I still can’t say it very well. I find it hard to make the “gn’ sound in Italian. This was the province Puglia (Apulia), on the Adriatic side, perhaps forty miles inland below the spur.
I found out later that Cerignola had a bad reputation in Italy. Some Italians considered it an unfriendly if not dangerous town. American G.I.s were to be off the streets by five in the afternoon. There were rumors of stabbings and robberies. I doubt they were true. If anything, we were the hostile ones, bitter at finding ourselves stuck in that lonely, austere land, caught up in a war we hasd noting to do with starting. Since we never saw the enemy as we passed five miles above him on the bomb run, we imagined the Italians were enemies. Of course, until late in 1943 they had been, tough often not very willing ones. If you are frightened and resentful, it’s easier if you have a defined enemy. On bad days, the Italians were our enemies.
The closest large city was Foggia, about thirty miles west. To get there, you had to go through Cerignola. I used to hitchhike to Foggia and sit in the Red Cross alone, drinking coffee, eating cookies, and listening to records. I played two over and over on the little player, Benny Goodman’s “Don’t Be That Way,” and Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India.” I often hiked those thirty miles just to hear Lawrence Brown’s trombone passage on the Goodman, or Bunny Berrigan’s trumpet solo on the Dorsey. After hearing the records many times, I would hitchhike back to the base across the drab, flat countryside.
The British had bases in the area, and I was fascinated by the British. One day in Foggia, I found a little hotel bar. The only other people there were the bartender and three English soldiers. “I say,” one of them said in an accent I found delicious, “will you ever forget your feelings when it was announced that Hitler had attacked Russia?” “Oh, I say. Wasn’t that the grossest miscalculation,” another answered. “Yes,” the third said, “if it hadn’t been for that, we would have been for it.” I’ve never forgotten that exchange. They seemed worldly to their view wide and deep.
Hitchhiking back from Foggia one day, I was given a ride in a British command car. I saw the colonel in the back seat lean forward and tell the driver to stop. The colonel was so poised, polite, and charming that I asked him if he was a member of the aristocracy, and he said he was. He was an earl. He asked me many questions about our missions, and I told him everything he wanted to know. I didn’t care that it was classified information. Enough close flak bursts had convinced me the Germans know our altitude.
Besides, I am loose-tongued by nature. Had I been captured, long before the Gestapo brought those blowtorches and pliers to my cell, I would have been known as Blabbermouth Hugo.
The colonel reminded me very much of the actor Herbert Marshall. I envies his composure, his gentility, and easy good manners. Although in no way did he register amazement of disapproval. I imagined he found it strange that a nervous, over-talkative, boorish boy could be an American officer. I had the impression he found me interesting but decided that was simply his aristocratic training – always let the serfs know you have a keen interest in their lives. i hoped that some day I’d perfect my own composure and detachment. I wanted very much to be like the earl, or Herbert Marshall.
Bob Mills, a pleasant, civilized young man, had attended Stanford University for a year or two. A bombardier, he had grown a long, handsome black moustache, and his warm, fluid personality got him elected president of the squadron officers’ club. He was given $500 in lire and the task of buying more liquor for the club. He was also assigned a jeep, and he asked me to go along with him to Barletta on the Adriatic coast where the liquor was produced and sold.
Among other dangers our imaginations had created was the danger of bandits. and we took our .45 automatics. I had my gun (piece, if you’re still G.I.) stuffed in my right trenchcoat pocket, and I felt a bit like Humphrey Bogart sitting there in the jeep as the olive trees and grass and magpies passed by. Mills drove, the wad of lire tucked away on him somewhere. It was a good way to break the boredom, bouncing through the Italian countryside.
Though, like most G.I.s, I couldn’t hit a cow with a .45 if I was holding her teat, the bulge and weight of the gun in my pocket gave me a sense of security. It is one thing to kneel, helpless, in the nose of a bomber jolted by bursts of flak fired five miles away by men whose names you will never know and whose faces you will never see. You trust to luck. You are not about to master your fate.
But this was the earth and the gun was real. The bandits who came pouring out of those hills would be real and I would shoot them. I and Bob Mills and Humphrey Bogart in our trenchcoats. We would blast them with our .45s and they couldn’t help but see our faces set in resolve, our glittering eyes.
We rolled into Barletta in about two hours, maybe less. The children picked us up and ran after us, filling day with sisters for sale and pleas for cigarettes and candy. There must have been thirty already by time we stopped at the distillery (perhaps not the right word), and more were running toward us. And great good soldier that I was, when I stepped out of the jeep my gun fell from my pocket and crashed to the stone street. I bent down to pick it up, and when I stood up the street was empty. Not a sound. Not a child anywhere. I stood in the eerie emptiness of that silent street and did not then comprehend what fear the war had put in those children. I wondered why they weren’t fascinated by the gun as, I was sure, American children would have been.
You’ll notice that the men I wanted to be are strong men, men in control. Humphrey Bogart. Herbert Marshall. each in his own way tough. My urge to be someone adequate didn’t change after the war.
When I gave up fiction as a bad job and settled back into poems for good, I seemed to use the poems to create some adequate self. A sissy in life, I would be tough in the poem. An example:
The sun is caked on vertical tan stone
where eagles blink and sweat above
the night’s begun already in the town.
The river’s startling forks, the gong
that drives the evening through the pass
remind the saint who rings the local chime
he will be olive sometime like a slave.
Screams implied by eyes of winded eagles
and wind are searing future in the stone.
The cliff peels off in years of preaching water
and the cliff remains. The saint is red
to know how many teeth are in the foam,
the latent fame of either river bed
where trout are betting that the saint is brown.
Flakes of eagle eggshells bomb the chapel
and the village ears of sanctuary dumb.
In a steaming room, behind a stack
of sandbagged books the saint retreats
where idols catch a fever from his frown.
The saint is counting clicks of eagle love.
The river jumps to nail a meaty wren.
And April girls enlarge through layers
of snow water, twitching fish and weeds
and memories of afternoon with gills.
If a real saint says that he could never
see a fiend, tell that saint to be here,
throat in hand, any Friday noon –
delirious eagles breed to tease the river.
I don’t even understand that one anymore. Once I did, though, or I wouldn’t have published it. (I have a smattering of integrity, thank you). Note how definite the voice is. How strong the command to the self tries to be. How the poem urges the man in it to accept reality in all its cruelty and diffuseness. And I even took a private pride in the difficulty of the poem. I wasn’t afraid of anything. No, sir. You don’t understand my poems? Screw off, Jack. But in real life, be my friend. Like me. Like me.
I went to Cerignola far more often than to Foggia. It was smaller but closer. All restaurants were off-limits in Italy during the war, and there were few places to go in Cerignola. The Red Cross, of course, but they didn’t have swing records. When I went to Cerignola, I usually got drunk in a little makeshift bar. The girl who waited tables was short, stocky, and stacked. The love-starved G.I.s watched her as she brought the spumante to the tables. they taught her to whip her hand along her hip as if she were a cowboy making a fast draw. Every time she did it, pointed her finger at us and depressed her thumb hammer, the soldiers howled.
The bar had a band, trumpet, accordion, and drums. The trumpeter’s best number was “Stardust,” and he plated it often while the G.I.s rolled their eyes and exclaimed. I sat alone and drank spumante, listened to the music, watched the girl’s ripe behind bulge her dress, and wondered what the raucous enlisted men would think if they knew how self-conscious I was. Not because I was the only officer there, but because I was too timid to approach a woman and feared a lifetime of sexual deprivation. I laughed when I knew it was expected and made a point now and then of the attraction I felt for the girl. I could not have had her even if she had consented, but I wanted her and I could let the world know that.
My first time in the Cerignola area had been from August 1944 through March 1945. It was late April when I saw it again, April 1964. The countryside was green with grain and the weather pleasantly warm. Cerignola seemed bigger. A nice looking hotel operated next to the building that had been the local Red Cross. A door or two from the hotel was where the bar had been, with the finger-packing mamma mia waitress. I wasn’t sure now which door it had was. Shops open for business. People of all ages were in the streets. No children begged us for cigarettes or candy or offered their sisters for sale. The streets seemed unusually wide, and I noticed iron grillwork on balconies of recent apartment buildings.
Foreigners seldom visit Cerignola and we were curiosities. I got into a discussion with some young men and suddenly realized we were circled by at least a hundred onlookers. “Who,” I shouted involuntarily in English, “are all these people?” and they moved off slowly as if they understood from the volume of my voice that I didn’t want my every work a public matter. A comic-looking old man stared at my wife, his lower lip quivering as if he were about to break into tears of resentment. In a tobacco shop, a man went into rapture when he found I could speak Italian, wretched as my Italian is, all 300 words of it.
Everywhere we walked, people trailed us. The owner of a delicatessen said he remembered me. I was the soldier who got into a fight with another soldier over a dog. No, I wasn’t.
I wanted to find two places. One was the squadron area where we had lived for eight months, and the group headquarters nearby. The other was a field somewhere south of a town called Spinazzola. What kind of a field? Just a field, with tall grass, slanted uphill from the road. An empty field.
To go anywhere on our own in Italy during the war, we hitchhiked. What a discouraging time, standing beside a dirt road as truck after truck went by, empty, the drivers staring past us down the road. Some drivers laughed as they passed. They were bitter, resentful at finding themselves in the drab land with little to bread the boredom but some awful Italian booze. They expressed their frustration by refusing us rides. Some even slowed down, and we would run to the truck only to have it pull away from us. That was the driver’s idea of fun. And we turned bitter at them and made obscene gestures when we were sure they weren’t going to give us a ride. We stood with our thumbs out and the trucks went by for hours. After a while, even the road seemed bitter. We swore at the drivers under skies I remember the color of winter. I’ve never been able to tolerate those British war novels that see war as an adhesive force binding us all together in our common cause.
Once I hitchhiked a long way to see a friend. We had been in training together for over a year in the States. I was well along with my missions and feeling the strain. Each night seemed tougher as my imagination worked overtime on the danger during the long periods of bad weather when we were grounded. I don’t know how many rides it took to get to my friend’s base, but when I finally arrived we chatted about old friends in training, who had been killed, who got to stay in the States. I’d made arrangements to be away from the base for a night and stayed over. The next morning I started home. I picked up a ride early in an ammo truck. It was hooded, something like a covered wagon. I yelled “Cerignola” at the driver, he yelled what I heard as “Cerignola” back, and I piled in. The opening in the back was small, and I only glimpsed the landscape as we bounced along the miles. When I got out, I was in a town I’d never seen, miles off-course. Some American flyers were walking about, and I saw one I’d known slightly in training. He told me I was in Spinazzola. Where was Cerignola? He didn’t know. Lord, I was lost in the Italian countryside. What if I didn’t get back? Would I be court-martialed? I bought a carton of cigarettes in a small PX and started out of town.
Spinazzola is a hill town, and I walked out of it down a long dirt road lined with shade trees. The road ran out before me through hills of grass, and I walked a long time. What if I was scheduled to fly tomorrow and wasn’t there? I thumbed the army vehicles that came by and none stopped. I considered lying down in the road to stop someone, but that was no thought to have in those days. Someone might just run over me and keep going. “You should have seen me flatten that flyboy lootenant.”
After I’d walked for well over an hour, I sat down to rest by a field of grass. I was tired, dreamy, the way we get without enough sleep, and I watched the wind move in waves of light across the grass. The field slanted and the wind moved uphill across it, wave after wave. The music and motion hypnotized me. The longer the grasses moved, the more passive I became. Had I walked this road when I was a child? Something seemed familiar. I didn’t care about getting back to the base now. I didn’t care about the war. I was not part of it anymore. Trucks went by and I didn’t even turn to watch them, let alone thumb a ride. Let them go. I would sit here forever and watch the grass bend in the wind and the war would end without me an I would not go home, ever. Years later in psychoanalysis I would recount this, and the doctor would explain it as a moment of surrender, when my system could no longer take the fear and the pressure and I gave up. If that’s how to lose a war, we were wrong to have ever won one. Years after the war, I would try to do that day justice in a poem and would fail miserably. I wouldn’t even spell “Spinazzola” right, and my editor wouldn’t catch it.
Centuries Near Spinnazola
This is where the day went slack.
It could have been digestion or the line
of elms, the wind relaxed and flowing
and the sea gone out of sight.
This is where the day and I surrendered
as if the air
were suddenly my paramour.
It is far from any home. A white
farm tiny from a dead ten miles
of prairie, gleamed. I stood on grass
and saw the bombers cluster
and drone the feeble purpose of a giant.
Men rehearsed terror at Sardis
and Xerxes beat the sea.
And prior to the first domestic dog,
a king of marble, copper gods,
I must have stood like that and heard
the cars roar down the road,
the ammo wagons and the truck,
must have turned my back on them
to see the smoke of grass on grass
on grass across the miles of roll,
the travel of my fever now, my urge
to hurt or love released and flowing.
A public yes to war. A Greek will die
and clog the pass to wreck out strategy.
There will be a time for towns to burn
and one more sea to flog into a pond.
I got a ride shortly after I left the field of waving grass and in a short time was on foot on the outskirts of Canosa. I knew where I was now. Canosa was off-limits, so I couldn’t pass through. I had to skirt the town, across barren farm land, and halfway across the field no one had planted for years, I met a woman, perhaps thirty, and her daughter, maybe eight. The woman was dark and beautiful, her face strong, handsome, and brown, her eyes and hair the same heavy black. She wanted me to sell her a pack of cigarettes from the carton I’d bought in Spinazzola and I refused. I still don’t know why I didn’t give her the carton. What the hell, I could get more. That day haunted me, came back unexpected when I sat in a class, or later when I was at work in the aircraft company, or when I fished or drank in a tavern, came back unwelcome to remind me how harmonious and peaceful we can feel, came back unwelcome to remind me how we learn little from our positive experiences, how we slip back too easily into this ungenerous world of denial and possession. I’ve made far worse mistakes than refusing that woman cigarettes, but no mistake came back so often. After being bitten by a dog or stoned by Italian boys my lack of generosity could have been understandable. But after the field of grass? . . .
Do you understand? I’m not sure I do. I had to find the field again. I had to find Spinazzola and retrace that day. If you need a reason, say I am a silly man.
We talked money in the streets of Cerignola, and in a matter of minutes we had a car, a driver, two assistant drivers, all young men, and we were shooting off at far too fast a speed toward Canosa. I wondered if it would be there, Spinazzola, the road leading out, the field of grass. At least some of it was true: there, to our right as we neared Canosa was the field where I’d made the mistake. Was that woman still lovely? Probably not. Probably fat and lined. Italians let themselves get old as if time were a natural thing. In Canosa, an old man in a horse-drawn wagon blocked the road. Our young driver and his assistants screamed “cornut” as he mumbled bitterly at them and his balky horse.
A few miles later, Spinazzola came at us, riding high on a hilltop and glowing white and gray like a tourist come-on brochure. I always have the same feeling when I see those hill towns: I’ll go there and never leave. Yet, from this vantage I couldn’t remember it. Did I have the name wrong? Maybe there were two Spinazzolas. But in the town, I recognized it immediately.
My wife and I walked about Spinazzola. Down at the end of the town we found the old dirt road lined with windbreak trees leading downhill away into the uninhabited countryside below. And there, near where the road led out of town, was an old cantina. Inside, marvelous, old crude wood tables and benches, warm, dim, comforting light, a friendly old man who offered us fagiuoli. But we wanted only wine. Wine, and the feeling one gets in a cantina, like you want every friend you ever had to be there with you.
I hope the cantine never die in Italy, but I’m sure they are being replaced by the plastic bars with the ugly, expensive chrome coffee machines, the ridiculous pastries that look unique and all taste alike, and the awful excuses for liquor that look like various colored skin astringents sitting in bottles some decadent child designed. We sat there and drank wine, and the cantina became very much like that field of grass I still had to find.
I found it. It was a lot farther than I’d remembered and I was surprised I’d walked so far that day nearly twenty years before. It must have been five miles out of town. I saw it just for a moment as we sped by in the car and I didn’t ask the driver to stop. I didn’t even mention it to my wife at the time, and that was unusual because we were fond of sharing our intimate affections for places. Back in Cerignola, I told her I’d seen it. It was still there and long ago something, important only to me, had really happened.
Whatever it was, I didn’t accept completely the psychoanalyst’s explanation of it. It obviously had much truth to it, but it was maybe too pat. Whatever, by now I was old enough to know explanations are usually wrong. We never quite understand and we can’t quite explain.
Spinazzola: Quella Cantina La
A field of wind gave license for defeat.
I can’t explain. The grass bent. The wind
seemed full of men but without hate or fame.
I was further than that farm where the road
slants off to nowhere, and the field I’m sure
is in this wine or that man’s voice. The man
and this canteen were also here
twenty years ago and just as old.
Hate for me was dirt until I woke up
five miles over Villach in a smoke
that shook my tongue. Here, by accident,
the wrong truck, I came back to the world.
This canteen is home-old. A man can walk
the road outside without a song or a gun.
I can’t explain the wind. The field is east
toward the Adriatic from my wine.
I’d walked from cruel soil to a trout
for love but never from a bad sky
to a field of wind I can’t explain.
The drone of bombers going home
made the weather warm. My uniform
turned foreign where the olive trees
throw silver to each other down the hill.