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Two Minds of a Western PoetESSAYS
By David Mason
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2011 the University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo Minds of a Western Poet
Where I live distance is the primal fact
From my study window I look out on a stand of aspen trees mixed with a few spruce and pines, across the road more woods and the half-disguised houses of neighbors, each tactfully set on its half acre. A generation ago this was a dude ranch outside the mountain town of Woodland Park, Colorado. Relatives of mine worked here in those days—tourist wranglers. Now Paradise Estates is a bedroom community incorporated into the growing town, squeezed between Highway 24 and the national forest. Most of us commute twenty miles to Colorado Springs to make our livings.
Woodland Park is a town one drives through on the way to Cripple Creek or the Collegiate Range and beyond. From the highway it hardly resembles a community at all, just a line of nondescript shops and gas stations anchored by two supermarkets. You would have to turn off the highway to see a set of schools and a lot of churches, the old log cabins of what once was a summer town. Recently, local artists have been trying to convince city leaders that we need art. Art helps build communities, they argue, pointing to good evidence from other parts of the nation. Not wanting to seem philistine and wanting even less to pass up any economic opportunity, our leaders have sprinkled statuary here and there. Even the most powerful land developer in town sees dollar signs in his neighbors' goodwill efforts. Everyone tries to ignore the highway plowing through town with its increasing volume of traffic splitting the community in two.
This is the American West, or part of it, and I am a product of the West. I grew up in Bellingham, Washington, the middle son of two highly educated Coloradoans who had moved there after World War II. A recent newspaper story about the snipers in the Washington, D.C., area tells me the gunmen used to live in Bellingham, "a Mecca for people who want to be as far away as possible from wherever they are from." That's my hometown, which was a lot smaller when I lived there than it is now. It occurs to me that I must have been twenty years old before I saw great art in a museum. I certainly saw art in books and my parents' slides from a trip to Europe. There were works of local artists in our house, and I might have glimpsed others in museums in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. A great poet, Theodore Roethke, lived in Seattle, and I had a book about the paintings of Mark Tobey. I got to know a bit of music because my high school girlfriend played the violin, my father listened to public radio, my older brother recorded albums on reel-to-reel tapes. Good theater existed in Seattle and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I dozed through some opera, acted in high school plays.
At nineteen I unloaded crab and shrimp boats in Alaska for seven months—turning twenty in the Aleutians—then headed overseas, where I hitchhiked the perimeter of the British Isles and dallied on the Continent. I saw London's museums and bought Upper Circle tickets to every play on boards. I also saw plays in Edinburgh and Dublin. In the reading room of the British Museum I stared at original manuscripts of Yeats and Shaw, feeling embarrassed for the American girl cracking her chewing gum over the glass cases and exclaiming, "Jesus! Wow!" In Paris and Madrid I saw more great museums. I carried books in my rucksack and mailed them home when I had read them. I took in culture as I took in English beer—in huge swallows. I made sketches, notes, thought of myself as an artist, a real down-and-outer.
But drawn as I was to these famous centers of the arts, I was also happy to be hoofing it alone, all conversations internal or made with any kindly stranger who gave me a lift. Even the attractions of a city like Madrid could not hold me for long. I felt compelled to the margins and spent a month in Almería on the Costa Blanca, falling into a regular life of reading in cafes, swimming, exploring, flirting with Spanish girls, then returning to my pension to read some more and bother the neighbors with late-night hammering on my portable typewriter.
What we often call a cultural life, including all the boozy rebellion of the arts, was something I could only take in small doses. The greatest museums in the world made me feel claustrophobic after a while, and I hated competing with crowds even to see a masterpiece. I was a Westerner—an American far-Westerner, that is—from a small town, not a barrio, and crowds were alien to me. One moment I could enjoy their anonymity, the next I was fighting for air. In a forest I felt at home but starved for the sort of intensity art promises. In museums I felt alien, my culture-thirst slaked, my soul pummeled and quaking. I was born divided—perhaps not so uncommon a fate. Poetry is for me an attempt to find unity of being, and as such it is a meditative process made public through stories and forms.
As a product of the American West in the fifties and sixties, I am of two minds about that "cultural life." I desire the arts like some unpossessable diamond, yet I desire their absence with equal force. Without art I feel sick, half alive, yet cruising an empty highway or hiking under a glacier can sooth me like a prayer. After twenty years away from the West (living in Greece, New York, Pittsburgh and Minnesota) I'm happy to be back in a state where I have some roots and know the lay of the land. But Colorado is, like most states in the West, such a cultural backwater that I'm often driven to despair. One can live a lifetime here convinced that all the important values are Christian and commercial, using the Rockies only as a place to burn fuel and make noise. One can be completely unaware of Bierstadt's paintings of these landscapes, or even the peak that bears his name, let alone poets from Longfellow on down who have celebrated parts of the state. As a state of mind, Colorado is generally blank or cluttered with the sprawling dreck of contemporary America. Yet I am more at home here than in most places I have lived as an adult, and fully aware that landscapes like the one outside my window have shaped my writing as much as the wall of books beside my desk.
The two minds I refer to are not unrelated to the most ancient theories of art. Plato saw poets as vessels for sacred inspiration, making them dangerous to the ideal state. Some modern writers believe creativity comes straight from the uninhibited soul and requires no education or training. Traces of America's native Platonism can be found in poets from the Transcendentalists to the Beats. Aristotle, on the other hand, was the classifier of forms, suggesting that indeed some training in traditions was required of poets, and such notions can be traced forward to Longinus, Lu Chi, T. S. Eliot, etc. Most theories of poetry choose from a menu of ideas about inspiration or craft as if the twain could never meet, when in fact they must meet in the creation of good poems. Writing is in part an attempt to reconcile these warring factions within.
For most of us, America is like a wind blowing our voices away in the midst of each day's effort to speak. Yet I can't help feeling we have it worse in the West—something to do with the distances between us. Perhaps we are more attuned to change and blank indifference, creatures of sprawl and space, our geological consciousness almost impervious to graffiti or poems.
* * *
... I died without nails, without a copy of the Atlantic Monthly....
The West is made of watersheds. The Missouri River, fed by the Yellowstone, the Bighorn, the Powder, the Platte, flows into the Mississippi drainage to be joined by the Arkansas. Northwest, the Snake, the Columbia, the Willamette, and moving south, the Russian, the Sacramento, the San Joaquin—these find the Pacific at various points on the coast. Then you have the major drainages of the Rio Grande and the Colorado, without which life in the Southwest would be inconceivable.
Use the Missouri as a line drawn east and south, then at Kansas City pick up the eastern borders of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; you've got a pretty good place to start defining the West as a region, taking into account its components: the Plains, the Rockies, the Southwest, Northwest, California and Texas. Rivers and mountains are the veins and bones of this sprawled body. Gary Snyder chose well when he titled his long poem Mountains and Rivers without End. And Louis Simpson had the right idea in his poem "The Redwoods," which begins,
Mountains are moving, rivers
are hurrying. But we
We have the thoughts of giants—
clouds, and at night the stars.
Simpson's move from landscape to mind reminds me that geography helps, but not enough. There is a West of the mind. There is a West of many minds. The enclaves of religious fundamentalists, the back road survivalists, the developers, the greens, the tramps, the ski bums and bookworms and barrio gangs, the vast neighborhoods of the newly arrived, the computer geeks and ex-dot-commers. The West is like an imaginary marketplace where visions rise and fall. One invests in pasts as well as futures.
I had read Simpson's poem before, but had not been struck by it as I was when I opened Poems of the American West (Everyman Editions, 2002), an anthology edited by Robert Mezey, and stumbled on it again. "O if there is a poet," Simpson writes, "let him come now!" He's arrived at the terminus of American expansion, the end of the Open Road, but finds something as yet unexpressed in the land itself. I know what he means. Born at the tail end of 1954, I grew up with a strong sense that it had all been seen and done, we had reached our limits, but I was troubled by an equally strong conviction that much remained to be said.
Mezey's anthology is a good place to start, not least because of his humility before so vast a subject. "I am as little qualified as most poets or scholars," he writes in his foreword, "to set up as an authority on the poetry of the American West. True, I grew up in West Philadelphia, and have spent most of the last thirty-five years in the West, mostly in California, but neither accident has given me the slightest confidence that I know what the West is, or even where it is." An accomplished poet and translator, Mezey has also been one of our most intriguing anthologists, from the Naked Poetry volumes of the sixties and seventies, edited with Stephen Berg, to his superb Modern Library edition of The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1999). His taste is catholic in the best sense—like his friend Donald Justice he has written marvelous poems in both free verse and meter—and is reflected in the poems chosen for the new book.
Most anthologists these days collect poets for the purpose of building careers. But in this case Mezey collects poems, and therein lies a lesson. He is not necessarily interested in promoting writers who live in the West, however one defines the region. I appreciate the personal touch in Mezey's selection, the willed eccentricity of a book called Poems of the American West that includes work by Guillaume Apollinaire, Zbigniew Herbert and Rhina Espaillat. Mezey acknowledges that West of the mind I mentioned earlier, finds aspects of its mythos in poems from all over the world.
Taking this strategy to heart, one could make a very fat anthology. Cowboys and Western landscapes show up in some surprising places. Off the cuff I think of Seamus Heaney defining Ireland as a place without prairies, and one could no doubt find poets from Asian countries making use of the American West as a source of irony or dream of freedom. As Mezey himself admits, his book is not definitive, nor could it be. It is instead an eclectic compendium mostly of good poems arising from physical experiences of place as well as from mental geographies. He includes a selection of traditional Native American poems in translation as well as a fair representation of living poets of various backgrounds, and he does not exclude Country and Western lyrics or traditional songs like John Phillips's mordant "Me and My Uncle" and Fred Koller's "Lone Star State of Mind":
And here I sit alone in Denver,
Sippin' the California wine,
And I've got all night to remember you—
I'm in a Lone Star state of mind.
Mezey reminds us that Robert Frost spent his early years as an urban Californian. It irked me that he included Frost's misguided poem "The Gift Outright" until I saw it echoed nearly two hundred pages later in Larry Levis's "The Poet at Seventeen." Far from endorsing Manifest Destiny, Mezey merely points out how powerful a myth it remains. I am also glad to see strong work by Charles Bukowski, James Galvin, B. H. Fairchild, Mark Jarman, Timothy Murphy, Ted Kooser, Nancy Ware and others. There are poems by the brilliant student of Donald Justice, Joe Bolton, who committed suicide and whose work Justice generously edited. And there is a knockout of a poem by Suzanne Doyle, "Heart's Desire":
Somewhere above King's Canyon, having crossed
An unmarked pass, tonight you'll make your bed
In alpine air, lay down your tender head
Among the rocks that glaciers ground and tossed
Within that wide angle of time: the Ice Age.
This is the country of your heart's desire,
The granite cut to peaks, luring you higher,
The mind but blood and muscle schooled for passage.
You stare into the stellar void and wait.
Empty, alone, the god can enter in
Not so unlike the fiend who was your fate,
The one that took you small, again, again,
Broke you in two and still might break you more.
It is inhuman beauty, cold, austere,
You open to receive without a fear,
Arousing your remote and shattered core
To the release that only it can bring:
Annihilation of the self by Nothing.
I ponder that last line with its nearly Buddhist promise and wonder if the annihilation of the self by Nothing isn't also a condition of the American West, a blessed curse of living where I do. But just as I grasp it the image blurs and evaporates like breath on a windowpane.
King's Canyon, the setting of Doyle's poem, was also a favorite setting for Kenneth Rexroth, who can be found in these pages with J. V. Cunningham, Yvor Winters, Gary Snyder, John Haines, William Stafford, Edgar Bowers, Timothy Steele, R. S. Gwynn, Alberto Rios, Ron Koertge, Lawson Fusao Inada, Suzanne Lummis, Olivia Simpson Ellis and N. Scott Momaday. Mezey has cast a wide net but pursed it tightly, printing no poem that he did not genuinely like. The fact that his taste will not always be yours or mine does not really matter. One reads anthologies like this one partly to escape one's preconceptions.
Still, the book lacks two poems I wish it had included, by Thomas McGrath and Richard Wilbur. McGrath was such an uneven writer that one has to look hard for his best work. Born in North Dakota, he was known for his communist sympathies, which in his bad work bent him toward propaganda. But he was also a spirited writer about the West, as you can see in his short lyric "The Buffalo Coat":
I see him moving, in his legendary fleece,
Between the superhighway and an Algonquin stone axe;
Between the wild tribes, in their lost heat,
And the dark blizzard of my Grandfather's coat;
Cold with the outdoor cold caught in the curls,
Smelling of the world before the poll tax.
And between the new macadam and the Scalp Act
They got him by the short hair; had him clipped
Who once was wild—and all five senses wild—
Printing the wild with his hoof's inflated script
Before the times was money in the bank,
Before it was a crime to be so mild.
But history is a fact, and moves on feet
Sharper than his, toward wallows deeper than.
And the myth that covered all his moving parts,
Grandfather's time had turned into a coat;
And what kept warm then, in the true world's cold
Is old and cold in a world his death began.
Excerpted from Two Minds of a Western Poet by David Mason Copyright © 2011 by the 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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