Read an Excerpt
HELLO, THIS IS PAUL CHOWDER, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you. I’m going to divulge them. What a juicy word that is, “divulge.” Truth opening its petals. Truth smells like Chinese food and sweat.
What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion. Now, that isn’t true of rhymed poems. It’s not true of Sir Walter Scott. It’s not true of Longfellow, or Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Yeats. Rhymed poems are different. But the kind of free-verse poems that most poets write now—the kind that I write—is slow-motion prose.
My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure. Obviously I’m up in the barn again—which sounds like a country song, except for the word “obviously.” I wonder how often the word “obviously” has been used in a country song. Probably not much, but I don’t know because I hardly listen to country, although some of the folk music I like has a strong country tincture. Check out Slaid Cleaves, who lives in Texas now but grew up right near where I live.
SO I’M UP in the second floor of the barn, where it’s very empty, and I’m sitting in what’s known as a shaft of light. The light leans in from a high window. I want to adjust my seat so I can slant my face totally into the light. Just ease it into the light. That’s it. If this barn were a prison cell, this would be the moment of the day that I would look forward to. Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn’s arm reaching down from her spotlit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.
There’s one droopy-bottomed wasp diving back and forth, having some fun with what’s available. I can move my head a certain way, and I feel the sun warming up the clear flamingos that swim around in my eyeballs. My corneas are making infinity symbols under their orange-flavored lids.
I can even do eyelid wars. Do you do that? Where you try as hard as you can to look up with your eyeballs, rolling them back in your head, but with your eyes closed. Your eyelids will keep pulling your eyes back down because of the interlock between the two sets of muscles. Try it. It’s a good way of passing the time.
Don’t chirp at me, ye birdies! I’ve had enough of that kind of chirpage. It cuts no grease with me.
WHEN I COME across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. For instance, here’s a stanza by Sir Walter Scott. I’ll sing it for you. “We heard you in our twilight caves—” Try it again.
It’s written in what’s called a ballad stanza. Four lines, four beats in each line, and the third line drives toward the fourth. Notes of joy can pierce the waves, Sir Walter says. In other words, notes of joy can cut through the mufflement. Notes of joy have a special STP solvent in them that dissolves all the gluey engine deposits of heartache. War and woe don’t have anything like the range and reach that notes of joy do.
And yes, of course, there are things that should be said about iambic pentameter, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I don’t want to slight “the longer line.” I hope we can get to that fairly soon. My theory—I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse of it here—my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz. It’s not five-beat rhythm, even though “pent” means five, because five beats would be totally off-kilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable. Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really, I mean it.
And what romanticism did was to set the pentameter minuet aside and try to recover the older, more basic ballad rhythm. Somewhere along the way, so the Romantic poets felt, the humanness and the singingness and the amblingness of lyric poetry became entangled in frippery and parasols, and that’s because we stopped hearing those four basic pacing beats. That’s what Walter Scott was bringing back when he published his border ballads, and what Coleridge was bringing back when he wrote the Kubla Khan song and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They were bringing back the ballad. “Where Alph, the sacred river ran”—four beats. “Through caverns measureless to man”—four beats. And it’s the basis of song lyrics, too, because lyric poetry is song lyrics, that’s why it’s called lyric poetry.
And you know? I’ve read too many difficult poems. I’ve postponed comprehension too many times. And I’ve written difficult poems, too. No more.
YOU’RE OUT THERE. I’m out here. I’m sitting in the sandy driveway on my white plastic chair. There’s a man somewhere in Europe who is accumulating a little flotsam heap of knowledge about the white plastic chair. He calls it the “monobloc” chair. A word I’ve never used. Monobloc, no K. And I’m sitting in one. Its arms are blindingly white in the sun.
His name is Jens Thiel. God, I love Europeans. Jens. Especially the ones from smaller countries. Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium. I love those places. And of course: Amsterdam. What a great name for a city. Paul Oakenfold has a piece of trance music called “Amsterdam.” His name is Paul, and my name is Paul. Paul: What is that crazy U doing there? Paw—U—L.
A woman is walking by on the street. Ah, it’s Nanette, my neighbor. I knew it was her. She’s carrying a garbage bag. She’s picking up trash, I guess. Nan does that. She has an early-morning stroll sometimes, and I’ve noticed she takes along an empty trash bag tucked into her back pocket. I’m going to wave to her. Hi! Hello! She waved back.
Yes, she’s picking up a beer can and shaking it out, and now she’s putting it in that trash bag. The beer can is faded to a pale violet color. I think I can almost hear the soft rustle of the bag as things fall into it. Pfft. Pfft. Sometimes maybe a clink.
Nan is or soon will be divorced from her husband, Tom—Tom, who every weekend went windsurfing in a blue-armed wetsuit. She has a son named Raymond, a good kid who plays lacrosse. And she now evidently has a new boyfriend, a curly-haired man named Chuck, annoyingly handsome.
OF COURSE YOU already understand meter. When you hear it, you understand it, you just don’t know you understand it. You, as a casual reader of poems, and as a casual listener to pop songs, understand meter better than the metrists who misdescribed it over several centuries understood it. Even they understood it better than they knew.
My neighbor Nan seems to be fully committed to her new flame, Chuck. His car is in the driveway again. I suppose that’s a good thing. She deserves to be happy with a good-looking man like Chuck.
Roz, the woman who lived with me in this house for eight years, has moved away.
My dog is shedding because it’s summer, and then the birds, that keep chirping and chirping, make nests of the dog hair. It’s good for that.
I wish I could smoke pot. What would that do? I don’t even know where I would get pot around here. Somebody said the wispy dude with the pointy sideburns who works at the pet-food store. Could I maybe offer some to Roz, as a dramatic gesture? I’ve never bought pot in my life. Maybe it’s time. No, I don’t think it is. Too involved. But I think I will step in from the driveway for a moment to get a clear glass bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. I do love a palate cleanser of pure Newcastle Brown.
Roz is kind of short. I’ve always been attracted to short women. They’re usually smarter and more interesting than tall women and yet people don’t take them as seriously. And it’s a bosomy kind of generous smartness, often. But she’s moved out, so I should stop talking about her.
I’m a little sick of all the bird chirping, frankly. They just don’t stop. I mowed the lawn yesterday so I wouldn’t have to hear their racket. “Chirtle chirtle.” It’s constant. And as soon as I started mowing I knew this was the best thing I could be doing. Walking behind this armful of noise, going around, turning the corner I’d already turned, circumventing the overturned canoe. I ducked under the clothesline that Roz strung last year between the barn and the box elder tree. The white rope is now a lovely dry gray color. She used to hang many beautiful tablecloths and dishtowels on that clothesline. I should use it myself, instead of the dryer, which is making a thumping noise anyway, and then if she drove by she’d see that I was being a responsible person who dried my clothes in the sun. I wish I’d taken a picture of that clothesline with her faded shirts on it. No bras that I remember, but you can’t expect bras necessarily on a clothesline. You have to go to Target to see bras hanging nobly out for the public gaze.
I got in bed last night and I closed my eyes and I lay there and then a powerful urge came over me to cross my eyes. I thought of tragic people like Don Rickles, Red Skelton, people like that. Broken professional entertainers who maybe once had been funny. And now they were in Vegas, on cruise control, using their eye-crossing to allude to their early period of genuine funniness. Or they were dead.
So I crossed my eyes with my eyes closed. And I saw something in the dark: two crescent moons on the outside of my vision, which were the new moons of strain. I could feel my corneal pleasure domes moving, too. And as my eyes reached maximum crossing I felt an interesting blind pain of wrongness. I decided that I should hold on to that.
SO NOW, YOU’RE WAITING. I’ve promised something. You’re thinking okay, he’s said he’s going to divulge. Your hope is that I, Paul Chowder, have some things that I know that you don’t know because I have been a published poet for a while. And maybe I do know a few things.
One useful tip I can pass on is: Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority. Memorize them if you want to, but the main thing is to copy them out. Get a notebook and a ballpoint pen and copy them out. You will be shocked by how much this helps you. You will see immediate results in your very next poem, I promise.
Another tip is: If you have something to say, say it. Don’t save it up. Don’t think to yourself, I’m going to build up to the truth I really want to say. Don’t think, In this poem, I’m going to be sneaky and start with this other truth over here, and then I’m going to scamper around a little bit over here, and then play with some purple Sculpey over here in the corner, and finally I’ll reach the truth at the very end. No, slam it in immediately. It won’t work if you hold it in reserve. Begin by saying what you actually care about saying, and the saying of it will guide you to the next line, and the next, and the next. If you need to arrange things differently later, you can do that.
And never think, Oh, heck, I’ll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I’ll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I’ll be more ready to confront the more haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It’ll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s Best American Poetry and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.
Another tip: The term “iambic pentameter” isn’t good. It isn’t at all good. It’s the source of much grief and muddle and some very bad enjambments. Louise Bogan once said that somebody’s enjambments gave her the willies, and she’s right, they can do that to you. You shudder, reading them. Most iambic-pentameter enjambments are a mistake. That sounds technical but I’m talking about something real—a real problem.
And finally, the really important thing you have to know is: The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.
PEOPLE ARE GOING to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting. They’re going to talk to you about Chaucer and about blank verse—which is another confusing term—and all this so-called prosody they’re going to shovel at you. And sure—fine—you can handle it. You’re up to whatever mind-forged shrivelments they’re going to dish out that day. But just remember (a) that the word “prosody” isn’t an appealing word, and (b) that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.
Woops—dropped my Sharpie.
Right here: One—two—three—four. “Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still.” I think that was the very first poem I heard, “The Pelican Chorus,” by Edward Lear. My mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is. Those singing pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bare islands of yellow sand, and they swapped their verb tenses so that then was still and still was then. They were the first to give me the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry—the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right. In fact it was better than if it had been right.
In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turns on the light
Hear that? Another four-beat line. My mother read that one to me, too. And “Johnny Crow’s Garden.” And A. A. Milne and his snail and his brick. Milne was a metrical genius. And Dr. Seuss, of course, the great Ted Geisel. Who probably was, if I really want to be truthful and honest—and I do, of course—the poet most important to me until I was about twelve. You remember the little intense guy with the hat on, who’s on his stool in the Plexiglas dome, counting the people all over the world who are going to sleep?
And it scans. “Two Biffer-Baum birds are now building their nest.” It rhymes—it relies a fair amount on silly proper names, but it rhymes—and it scans perfectly. Dr. Seuss was a stickler for scansion. He was part of a lineage that runs back through Punch and Lear and Gilbert and Sullivan and Lewis Carroll and Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends. He uses the four-beat line in the great old way. In fact, I’d say almost all the poems that I heard as a child were classic four-beat lines.
Hell, let’s get into it. Where’s my Sharpie again? Okay:
See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. “Tetra” is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?
And his aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink.
That’s Lear again. Hear it? You can’t help but hear it. Four beats in each line. That’s the classic rhythm in poetry, and in songs, four beats. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
And what is Art whereto we press
Through paint and prose and rhyme—
When Nature in her nakedness
Defeats us every time?
You’ve got to admit that’s good. That’s Kipling. Did you hear what he did? “When Nature in her nakedness defeats us every time.” Do you hear how he just drills that line right through your heart muscle? The “nay” of Nature and the “nay” of nakedness just push right through and screw you to the back of your chair. Oh, Rudyard, you were good in the 1890s. You were a nineties man.
But notice there that Kipling’s second and fourth lines have a rest. A rest on the fourth beat. Listen for the booms now.
And here’s kind of a curious historical fact. Nobody, for years and years and years, centuries even, was able to say that poetry had those obvious booms. Nobody paid attention to the rests. Well, not nobody. There was a poet named Sidney Lanier, a flute player who was dying of consumption. He gave some lectures at Johns Hopkins on the musical basis of verse, but he had a fever, and he would get tired out and have to sit beside the podium and cough horribly and catch his breath and then continue—and his way of scoring rhythms was unfortunately wrong and only added further confusion. But he did understand that poems could have rests at the ends of lines.
Besides Lanier there was really nobody of any significance talking about rests in the straightforward musical sense of a place where you tap your toe without speaking. Poets had to be hearing these rests in their heads, because they wrote a million poems with them, poems of great comeliness that you can prance around to—but they didn’t know that’s what they were doing.
Finally came Derek Attridge, a man with a sensitive ear who taught at Rutgers. In 1982 he introduced the idea of what he called “unrealized beats” or “virtual beats.” Quote unquote. In other words, rests. They’re rests. How hard is that?
I almost had forgotten (rest)
That words were made for rhyme: (rest)
And yet how well I knew it— (rest)
Once upon a time! (rest)
That’s Christopher Morley. A light verser. Four beats in the line, the fourth beat being a rest. I hope you can hear it.
A good way you can scan something, by the way, is by saying it softly to yourself while counting with your fingers. Don’t look at the line. Memorize the line and look away from it and say it to yourself. Start with all your fingers in the air, and when you hear a beat, bring down your thumb, then your index finger, then the next finger, then the next. “I almost had forgotten, rest.” Like that. That’s how to do scansion like a pro. I don’t recommend the accent marks that some people use over syllables—they look so pedagogical. If you want to mark a line, use underlines.
Anyway, that pattern, the four lines together, four beats for each line—sometimes with rests and sometimes without rests, sometimes with a longer third line that has a stretched-out ending that leads you right in to the last line and sometimes not—that pattern makes up what’s called the common stanza or the ballad stanza, which is really the basis of English poetry. It was for Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, all the way through to Yeats, Frost, Teasdale, Auden, Causley, Walter de la Mare, and James Fenton. Four beats is the key.
And within each beat there are subsystems of movement, duplets and triplets, waiting and breathing and sliding. It’s—well, there’s a lot more to be said. But we’ll get to that farther on down the line.
I WENT TO BUY a tablecloth to replace the one that Roz took when she left, so that I could wash it and hang it out on the clothesline. That way if she happened to drive by she might see it hanging there.
Inside the store many women were slowly moving sideways, looking at the glassware and the placemats and the bowls. There must have been thirty women in the store, and one couple in their seventies. I moved past the couple, who were looking at a square white serving bowl with a lid. “It would be nice for soup,” said the man. “Yes, true, for soup,” said the woman. The man said: “Or for stew, a big country stew.” And the woman said: “Yes, true, for stew.” And he said, “So what do you think?” And she said, “Well, it’s square. I think perhaps we should get the round one, and if they don’t want it they can return it.”
Finally I came to the tablecloths. There was one with a faint green viney pattern that looked like something that Roz would have possibly bought, so I grabbed it. It was heavy in my hand, and it pushed my fingernails into the soft parts of my fingertips as I held it out to the woman at the register.
When I got home I put the tablecloth on the table and had a late lunch/early dinner. I spilled some red sauce on the tablecloth, which I was happy about because I could wash it right away. I put in a load—the tablecloth, a pair of pants, a shirt, a towel, and two T-shirts, saving the underwear for another time—but by the time the load was done spinning the day was done, as Longfellow would say, and it was raining and the clothesline was swinging in the wind, so I couldn’t hang anything up on it. I had to use the noisy dryer.
IT’S HARD TO HOLD IT all in your head. All the different possible ways that you can enjoy life. Or not enjoy life. And all the things that are going on. The different rug patterns. The different car designs. The different radio shows that are coming and going. The new ads. The new crop of famous people.
And then there is, of course, always, and inevitably, this spume of poetry that’s just blowing out of the sulphurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It’s unstoppable, it’s uncorkable. There’s no way to make it end.
If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.
But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.
But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? This book might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting.
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.
FOR INSTANCE: here’s a recent New Yorker. Actually, no—it was published almost six years ago. I got it from my pile. Pretty cover, as always. Or almost always. There have been some lapses, yes.
But this is what I mean. You lift it, you hold it, you flap it. And week after week, year after year, you hold it, you flap it. And say you open it up and flip through looking for the two new poems, and no: there would be no poem on page sixty-seven. And no poem on page eighty-three. They just simply wouldn’t be there.
Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they’re saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who’s going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spout it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. So, stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton.
And you can read it for yourself on page sixty-seven. Of this New Yorker. Alice Quinn. The magnificent Alice. This was back in the day, when Alice was the poetry editor. God bless that hardworking cheerful nice woman. She left recently and now it’s Paul Muldoon, and I hardly know Paul Muldoon. And really I hardly knew Alice Quinn, to be honest. But at least she actually accepted some of my own poems. Thank you, Alice! And rejected some of them—damn her! Things that just hurt me to have them come back saying, This isn’t for us. This one didn’t quite work for us, but we’re glad to have something from you.
“We’re glad.” The crafting of these kind no-thank-you letters. I assume Paul Muldoon will do it well, too. The really good editors have the gift. And they hurt so bad when they’re nice. You get a turndown and then you flip through the magazine and you say, Why? Why did Alice accept this firkin of flaccidness here on page 114 and not one of my poems? Why?
I should probably send Paul Muldoon a poem. One of my flying spoon series, none of which I’ve finished yet. Some of Muldoon’s poems actually rhyme, but not audibly. He’s cagey that way. He teaches at Princeton. He’s probably there right now, talking to students. “Hello, poetry students, I’m Mr. Paul Muldoon.” He’s a little older than I am, but not much. Oh, but the idea of starting all over again. I can hardly face it. “Dear Paul Muldoon. Glad you’re on the case now at The New Yorker. We met briefly at that poetry wingding at the 92nd Street Y a few tulip bubbles ago. Here are some fresh squibs, I hope you like them. ‘My feaste of joy is but a dish of payne,’ as the condemned man said before he was publicly disemboweled. All the very best, Paul.”
It’s scary to think. Of course I’d kind of stopped sending things to The New Yorker even before Alice Quinn left. That’s part of my problem, I think, is that I’d stopped already. And Paul will send them back, and he’ll say, Great to have something from you, but these seemed a little. . . . And then he’ll have some apt adjective—“underweathered,” or “overfurnished.” “Elliptically trained.” And I’ll flip through the newest issue, walking back from my blue mailbox, hunting for the poem he chose over mine, and it’ll be the same thing as always. The prose will have pulled back, and the poem will be there, cavorting, saying, I’m a poem, I’m a poem. No, you’re not! You’re an imposter, you’re a toy train of pretend stanzas of chopped garbage. Just like my poem was.
HERE’S THE THING. I am basically willing to do anything. I’m basically willing to do anything to come up with a really good poem. I want to do that. That’s my goal in life. And it hasn’t happened. I’ve waited patiently. Sometimes I’ve waited impatiently. Sometimes I’ve “striven.” I’ve made some acceptable poems—poems that have been accepted in a literal sense. But not one single really good poem.
When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.
I’m only a little messed up. I’m tortured to the point where I don’t sleep very well sometimes, and I don’t answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something. Also, I’ve run up a significant credit-card debt. But that’s not real self-torture. I mean, if you stand back from my life just a little—maybe thirty-five yards—I am a completely conventional person. I drive mostly within the fog lines. My life is seldom in crisis. It feels like a crisis now because Roz, who has lived with me for eight years, has moved away and left me, and I’m in considerable pain, but this little crisis of mine does not resemble the crises that Ted Roethke or Louise Bogan went through, or James Wright, or Tennyson, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her laudanum. Or Poe.
One time, I remember, I was in a laundromat. It was a laundromat in Marseilles, France. “Marseilles.” Do you hear that? It’s a mattress of a word, with a lot of spring to it. “Marseilles.” I was in there, doing my laundry, and I look over, and there’s this guy there, this little guy. He was kind of pale, pasty looking. But moving with a methodical grace. And I said, Ed? And he looked up slowly. He nodded, cavernously. I said, Ed Poe? And he said, Mm-hm. And then he peered closely at me. He said, Paul? Paul Chowder? And I said, Yes, Ed! How are you doing? Been a long time. He nodded. I said, I see you’re folding some underpants there.
He said, Yes, I am. Doing my laundry. You?
I said I’m doing my laundry, too. And I mean, if you’re going to do your laundry, this place is probably as good as or better than any place I can think of. Marseilles, France. Or “Fronce,” as we say.
And I said, Can I venture to ask how the poetry’s going?
He said, It’s going pretty well, pretty well. I wrote a poem, and I got paid for it, and it was in the newspaper.
And I said, That’s fantastic. What’s it called?
And he said, It’s called “The Raven.”
I said, Holy shit, Ed, “The Raven.” Great title. What’s it about?
And he said, It’s about a man who has a visit from a raven.
And I said, That sounds really promising. What does the raven stand for? Death and fate and horror and government wiretapping and stuff like that? And he just looked at me. He wasn’t about to explicate his poem for me. Which I understand. And I said, Well, listen, take care. I grabbed my bag of laundry. I said, It’s been great seeing you. Stay happy. And he said, You too, it’s good seeing you. We waved again. Take care, bye-bye. Watch out for the big swinging blade. And I walked out the door of the laundromat. Off down the street. And that was the time that I ran into Edgar Allan Poe.
GOD I WISH I was a canoe. Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree.
It’s late in the afternoon, and the bats are getting ready to go flying for bugs. Leigh Hunt has a poem about how this girl, Jenny, jumped from her chair and kissed him. I’m thinking of how difficult it is to look old poets in the eye. Their eyelids, which droop and have skin tags on them, like tiny pennants age has hoisted, fill me with a strange consternation. And I know that the old poets themselves are self-conscious—they’re worried that people will see these two blinky pink openings in their face and think, Ugh, those look like flesh wounds with eyeballs tossed loosely into them.
I know that when my eyes get old and skin-taggy I’m going to be very happy to have glasses to hide behind.
Even now I have trouble looking people in the eye. You’re supposed to “meet people’s eyes.” Meet them how? They have two eyes. You have to choose one. I start by looking at the person’s right eye, intently, and then I begin to feel that I’m hurting the feelings of the person’s left eye. As she’s telling her story, she thinks, Why is he concentrating his attentions so fixedly on my right eye? Is he deliberately looking away from my left eye? Is there something wrong with my left eye? So then I shift over, and I stare into her left eye, till it’s as if I’m falling down an optical pipe.
My eyes have to skip away, eventually. And when I’m asked a question I look out the window. People assume that I’m failing some kind of test of candor when I’m just not an eye-meeter, that’s all. I’m just not going to meet your eye for any extended period. Period.
HOW ARE THOSE POETRY exercises coming? Did you do that thing I mentioned where you write down every real story somebody tells you or that you overhear in a twenty-four-hour period? Did I mention that exercise? Maybe not. I don’t mean the stories that come to you on electric screens or through car loudspeakers but the ones from right around you. I overheard a story at the bank yesterday about a car-repair place that overcharged. And then somebody told me a story about a dog who ate a sock. The vet couldn’t “shift it,” so he removed the sock surgically and now the dog is doing well. And there were other stories, too. If you listen to them, the stories and fragments of stories you hear can sometimes slide right into your poem and twirl around in it. Then later you cut out the story and the poem has a mysterious feeling of charged emptiness, like the dog after the operation.
I’m not going to get all maudlin about why Roz moved on. She moved on, period. I know why. It’s because I didn’t write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was. And I didn’t want to walk the dog as much as I should have. And I got farty when we had Caesar salads. And I do miss her. Because she was so warm and so kind to me, and she taught me so many things. I squandered her good nature. I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t see that it was finite.
ROZ TOLD ME, Just go up in the barn and write it. Referring to the introduction to my forthcoming poetry anthology, Only Rhyme. She said, Just go! Just go up there and write it! You want to write it. Your editor wants you to write it. I want you to write it. Write it!
I said I couldn’t write it, it was too awful, too huge, it was like staring at death.
She said, Well, then write a flying spoon poem. Go up there and write something. You’ll feel better if you do.
She was right, of course. So I went up to the barn. The second floor is empty and has very few windows. It smells like I imagine the inside of an old lute would smell. I brought up my white plastic chair, and I took notes, and I read, and I thought, and I took more notes, and I sang songs. It was a beautiful week in very early summer, and I felt as if I was sitting inside John Dowland’s old lute. I sang a song that Sinead O’Connor sings, “She Moved Through the Fair.” And I sang a song I wrote myself, that goes:
I’m in the barn, I’m in the bar-harn,
I’m in the barn in the afternoo-hoon.
I sang that one a lot. And I made up a new tune for Poe’s “Raven.”
But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed. So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen. What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.
And in order to be relaxed at the easel, I drank a Newcastle. Also coffee, so that I’d be sharp. And still I wasn’t sufficiently relaxed, so I drank some Yukon Gold that I found in the liquor cabinet. No, not Yukon Gold, that’s a potato. Yukon Jack, a kind of Canadian liqueur. It was delicious. It added a slight Gaussian blur. And then some more coffee, so I’d still be sharp. Blurred, smeared, but sharp.
AT THE END of the week I didn’t have the introduction. Roz looked sad and hurt, and I felt miserable. She said, “Well, are you at least making progress?” I said I was, because I was, I was making great strides. But toward what? I was having a gigantic hopeless exciting futile productive comprehensive life adventure up in the barn. I was hoarse from singing. I said I thought I’d probably have the introduction done after another week. Or at least a flying spoon poem as a fallback.
Roz pointed out that I was going to Switzerland very soon, and that was really the drop-dead deadline: get the introduction done before Switzerland. And I agreed that it certainly was. I went to a used bookstore and bought another anthology of Elizabethan verse—my fifth—and also the W. H. Auden/Chester Kallman edition of Elizabethan songs, with a cover drawn by Edward Gorey. I was pleased to have that—it includes actual musical settings.
And I spent some time on iTunes, where I found a song I liked by a group called The Damnwells. It’s called “I Will Keep the Bad Things from You,” and it’s sung by a songwriter named Alex Dezen. At one point you can hear him turning the page. He’s sitting there with his guitar, and he’s doing this song, and he doesn’t even know the words. He’s just written it, apparently. He’s just discovering it. And it’ll never be as real for him as at that moment. He turns the page, and you hear the schwoooeeeet, and you want to cry.
Also I bought some software so that I could save the Flash video of Sinead O’Connor on YouTube doing her live rendition of “She Moved Through the Fair,” which is even better than the one on iTunes. So I was moving forward, in a sense.
Roz said, But sweetie, you’re spending all this money, and we don’t have it. And that’s true, we didn’t have it. Back in the nineties I took a swoosh in the stock market, with money I got from my grandfather, and I did well for a while. That’s when I met Roz and she moved in. I bought some shares of Koss Corporation, the headphone company, and then I split the hairy root ball and bought some Canon Depository Receipts. Then I split that hairy root ball. I bought Maxtor and then sold it. I bought stock in a tiny company called BeOS, and it doubled in a day and a half. Then I bought lots of bad stocks over several years and all the money shrank away, more or less. Roz was supporting us now, except for an equity loan on my house and a chunk of money I borrowed from my sister, who is not that rich. If, or when, I handed in the introduction to Only Rhyme, I’d get seven thousand dollars, because my editor, Gene, is very generous. Apart from that there was almost nothing due, just the odd thousand in honoraria here and there from book reviews or readings or panel discussions, like the one coming up in Switzerland. I can’t teach. I tried it once at Haffner College and it practically unhinged me.
I said to Roz, “I know it seems excessive and a little odd, but I think this is the only way to really lay it all out fresh, and sing the pain.” She nodded and she said okay, but in a very small voice. I could see she was losing faith in me and losing her love for me. And her respect for me.
BECAUSE WHO WANTS to be forced into the role of enforcer? Roz was a writer herself, and an editor; she wasn’t a doubter and a prodder. She wasn’t some calendar-tapping scold. She actually liked my poem “Smooth Motion”—she was first attracted to me because of it, I think. At least, she wasn’t attracted to me for my looks, because I’m not smooth, in fact I’m pretty rough looking. Although I’ve lost some weight recently, and once Roz did say that I looked good in a certain subtly houndstoothed jacket that she helped me pick out.
She hadn’t reckoned on having to be forever poking at me to get me to write one forty-page introduction to an anthology. And she didn’t want to be arguing over money. And she wanted to adopt a child and I didn’t—why? I don’t know. I see these horribly spoiled rude selfish kids and don’t want to risk being the father of one.
But I think if I’d just written even a tiny five-line poem about an inchworm on my pant leg it would have been fine. Anything, something. Roz commuted all the way to Concord to work for an alternative newspaper, but I think it would have been all right with her to support us for a little while as long as I was getting actual work accomplished.
But when I came down empty-handed from the barn at the end of the second week, that’s when I really wounded her. She was standing in the hall putting her keys in her purse. Beautifully made-up. Smelling clean from her shower. She looked up and said, bravely, “So can I read it?” And I felt this horrible inner sensation: my caramel clusters of self were liquefying and pooling in the warmth of their own guilt. I said, “I’m sorry, honey. I don’t have anything.”
And that was it. My beautiful, patient, funny, short, loving girlfriend—the woman I’d been with longer than anyone else—moved out. She was right to leave me, but it felt really bad. Horrible, in fact. Plus I was broke.
I SAT IN THE BARN, thinking of the metal chin-up bar I had in my doorway when I was ten years old. The bar had gray rubber rings, and when you tightened the middle you could hear the doorjamb crack in a nice way. The tightening of the bar was the first assertion of secret strength.
And then you did chin-ups, one, maybe two. Possibly three. There was a long unleveraged uphauling struggle, in which you tried to use your neck cords to help. I wanted to have a chin-up bar now. Before I died, I wanted to do chin-ups at a chin-up bar in my house for a year. What else did I want to accomplish before I died? I wanted to finish a good poem about the flying spoon, and I wanted to clean up my office, and I wanted to answer some letters I should have answered, and I wanted to write down what I know. Especially what I know about meter, and about how that single nonsense word “pentameter” has caused untold confusion, pain, and suffering.
Maybe my theory of meter will be helpful to people. It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess. Or mow the lawn, or go somewhere and do something, like visit a historic house, or clean up a room, or teach people something that you think is worth knowing.
FREE VERSE really got rolling about a hundred years ago. It wasn’t just free in the sense of being very loose in the rhyme and meter department. Free verse was sexually free. That’s what nobody understands. Free verse meant free, naked, unclothed, un-Victorian people scampering about in an unfettered sort of way. That’s why it was so exciting. I was trying to explain this to my next-door neighbor, Nanette. I ran into her when I was out walking my dog, Smacko. Nan was out again picking up trash with her plastic trash bag. I asked her what she’d found. She’d found some beer cans, a pair of panties, half of a meatball sandwich in a paper plate, an ice cream wrapper, and an old laceless shoe. We walked back to her house, and she asked me if I knew anything about Toro lawnmowers. I said I knew a little, because I do. Her lawnmower was starting and then dying after about a second. I pulled off the air filter and banged the float cup with a wrench and suddenly, to my surprise, the mower worked. I went around her yard once with it.
Then she asked—out of politeness—“So why did poems stop rhyming? Were all the rhymes just used up?” I said no, no, the rhymes weren’t used up, they can never be used up until the English language itself is used up, because rhyme-words are really just the ending sounds of whole phrases and whole lines. It doesn’t matter whether “breath” and “death” have been rhymed before, only whether the two new lines that end with “breath” and “death” are interesting and beautiful lines. Although sometimes it’s good to give certain rhymes a break for a century or two.
She said, “So then why?” I told her about Mina Loy, the beautiful free-verse poet whose poems were published in a magazine called Others. Mina Loy had romped with the famous Futurist Filippo Marinetti, and he treated her badly, because he was an unpleasant egotist who liked war and cars and didn’t like women. He’d written a play about a man with a thirty-foot penis that he wrapped around himself when he wanted to take a nap.
“Golly,” said Nan.
I told her that Mina Loy wrote a poem about sex with him, or with one of the other Futurists, in which she compared Cupid to a pig “rooting erotic garbage.” And American newspapers picked up on this phrase, and it made her famous as a free-verser.
“Very interesting,” said Nan. We said goodbye. She began mowing her lawn, and I went into my kitchen. I opened my freezer, looked at the motionless mists in there, and then closed it.
I STARTED A POEM that began “On Wayland Street / I talked to my neighbor Nan / She had picked up a beer can / and a pair of panties.” I wrote seven more lines, and then I got to the word “shrubbery” and I stopped, disgusted. I’ve never liked the word “shrubbery.” Then I changed the beginning to “In the fulth of Wayland Street / I talked to my neighbor Nan.” “Fulth” is a word that Thomas Hardy used in his poem on the death of Swinburne.
Immediately I realized that this was not a change for the better, and I changed it back. And then here’s what I did. I’ll pass it on to you as a tip. I read what I’d written aloud to myself. Which is what you always do. But this time I used a foreign accent. The foreign accent is the twist that helps. I chose Charles Simic’s Serbian twang. Other foreign accents that can help you hear your own poem better are Welsh, Punjabi, and Andrei Codrescu’s Romanian. If those don’t work, try using a juicy Dorchester accent, or a Beatles Liverpool accent, or a perfectly composed Isabella Rossellini accent. Or read it as if you were Wystan Auden and you’d smoked a million cigarettes and brought a bottle of bine to wed with you every night. See if that helps. It didn’t help me much with the beginning of this poem, but it has helped me in the past and maybe it’ll help you.
I MET MY FRIEND TIM for a drink at the Press Room, a bar, and I told him Roz was gone. He was somewhat sympathetic. “You drove her away,” he said. “You didn’t give her anything to believe in.”
I asked him how his book was coming. Tim’s book, which he’s going to call Killer Queen, is a look at Queen Victoria’s dark, imperialistic side. Tim split up with his wife several years ago, and he took up eating. He teaches at Haffner College.
Tim leaned forward. “I work away at this book, and I describe how the Queen oversaw this huge system of plunder and destruction that wrecked people’s lives all over the globe, and I’ve raked together all this knowledge, and I enjoy doing it because I feel I’m getting at the truth—”
“But it means so much less to me,” Tim went on, “than if I were sitting on a couch talking to a woman of grace and intelligence who was wearing an attractive sweater.”
I made agreeing noises. “And beads over the sweater,” I said. “Roz strings the most exceptional beads.”
Tim announced that he was going to a pick-your-own blueberry field with a woman he’d met. She had a friend. Would I like to go? I said sure. Then I asked him a question. “Is there any chance Haffner would take me back?”
“I’ll sound out the dean if you’d like,” Tim said, but he looked doubtful. “You kind of alienated them when you quit so suddenly last time.”
“I had a scare,” I said.
“My advice is: get that anthology out,” said Tim. “That’s your ticket back to the classroom. Tell people why rhyme exists. Give them a big, fancy neurobiological explanation. People love fancy neurobiological explanations.” Then he slapped his legs. “I’m off.”
When I got home there was a tax bill, and a box from Amazon that held James Fenton’s anthology, The New Faber Book of Love Poems. Fenton’s introduction is only twelve pages long, and it feels like the perfect length. He includes six of his own poems, which I must say shocked me. When Sara Teasdale edited her book of love poems by women, The Answering Voice, she didn’t include even one of her own, even though hers were better than almost all the others, except maybe Millay’s and Christina Rossetti’s. But Fenton’s right to include himself. His poem about being stuck in Paris is probably the best love lyric in the book, and we would feel cheated if it wasn’t there. I wish to gimbleflap I’d written that poem.
Fenton also includes six quite good Wendy Cope poems. I once met Wendy Cope at a radio show in London. Her poem “The Aerial” is in my anthology. Unfortunately I see that it’s also in Fenton’s anthology. But that can happen, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? Call it anthology rhyme—when a familiar poem tumbles around in a new setting.
I WANT TO TELL YOU why poetry is worth thinking about—from time to time. Not all the time. Sometimes it’s a much better idea to think about other things.
Most of us have a short period of intense thinking about poetry, when we take a class in college, and then that’s about it. And that’s really all you need. One intense time, when you master your little heap of names—Andrew Marvell, Muriel Rukeyser, Christina Rossetti. Hardy, Auden, Bishop, Marvin Bell, Ted Hughes, John Hollander, Nicholas Christopher, Deborah Garrison, whoever, James Wright, Selima Hill, Troy Jollimore. Whoever they may be. Every so often you remember them. If you’ve memorized some poems, the poems will raise a glimmering finger in your memory once in a while, and that’s very nice, as long as you keep it to yourself. Never recite. Please! If you recite, your listeners will look down and play with their cuticles. They will not like you. But sometimes if you quote just a phrase in passing, that can work. Like this: “As Selima Hill says: ‘A really good fuck makes me feel like custard.’”
And after college there may be later phases as well, maybe one or two later phases where you suddenly get interested in poems again. I’ve had, I would say, four major phases in my life where I’ve been genuinely interested in poetry—interested in reading it, as opposed to writing it. Because writing it is a very different activity. Writing it, it’s as if the word “poetry” is a thousand miles away. It’s inapplicable. What I’m trying to do is make some new Rowland Emmett machine that doesn’t have a name. I know of course that it’s going to end up being called a poem, but “poem” is one of those bothersome technical terms. It’s so difficult to pronounce. You either pronounce it “pome,” or “poe-im” or “poe-em.” It’s not an English word, it’s a Greek word that’s had the end chopped off it, so it doesn’t fit—it’s got that diphthongy quality.
What I’m doing when I’m writing poetry is I’m trying to make a little side salad. Just the right amount of sprouts on the top, maybe a chickpea or two. No bacon. Maybe a slice of egg. It doesn’t feel like writing at all. If you’re writing, say, a book review or an essay, it’s sequential. You type out some notes to figure out more or less what you’re going to say. And then you find a place to start, which becomes the beginning, and you wander off in search of the end. But with a poem, you’re in the middle, and then you’re at the end, and then back at the beginning, all with your eyes. You’re always looking at the same piece of paper. One single piece of paper is stretched out there in front of you, the lyric poem, as big as the salt flats in Utah, where fearless Craig Breedlove drove his jet-powered car at six hundred miles an hour. Remember him, back in the sixties? I loved his name, Breedlove.
Or maybe you don’t use paper at all—maybe you’re taking a walk after dinner and a few beers, like A. E. Housman, and you’re writing it in your head, to the four-beat rhythm of your footsteps: “White in the moon the long road lies.”
If it’s a long poem, you’re using paper, of course, but I don’t count those long poems because I think most of them have very little that’s good in them. They can all be cut down to a few green stalks of asparagus amid the roughage.
So that’s writing poems. But I have had these certain few times in my life when I’ve been very interested in reading poetry. I used to read a big padded glove-leather edition of Tennyson on lunch break every day when I worked for a mutual fund. It was red, and for some reason it was padded like a Victorian settee. I think you were meant to give it as a present, maybe in the 1890s, to prove to your girlfriend that you were a thoughtful swain. Somebody had written in it “To Edie from Bart.” It had the word Tennyson on the front in diagonally embossed script, and it was as heavy and soft as a catcher’s mitt. You could thump it with your fist. Hurl it at me, Alfred Lord, baby. Smack me with that fastball of a “low large moon.”
So I read that. And when I quit my job at the mutual fund I bought The New Yorker Book of Poems—the big yellow book—and I discovered Snodgrass, Kunitz, Nemerov, and Moss. Snodgrass, Kunitz, Nemerov, and Moss. Those were my four poets, for a while. And so I would read those guys. Mainly Moss. Moss was in his lovely self-effacing way a genius. You could hear notes of Wallace Stevens in him, and sometimes Bishop, and sometimes even Auden, but he was able to give it his own sad, affectionate jostle. Moss was the poetry editor of The New Yorker, and he was a modest man, so none of his own poems were actually in the big yellow anthology—but it was his book nonetheless. And I remember reading Snodgrass’s poem about the lobster lifting its claw in the window and being tremendously excited. I had to keep peeking at it as I walked home. And even before that, in Paris, in the thirteenth arrondissement, where I lived in my junior year on the eleventh floor of a very tall, very flimsy apartment building, I read the poems in the Oscar Williams anthology, the one with the psychedelic raven on the cover. On Saturdays I’d wake up and read from the Oscar Williams anthology, and then I’d look for a long time at the eye of the psychedelic raven and listen to last night’s wine bottles come hurtling down the garbage chute. There were notices next to every apartment’s garbage chute saying “Please don’t put wine bottles down the garbage chute,” but people loved to do it. I’d hear the bottles come racketing down, and then silence. I could never hear them hit bottom, which was a little frustrating.
And then again recently. Last year I read a ton of poetry when I was working on my anthology. I mean a ton: way too much, probably. I own an alarming number of poetry books at this point, including maybe seventy-five anthologies, possibly more. I’ve been packing some of the books up that are piled in the hall. Taking them out to the first floor of the barn. That’s one of my projects. Get them out of my life so that I can yearn for them again in a few years.
I WAS OUT WALKING my dog Smacko around eight in the evening and I heard shouts from Nanette’s house. Nan was playing badminton with her son and Chuck, the handsome curly-haired man. A nice family unit, a healed wound. Nan waved at me, and I called out: “That looks like fun.”
“You want to play?” said Nan.
I made a no-thanks gesture. But Nan cocked her head: You sure? And I said, “Well—okay.” It was awkward because of the presence of the handsome curly-haired man, but so what? I can rise above that. Raymond, Nan’s son, who seemed to have grown several inches, gave me a racket, and I plucked at it a few times like a ukelele and sang “I walk a lonely road.” Then I started to play badminton. The problem wasn’t so much that I was a fourth player, although there definitely were a lot of rackets swinging around. And the problem wasn’t that I was a little rusty in my badmintonage and had to apologize when I swung and missed.
The problem was that my dog couldn’t keep from barking and racing back and forth under the net. When the birdie landed at someone’s feet, he was there to leap on it and take it gently in his mouth like a downed partridge. The next time someone hit it, you could see the droplets of dog saliva flinging off its plastic feathers.
Then at one point I reached down to pick up the birdie, and I discovered that I had a bloody nose. When I tried to play holding my nostril, it didn’t work too well.
I excused myself and went away with my shame-eared dog and my bloody nose. Nan and her crew were nice about it, but I think were all a little relieved when I left.
I GOT A TART EMAIL from my editor, Gene. He wanted to know where the introduction was. Just because Roz has gone and left me doesn’t mean I’ve escaped having to write it. The subject line of his email was “Whip Cracking.”
So I went back up to the barn with my white plastic chair. I have a long table on the second floor with the manuscript of Only Rhyme on it. Gene has sent me the cover art. The catalog copy is already written, already published. It says “Paul Chowder’s introduction locates rhyming poetry in its historical context and reawakens our sense of the fructifying limitlessness of traditional forms.” No it doesn’t. Fruck! It doesn’t do anything because it doesn’t exist.
I looked up at the tie beams of the barn. There were several tiny empty wasps’ nests up there. I looked down at my black flip-flops. I looked over at a bit of mobile green leafage that I could see through the long thin window. I wrote a sentence: “It’s a strange experience, assembling an anthology.” No, no, no. The anthology is not about me. Why would they care about me? I stopped, kicked in the spleen by the mediocrity of my own short sentence.
But it actually is a strange experience. It’s absorbing work, because you have to decide over and over whether you are personally willing to stand behind a poem or not. And yet it’s not your poem. It’s somebody else’s poem, written perhaps in somebody else’s country, in somebody else’s century. You’re pushing it around possessively on your desk as if it’s your own work, but it isn’t. And then you winnow it out. You winnow it right out the window.
Why? Because you’re determined that this is going to be a real anthology. This isn’t going to be one of those anthologies where you sample it and think, Now why is that poem there? No, this is going to be an anthology where every poem you alight on and read, you say to yourself, Holy God dang, that is good. That is so good, and so twisty, and so shadowy, and so chewy, and so boomerangy, that it requires the forging of a new word for “beauty.” Rupasnil. Beauty. Rupasnil. It’s so good that as soon as you start reading the poem with your eyes you know immediately that you have to restart again reading it in a whisper to yourself so that you can really hear it. So good that you want to set it to musical notes of your own invention. That good.
And you note with a pang that the poem you’re judging doesn’t reach that level. So you cut it. X it out, it’s gone. And it hurts to see it go, because you know that the ones you cut will later seem like the ones you really loved, while the ones you keep will inevitably lose some of their luster through overhandling.
But you keep on going, because you’re a professional anthologist. Can’t use that one, nope, nope, that one’s out. Nope. Yep, you’ll do as a semifinalist. Nope, nope, nope. Maybe. No. You’re like that blond bitch-goddess on Project Runway.
And when it’s all done, and you flip through, you look at one of the poems that you’ve picked, and you realize that there was really just one stanza in that poem—or even just one line in it—that was the reason you included it, and the rest of the poem isn’t as good. For instance, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” Or “I had no human fears.” Or “Ye littles, lie more close.” Or “The restless pulse of care.” Or “Give me my scallop-shell of quiet.” And you think, Maybe I should have made an anthology of single lines. Would that have worked?
But then, if you stare for a while at one of the single lines—stare into its rippling depths where the infant turtles swim—you realize that there’s usually one particular word in that line that slays you. That word is so shockingly great. Maybe it’s the word “sometime.” “They flee from me that—sometime—did me seek.” The little two-step shuffle there in the midst of the naked dancing feet of the monosyllables. Or maybe it’s the word “quiet.” “Give me my scallop-shell of quiet.” Do you hear the way “scallop” is folded and absorbed into the word “quiet”?
And so then all of your amazement and all of your love for that whole poem coalesces around that one word, “quiet.” Four-beat line, by the way. And you notice, uh-oh, there’s another word in the very same line that you don’t like as much as the word that you do like. “Give.” Hm. “Give.” You’ve never liked “give” all that much. It’s a bad word, frankly. Give.
And so you think, maybe I should have made an anthology of individual words taken from poems. Like this:
—Sir Walter Ralegh
And of course that’s not going to work. That’s just a bunch of disembodied words plucked from great poems. And that’s when you realize you’re not an anthologist.
ANOTHER INCHWORM fell on my pant leg. They germinate in quantity somewhere up in the box elder. It was still for a moment, recovering from the fall, and then its head went up and it began looping, groping for something to climb onto. It looked comfortably full of metamorphosive juices—full of the short happiness of being alive. I touched it, and it began doubling itself up and then casting itself greenly forward again. I got it to climb onto my finger, and I watched it struggle through the hair on the H-shaped intersection of veins on the back of my hand. It went quiet there. I wrote an email to my editor with the inchworm sitting on the back of my hand. I said, “Worry not Gene, I’m going to write it. It’s coming along. —Paul.”
Coming along. The thing about life is that life is an infinite subject matter. At any one moment you can say only what’s before your mind just then. You have some control over what comes before your mind—you can influence the influx by reading, or by looking through your old notes, or by going to movies, or by talking to people, and you can choose what room of the house or what corner of the yard to sit in, and you can choose to write before or after you’ve masturbated—this is crucial—and you can choose to tell the truth or not to. And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or too boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, gray non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.
I have no one. I want someone. I don’t want the summer to go by and to have no one. It is turning out to be the most beautiful, most quiet, largest, most generous, sky-vaulted summer I’ve ever seen or known—inordinately blue, with greener leaves and taller trees than I can remember, and the sound of the lawnmowers all over this valley is a sound I could hum to forever. I want Roz.
I MET A MAN named Victor at Warren’s Lobster House for lunch. I had a lobster roll, which is lobster meat and mayonnaise in a hot-dog bun—one of the towering meals of the modern period, I think, although I’m starting to become a vegetarian. Moving in that direction. I had it with coleslaw.
Victor is a poet and house painter who is eager to start a reading series. “Portsmouth is a great poetry town,” he said, as everyone does. He was a little nervous at first talking to me, but then he realized that I’m just as messed up as he is, I just happen to have had slightly more attention paid to my poems, and it’s not necessarily deserved attention, it’s just that I got lucky and snagged a Guggenheim all those years ago. People really pay attention to the Old Gugg, as we call it. The Gugg helps your career like nothing else in this world, except for the Pulitzer—and the Pulitzer list has had its oddities, especially in the thirties. Archibald MacLeish won three Pulitzer Prizes, which is at least two too many. He was a smooth operator, Archie was—writing fawning letters to Amy Lowell, and to Hemingway, and to Ezra Pound, the source of all evil. Louise Bogan had his number. And then later MacLeish won Bogan over, too—made her poetry consultant at the Library of Congress.