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Diary of a Poem
By Andrew Hudgins
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2011 University of Michigan
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Chapter OneEssays on Poetry
Diary of a Poem
La pensée est un excrément que l'on thésaurise. —Anonymous
January 18: "No poet would ever write an ode on the intestine." Lying in bed last night, trying to sleep, I suddenly remembered that sentence from a review in yesterday's New York Times of The Second Brain: The Scientific Basis of Gut Instinct. Sounds like a challenge to me. Or at least something to think about. It also proves that Michael Gershon, the book's author, doesn't know very much about the kinds of things that contemporary poetry embraces. But since I, on my side of this equation of ignorance, know almost nothing about intestines, I will have to go buy Gershom's book before I can begin to imagine what an ode to the intestines might say. Still, I can certainly go ahead and think about what approaches the poem might take.
The word "ode" tips us in the direction of celebration. The classical ode with its elaborately counterpoised strophe, antistrophe, and epode has come in contemporary practice to mean simply a poem of praise. And in this case the elevated style of the ode and the low subject of the lower gastrointestinal tract would let me explore again the deliberate clashing of form and content, something that has always interested me. Maybe I'll use the same verse form I used when I wrote a poem called "Compost: An Ode," a poem that celebrates rotting vegetation. In that poem, though, I could draw on the gardener's near spiritual reverence for compost, an option that doesn't really exist for the intestines. In the compost ode, I used an iambic pentameter line that stair-steps down the page in free-verse lines, so that the lines, scanned across the page, read as blank verse, while each individual line is free verse. To my ear the two rhythms play nicely off each other, and the leavening of the blank verse with white space gives something of the look of the classical ode. It's a good form for celebration, if for no other reason than that it doesn't present the reader with a big dark block of type that some eyes find forbidding. It looks light, celebratory.
A project like this will force me to keep busy writing as Erin and I settle into our temporary apartment here in Baltimore. In new places I sometimes spend too much time fretting about where the best grocery store is and not enough time at the desk working. And it'll be even more useful to have a project to occupy my mind when Erin goes back home to Cincinnati and leaves me here alone with my visiting gig in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.
January 19: Went to the Hopkins bookstore today searching for a copy of The Second Brain, but couldn't find it. I'll probably break down and order it from Amazon in the next day or two. As we wandered around the bookstore, I annoyed Erin by refusing to tell her what I was looking for. Talking too much about poetry dissipates the energy you need to get it on the page. If it's expressed one way, it'll never get expressed the other. Or maybe talking about an idea too soon commits you to an early conception of the poem, and limits your being able to throw that idea aside when a better one appears. For the same reason, I don't even like to think too much about poems till I start writing them. The writing is the thinking. Actually, I do write notes beforehand, letting them talk to one another, seeing what sort of rhythm rises out of the material itself. But they're minimal—as little as I can get away with. So by deciding to keep a journal about writing a poem I'm violating one of my oldest working principles. Then why do it? Because I've never done it before, and because, even though I'm afraid it will paralyze me, I'm interested in recording how a poem evolved. I want a record of all the extraneous thought and erased missteps that didn't make it into the final poem. Maybe I can look to it for comfort when I stall on another poem.
I suppose that a poem celebrating the intestines will be about absorption, the taking in of the outside—destroying it to use it, and letting the waste go. But maybe that's because I'm already thinking about issues of assimilation and identity for an autobiographical essay I'm trying to complete.
Thinking about intestines has reminded me that when I was a kid I liked tripe so much that my mother would occasionally, if I begged enough, go to the A&P, instead of the base commissary, and buy a can of tripe for dinner. I loved it. Even the weird chewiness of it. But part of the kick was that I could go to school the next day and gross out all my friends by telling them that I had eaten fried cow's stomach. I must make sure that I don't do the metaphoric equivalent of that in this poem.
Just a couple of months ago, Erin and I bought, for eight dollars, a four-pound bag of chitterlings. "Aunt Bessie's Chitterlings" the bag said in huge letters across the top. And in much smaller letters at the bottom: "Product of Denmark." Why would a grocery store in Cincinnati—Porkopolis, as it was called in the nineteenth century—import its hog guts from Europe? Things to ponder.
We boiled them for hours, and they shrank to nothing, a handful of limp tissue. We sauteed them and served them over rice with black bean sauce. They were very filling and kind of fun, but not really worth all the work we put into them—and we didn't have to clean them, just cook them.
January 20: Since Erin and I don't know our way around Baltimore, we walked all the way downtown and back—about six miles—to Louie's Bookstore and Café. It's a fancy café with a sort of vestigial bookstore at the front of it, to add, I suppose, an intellectual veneer to the eating of brioche and the drinking of coffee. But we didn't find The Second Brain. I came home and ordered it from Amazon.
In the meantime I've been thinking about poems on the same or related subjects, and the only ones I can come up with are Kumin's "Excrement," an anthology favorite, and if I'm remembering correctly, one by Kinnell called "Shit." And the intestines must be covered in Giles Fletcher's The Purple Island. I only vaguely remember Flastaff's riff about guts in Henry IV. But I can't go to the library and check out this stuff because I don't yet have my temporary faculty card.
I just remembered that when I was at Stanford as a Stegner fellow in 1984, I found a poem in the North American Review that contained the line "our viscera kill us." As I remember it, the poem was a villanelle and "our viscera kill us" was part of one of the repeated lines. I gave dramatic readings of the poem to anyone who would listen, and our teacher, Simone di Piero, who walked into the room to begin the class while I was holding forth, seemed bemused by the pleasure we were all taking in an inadvertently funny line.
January 25: The Second Brain arrived from Amazon on Saturday, but I haven't been able to do more than look at the cover and thumb through it once, because I had to take Erin to the airport Sunday. She's gone back to Cincinnati to take care of the house and dogs, and to work on her novel. And I've been busy getting things pulled together for my first class, which met today. I'm not sure that the book is going to give me the sort of vivid descriptions of the intestine and its processes I'm looking for. It focuses pretty tightly on its thesis that the gut is a sort of abdominal counterbalance to the brain, something that if I remember right the yogis have said for several thousand years. But I'll read the book anyway and see if it gives me any clues, paths, ideas. Got to stop myself from leaping before I have something worth leaping toward.
Intestines received a lot of attention in the Hudgins family when I was a kid. We didn't talk about sex or most other bodily functions, but intestines were somehow an open subject. My brother Mike suffers miserably from spastic bowel syndrome, which he attributes to my mother's faith in the cleansing powers of enemas. She gave them to us regularly for no other reason than, as she put it, "to wash out your stomach." My father has suffered from difficult bowels all his life, and at one point he was taking Metamucil and Kaopectate in various dosages throughout the day, balancing one off against the other.
Why the hell am I thinking about this stuff, which will not, pray God, make it into the poem? Just flailing away, I guess, trying to find my way into the subject from every angle I can think of. Louis Simpson's poem about American poetry digesting everything in its path is sort of an intestine poem, isn't it? And isn't there an intestine scene in Gargantua? Must be.
January 26: A preliminary conclusion in my thinking about intestines: I'm glad I have them. I'd never want to do without them. And that is how I amused myself as I walked into campus today. I spent twenty minutes trying to find the card catalogue on the library computer, which seemed determined to direct me to the Internet and to a bunch of different databases—everything but to the damn books that were shelved a dozen feet away from me. Finally I tracked down a couple of scientific discussions of the intestines that seem simple enough for me to understand. But I'm coming to see that these science books are not going to give me the sensual details of the intestine that I crave. I may have to see if I can find a doctor to talk to.
Another idea that flits through my head is to write this poem as a sestina, since I will be teaching students how to write one this semester and I've never written one. At Iowa, one of my teachers, to make a point that eluded me even then, read twenty sestinas in a row to the class. The point I took away from the class was that I hated sestinas. Those repeated words buzzing around again and again in a precise swirl was like being attacked by six astonishingly aggressive bees. I whispered to my friend Jennifer Atkinson, "If I ever write one of those horrible things, shoot me."
On the other hand, the kind of anal retentiveness that kept me to that vow—that quite worthy vow, it still seems to me—is the perfect subject for such an obsessive form. I'll think about it.
January 27: Fourteen hours have passed, and I have recovered from my insane idea of writing a sestina on the intestines. Can you imagine repeating the word "intestine" six times in the course of a poem? By the time you got to the third repetition, the listeners would start to giggle, and by the time you got to the fifth they'd be laughing out loud, a hilarity that would only build as you got to the sixth and seventh repetitions. Of course there's nothing wrong with writing a funny poem, but that's not what I'm interested in here. Too easy. Plus this is supposed to be an ode. And odes ain't funny.
I'm beginning to wonder if this whole idea isn't misbegotten.
What a silly thing it is to single out the intestine and say no one has ever written an ode to it. The only internal organs that you might speculate have had odes written for them are the heart for the romantics and the mind for classical or neo-classical poets. Even then the ode to the heart would not be to the organ that pumps blood but to the symbolic heart, the seat of passion, and the brain ode would not be to the actual gray matter but to the mind. The stomach comes in a distant third in our rankings of the viscera for ode potential. Perhaps some Epicurean would like to take that on. But pancreas, gall bladder, kidneys, thyroid, and pineal gland are too obscure. Except for the kidneys and bladder, I have almost no idea what the others even do, which limits my ability to celebrate them.
January 27, later: Spent the afternoon skimming two extremely tedious books on digestion that I checked out of the library yesterday, and for my efforts learned only one cool word: "lumen." It is, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "the inner open space of a tubular organ, as of a blood vessel or an intestine." From the Latin, for "light," "eye," "opening." Despite this marvelous discovery, my project gives every sign of heading toward the ICU. So I asked Erin to mail me my copy of Dirty, Rotten, Dead?, a wonderfully detailed and cheerfully perverse children's book about death and decay that I toyed with giving to my nephews for Christmas before I lost my nerve. In the service of environmental awareness, the book describes what happens to a raccoon in the two weeks after he dies in the forest. And for the urban child who cannot relate to raccoons, it explicates in clinical detail the coronary malfunctions that led to Mr. Soto's being sprawled dead on the floor of his grocery store with his eyes still open when young Ronald Jones ("everyone called him Ronjo") bopped in one afternoon to buy a carton of milk. I have raided the book in the past for good descriptions of decay. It also has a section that describes digesting and pooping for children. That's the kind of info I need.
January 29: I'm a bit blue about this poem. I have accumulated only a few stray half lines and a vague idea or two. I wonder if this is just the normal long time that it takes me to get started. Or, as I speculated in the beginning, is this journal diluting the impulse to write?
I'd like to get deeper into the reading too. Look at those damn graduate-level physiology texts again, maybe go to a bookstore and see if I can find a book aimed more at the general reader, and root around in Giles Fletcher's The Purple Island, which I found today in the library without any trouble. But schoolwork is already crowding me. After the very first class two students handed me complete manuscripts to read, which I am happy to do. That is, after all, my job. But it does cut into the writing time.
Anyway—that's "anyway" with a long sigh, the way my cousin always says it. Anyway, if this thing doesn't work out I'll have the pleasure of remembering the half-amused, one-quarter puzzled, and one-quarter half-alarmed look that flew across my colleague John Irwin's face when I asked him at lunch yesterday, "Do you know any poems about intestines?" And the long pause on the phone this afternoon when I asked my friend Dana Gioia the same question.
I called my old teacher Bob Halli at the University of Alabama, and he suggested I look at the famous scene in Paradise Lost in which Satan encounters Sin and Death. I didn't remember any intestines in the scene. When I tracked it down and reread it, I found that when Sin gave birth to Satan's child Death, he "Tore through my entrails" and as a result of her pain and fear, which distorted her appearance, "all my nether shape thus grew / Transformed" to something hideous, while the upper half of her body remained beautiful. Immediately after his birth, Death raped his mother and she conceived
These yelling monsters, that with ceaseless cry Surround me, as thou sawest, hourly conceived Hourly born, with sorrow infinite To me; for when they list, into the womb That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round, That rest or intermission none I find.
Excerpted from Diary of a Poem by Andrew Hudgins Copyright © 2011 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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