While I hasten to confirm that I have no plans to begin writing poetry, a decision sure to relieve as many as a dozen likely readers, I confess that one possible perk in particular causes me some ambivalence in that determination to abstain from producing any. I am speaking of the prospect of becoming Poet Laureate. This incentive has nothing to do with any remuneration, university residency, or fan support associated with the post. Like Dylan Thomas, I would not labor “for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages”; in fact, I'd extend my indifference beyond the “towering dead” Thomas dismisses to include the heedless lovers he hopes to court as well. No, the really enticing benefit, to my mind anyway, is the opportunity to supervise a national project on behalf of the art.
As Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky spearheaded what has arguably been the most celebrated of these efforts, the “favorite poem” data bank. His interviews with Americans from all across the country and representing all walks of life have spawned an on-line resource, a videotape library, and at least one hardback anthology. A noble effort, to be sure, if a bit predictable: so many literary palates have been schooled to prefer the same Frosting, and it is no surprise to learn that so much of the Dickinson read into high school classrooms reads out years after graduation. Joseph Brodsky took a different tack during his reign, announcing his wish to have a poetry anthology placed in every hotel room in America, snuggled right up against the requisite Bible and the local telephone book, thereby adding a third form of “directory” to every guest's stash. Unfortunately, Brodsky had no budget to put his brainstorm into practice. When we consider the potential impact upon the transient businessman, adulterer, or suicide who could have happened upon the latest edition of the Norton, the failure to enact this program seems most unfortunate.
To be honest, even if I did win the appointment, my own pet project has even less chance of being funded than Brodsky's did. In a dramatic escalation of the concept represented by Magnetic Poetry, I would propose that sufficient turtles be acquired, bred, or otherwise rounded up-surely there are turtle wranglers who've been languishing, just waiting for this dream opportunity-and each inscribed with a different English word. They would then be released en masse as a kind of organic randomizer program to jostle, separate, and recombine without preconception all over the nation, the result being the infestation of America with found poetry. I favor turtles for this operation for a variety of reasons. Salient among these: they are already plentiful, inexpensive, and comparatively durable creatures; their shells can be etched without significant threat to the animals; and they move slowly enough to allow readers to linger over new passages-a tanka arrived upon a log, a stanza sunning itself on a river bank-as the most satisfying poetic interpretation warrants.
Through this operation, poetry's subtlest infiltrations would inflect the landscape, making America legible in unprecedented, unpredictable ways. Imagine happening upon a ballad basking in a field in Athens, Georgia. In Lima, Ohio, a line is discovered scrabbling over the natural punctuation of pebbles and twigs. Near Concord, New Hampshire, wakened syllables lift and wiggle their delicate, variable feet.
I have considered insects in the alternative because of their sheer abundance-a decent-sized college dictionary would not exhaust more than a couple of colonies-but the practical difficulties of writing and reading scotched that idea. (Indeed, imagine the fate of ants innocently yet fatally placed under the magnifying glass for the sake of clarity. Contemporary poetry is already a sufficiently frail enterprise without our alienating the ASPCA along with majority of today's students.) Birds occurred to me, too, due to the lyrical capital they've earned over centuries of attention. None would question their poetic heritage and their totemic claims to beauty, freedom, and sublimity. However, any method of imprinting them that I could come up with would to some degree inhibit their capacity for flight, which is, of course, their principal claim to lyrical ascendancy among the beasts. In “The Blue Swallows,” Howard Nemerov temporarily fancied that those birds were carving the sky into hieroglyphs, their “tails as nibs / Dipped in invisible ink, writing . . . .” I'm an admirer of his-himself a past Poet Laureate, Nemerov is my hypothetical colleague in that regard-and I'd love to do him the favor of reifying his image for him if I could. But birds will not sit still to be signed up for this project, and even if we could capture them for art's sake, they might be grounded permanently by our devices. (“Poor mind,” Nemerov chides himself anyway, “what would you have them write?”) Finally, even if they did manage to rise again, each flock forming its rough draft in the newly worded atmosphere, they'd fly too high for us to appreciate. Viewless wings of poesy, indeed! So, if it's ever to be anything under my jurisdiction, it'll be turtles doing the random bidding of inspiration, performing the gradual but irrepressible display of the language dispersing, reforming, rediscovering itself.
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I cannot say whether or not the spectacle increases car sales, but there's no denying it stalls the local traffic. I am referring to the annual raising of the Stovepipe Man during Independence Day week by the auto dealership at Tenth and Range Line. His name applies to his having been built of cylinders, not to any stiffness in him. Actually, it's his limberness that enchants us. Twin blowers attached to his columnar legs shoot him to his full height of twenty feet. Because he is too tall and ungainly to sustain that altitude, he keeps slumping toward the blacktop. Then the continuous current snaps him back to attention again like a gigantic bed sheet--he is barely more than that: a simple tubular concoction of red parachute material-whereupon he exhausts himself once more and repeats the cycle of filling and foundering. I think of trees coursing with xylem and phloem, and I wonder if trees are likewise ravaged by that dependency though to the untrained eye they seem perfectly stolid about it. The channeled gasps shoot through the whole of him, the infusion brutalizing him through every visible dimension.
Not that he appears especially tormented by this ordeal. He rather dreamily accepts and expels the ongoing jolt of air. A literal inspiration, I think, but Jean Cocteau's corrective bears remembering: “It is not inspiration; it is expiration.” Cocteau focuses on “the gaunt, fine hands on the thorax; evacuation of the chest; a great breathing out from himself,” and so emphasizes what each “Eureka!” costs him. So it is a paroxysm of insight the Stovepipe Man suffers. But for the subterranean hum of the fans, the scene is oddly soundless in spite of the agitation we are witnessing.
Emily Dickinson maintained that she recognized poetry because it took the top of her head off, and here is a blatant manifestation of that figure: the gust rushes through his torso of fitted linens and escapes out the hole at the top of his exhaust pipe of a skull. As he flails lazily before the discounted cars, streamers fringing his head shiver in the breeze, showing in spite of his equanimity what a hair-raising experience this is. Certainly it wrings everything out of him. So must Zeus, thrusting Athena out of his thoughts as if spawning a squall, have momentarily collapsed from the involuntary effort. Then the great god lifted himself erect once more to encounter his latest brainstorm and legacy, as it were, head on.
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If a poet shows humility by appealing to a muse to move through him to certify and sustain his talent, he shows arrogance by suggesting that a muse would enhance her resume by sharing the bill with him. Like an entrepreneur who impresses his banker with the size of the loan he asks for, John Milton launches into Paradise Lost by plying the Oracle of God with his own press clippings: “I thence / Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song, / That with no middle flight intend to soar / Above th' AEONIAN Mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.” Milton's petition mentions a desire to be illuminated, raised up, and supported in his endeavor, but it comes off as advertising. Thus does the daredevil preface his stunt, showing off the scope of his risk by begging the indulgence of the crowd he says he hopes he won't disappoint by crashing in the attempt. It is a talent in itself to grovel and strut simultaneously. Remember the Stovepipe Man, anchored and ascending at the same time.
After such altitude and assumption, what would it be like to lose that rapturous dimension than which there was no other? After such exponential serenity, what would it feel like to fall from grace? I am not referring to Lucifer's unfathomable plummet per se or to Adam and Eve's own version of it when with a single misstep they spoiled Paradise, sacrificing staunchly metrical, full-blown Eden for our world of “grosser sleep.” I am referring to the epic poet's deflation when the last draft was done, which might have felt like something on the order of Adam and Eve's own demise: “naked thus, of Honour void, / Of Innocence, of Faith, of Puritie, / Our wonted Ornaments now soild and staind.” But if Milton remained in God's hands, he could have come down gently to the conditions he'd spent twelve books justifying, maybe the way that one becomes supernaturally buoyant in a dream and can leap from any height. Falling like a soufflé, falling through a generously attending atmosphere, to the unaccountably forgiving concrete.
Other artists envy and forgive the illusion of sponsorship. Robert Frost trusted in a lump in the throat to betoken a growing poem. A desperate E. L. Doctorow faced the blank wall of his house in New Rochelle and found Ragtime like a palimpsest waiting for him. Tennessee Williams discovered two plays in a pair of deserted women: The Glass Menagerie inherent in one waiting by a telephone, A Streetcar Named Desire in another waiting by a window. Of all the things one might spy up the dress of a little girl in a pear tree, William Faulkner found The Sound and the Fury. So many authors reminisce about how winning alliterations or seminal lines seem to find them rather than the other way around, so that like unwitting beneficiaries they rely on investments they can't really understand and on the statements that come to them through the mail. A rural writer's reverie is ignited by the double spank of the screen door against the jam or the morning's regular cargo of light delivered directly from the Lord's atelier. An urban poet, inured to the sound of the subway train like chains dragged daily across a cell floor, suddenly hears new and necessary music in it and scopes out a space on the wall between the gang insignias and the plighted troths where he might rough out a verse. Who knows but that the next ingested morsel won't be the madeleine that initiates a novel sequence? Who can say that the nail clippings in the ashtray won't suddenly seem like a gathering of little grins suggesting positive reviews, instead of the useless jettison of yet another unproductive month?
A tune issues from the tree, and the imbued author is gratified that it's a robin, only ordinary and dependably so. Meanwhile, the blocked author and the barren author, attending from the other end of the field, are castigated by the same song and think themselves birds of the same drab feather, who are forever stuck with the sharp end.
For every draught that acknowledged a completed poem, Dylan Thomas needed two to compensate for blanker days. More acutely than his reviewers and acolytes, Thomas recognized that drinking did not guarantee the artist he was so much as it helped disguise his discouragement over the artist he might not have been. It's a no-win proposition, evaluating how much redemptive bang you've been getting out of your inspirational buck. As Lorrie Moore cautions in “How to Become a Writer,” you need to deliberately, severely limit how much time you devote to thoughts of your own legitimacy: “like sit-ups, they can make you thin.” Tell yourself that if this is not as good as it gets, it is, at any rate and undeniably, as good as it's gotten, and get back to that relentlessly insufficiently lighted place you work in.
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Volcano prediction, like any science, is not an exact science. So it was as close to epiphany as science tends to get when the eruption of Mt. St. Helen's in 1980 occurred within eight weeks of major predictions. Lightning bolts shot thousands of meters high. Douglas firs were flattened over an area of over two hundred square miles, and some of the airborne debris made it from the Washington blast zone all the way to the East Coast three days later. Some of the ash continues to circle the earth today. Some was gathered and sealed into commemorative paperweights. Set atop their desks, they offer writers critical perspective, reminding them of the ultimate fate of all paper, no matter its employment, content, or bond.
Measurements taken later that year confirmed that the main blast had removed the whole summit, reducing the mountain's overall height by more than thirteen hundred feet. What would Dickinson, who defined poetry as a random scalping, have made of that massive decapitation, one wonders. She might well have envied so prodigious a visitation. Nothing uncertain about explosives, certainly. Any impulse to analyze the derangement of the senses was probably overwhelmed by the noise. No negative capability required under such insurmountable conditions.
Back when the Tonight Show ran ninety minutes and could therefore spare the last seven or so for an artist or author, Johnny Carson would ask about how his guest went about his work. What color of ink, time of day, or mood is most conducive? Under what conditions does your muse drop in, and how does she take her coffee? Basically, how is it done, and when it's done, how do you know when it's done, and how well? Instead of fumbling for a more compelling metaphor than the cartoon lightbulb over a cartoon head, wouldn't it have been gratifying for the evening's artist to have demonstrated with a detonation on the order of Mt. St. Helen's and, surveying the devastation with the thunderstruck viewing audience, simply said “See?”
The media feast on large-scale conflagrations, so subtler, ratings-defiant moments of transformation don't get sponsored. But I recall as a boy honing my amazement before the twice-a-day conjuration of TV weatherman P. J. Hoff. He would close each forecast by drawing the next day's expected high temperature in Magic Marker-he could talk and draw simultaneously, showing the same genial aplomb as dancers in the movies who carry on intricate, plot-worthy conversations while waltzing. Then, as if the numerals were stem cells amenable to any meteorological caprice, in no more than twenty seconds he'd sketch out a caricature or scene around them. If he projected 67 degrees at 5:30, say, the 6 might serve as the snout of a pig hard at his dinner and the 7 the corner of the trough he snuffled at; if the same prediction held at 10:00, the 6 might then be employed as part of a child's antiquated nightcap and the 7 part of the pillow's border-the weatherman's gentle admonition to younger viewers that it was time for bed.
Whatever the temperature, we could count on P. J. Hoff to find a way to bend it in the direction of an impending holiday. On Valentine's Day, he could soften sharp-edged numbers into adoring hearts. Conversely, in July, although the heat inevitably forced him to work with recalcitrant 8's and scything 9's, he somehow managed to overcome their curvature and fashion a sturdy flag appropriate to Independence Day. In winter, he would return to his snowman series, which rivaled Monet's haystacks for variations on a theme. He conjured snowmen at play and in repose, ranging in morphology from bulbous to svelte and from antic to subdued in mood. He revealed them reading, driving, dining, surfing, and dreaming. Then, at year's end, he might deliver a week's worth of Santa hybrids from a seemingly unyielding string of sub-zero forecasts. Thus in a couple of hundred ways each year, P. J. Hoff winsomely assailed the seasons. No matter what was doing outside, from his little window the weather was always accommodating.
Now I won't say that our local weatherman wowed me-even as a child I knew enough about real awe not to use the word half so liberally as kids do today-but he did provide quiet delight and drew us on. In his modest yet unfailing way, he demonstrated that there was more give than you might expect to the given world. There were shapes that stayed with me, shapes that might be made almost out of next to nothing, transient like the messages outlined by Nemerov's swallows, perhaps, but in their own ambiguous way, arresting still. And if there really isn't any absolute connection between any future aesthetic of mine and whatever images came my way out of thin air, that doesn't disqualify creation at either end of the synapse. Not every revelation bursts skulls, I suppose, but might manifest simply as a minist'ring spirit to regulate the breathing. Fortunately, sometimes that is all one needs: an abiding breeze, sufficient to keep him going and his spirits up.