Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry


Committed to exploring the role of poetry and poets in our culture, Stephen Dunn provides new, expanded versions of the essays originally published by W. W. Norton in 1993, now out of print. In Walking Light, Dunn discusses the relationship between art and sport, the role of imagination in writing poetry, and the necessity for surprise and discovery when writing a poem. Humorous, intelligent and accessible, Walking Light is a book that will appeal to writers, readers, and ...

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Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry

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Committed to exploring the role of poetry and poets in our culture, Stephen Dunn provides new, expanded versions of the essays originally published by W. W. Norton in 1993, now out of print. In Walking Light, Dunn discusses the relationship between art and sport, the role of imagination in writing poetry, and the necessity for surprise and discovery when writing a poem. Humorous, intelligent and accessible, Walking Light is a book that will appeal to writers, readers, and teachers of poetry.

Stephen Dunn is the author of eleven collection of poetry. He teaches writing and literature at the Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey, and lives in Port Republic, New Jersey.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781929918003
  • Publisher: BOA Editions, Ltd.
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Series: American Readers Series Series
  • Edition description: EXPANDED
  • Pages: 229
  • Sales rank: 1,514,436
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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Chapter One

Stepping Out

* * *

In Heinrich Boll's, "The Balek Scales," an archetypal story that dramatizes how the powerful keep power, the Baleks, who run the feudal town, create and perpetuate the myth that Bilgan the Giant lives in the woods. This keeps the townspeople out of the woods, beyond which is a town that has scales. There's only one scale in the Baleks' town, and they own it. It's rigged. The townspeople bring in mushrooms and other produce from the fields, the scale determines how much they will be paid. On one of its most significant levels, the story is about simple heroism: A young boy, sensing dishonesty, dares to go through the woods to find the evidence for his suspicions. Without a clear sense of where he's going, he locates the distant town and finds out the exact degree (in ounces) by which he's been cheated, and brings the truth back to the people who are changed by it.

    It is one of the greatest stories I know about the link between greed and power and injustice. In addition to perpetuating the self-serving myth of Bilgan the Giant and also controlling the town's industry, the Baleks "own" the police, and they have the priest in the philosophical pocket. The Baleks certainly knew how to do it—economic, military, and clerical control, with a scary story to keep the folks at home: a model for an empire. An all too familiar model. The story raises a crucial political question: How do you behave when there is only one game in town and you learn that game is fixed? For centuries, the variously oppressedhave answered that question in much the same way. They behave "badly" at first, out of anger, and they are suppressed and/or killed. Resignation sets in for some of the survivors. But gradually and inexorably, others plan, gather forces, and, after many years and with great travail, succeed or set in motion the apparatus of change. Boll, however, attempts no more than to give us the structure of a tyranny, a heroic catalyst in the boy, and the first rush of outrage by the newly informed populace. The Baleks defeat the townspeople's small, impetuous revolution, but the story ends with the truth, through word of mouth, being passed on.

    Boll's elemental tale would satisfy and enlighten even if I hadn't had the childhood I had, but for me it evoked a time when I was constricted and tempted by neighborhood parameters, both real and mythical. For my purposes, it's the boy and his ability to transcend his environment —the boy as emblematic poet—toward whom this memoir will meander and finally concern itself.

    Always there were parental admonitions, Don't go beyond Groton Street, Don't hang around with the troublemakers, Don't accept invitations from strangers, by which I was more or less guided. My parents were benign Baleks, but all Baleks—benign or evil—must be resisted if we are to find out who we are. As I grew older, parental admonitions blended with and finally gave way to neighborhood legends. Our Bilgan the Giant had many faces; enough kids had gotten hurt in various parts of the kingdom to prove it. When you stepped out of your neighborhood you had to know where you were, how to move, and how to get back home. The problem was, of course, that you needed experience to know such things, and our cautionary legends militated against having foreign experiences. In this sense, we were our own Baleks.

    I grew up as a Catholic in the Jewish section of Forest Hills, New York, a relatively safe middle-class neighborhood, and "foreign" constituted a few blocks in any direction. Four or five blocks to the south was Metropolitan Avenue, the beginning of the Italian neighborhood. To the west, Yellowstone Boulevard marked an area of mixed ethnicity —poorer kids and their street gang, the Gauchos. To the east, beyond Continental Avenue, were the harmless Protestants, but to the north, near Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and Queens Boulevard, were a handful of tough Irish Catholics and notably a boy named Crocker, Bilgan the Giant incarnate. (It was rumored that Crocker had killed someone in a knife fight.) Back then Crocker was called a juvenile delinquent; today, he'd be a sociopath. Blacks lived two subway stops away in Jamaica, Queens—it might as well have been Idaho. My Jewish friends and I knew at least one telling story about each group, enough to keep us near home. Mostly.

    But close to home there were worries, too. Every neighborhood has bullies, and I'm convinced that they watch how we walk. In Forest Hills, shufflers were in deep trouble, as were the pigeon-toed. Kids who walked like ducks were doomed. (Girls always were in some danger no matter how they walked, but that's another subject, too large and complicated to discuss here.) Kids who bounced when they walked were in less trouble, but rarely were taken seriously. A loose-limbed, jaunty, I'm-cool kind of walk almost always signaled someone who talked too much. He'd get in trouble with his mouth. And a straight, ramrod-up-the-ass walk suggested either terror of simply being alive, or some desperate need to be in control, which probably amount to the same thing. Bullies would flick lighted matches at those kids, would try to make them dance on command.

    Walking wrong. I had some sense of it even as a kid. I tried to cultivate a walk that would give away none of the above. I think my walk was somewhere in between "Walking tall," like the best movie heroes, and walking quietly, like a medium-sized animal, a vegetarian, trying not to disturb his natural enemy. Above all, I tried not to let my false confidence ring false.

    When I was in seventh grade I often had to walk past Jackie Sternberg, a sinewy, cruel older boy who like to punch kids in the arm. He tried to hit me in the biceps, which in most of us had not yet developed. I think he liked to see the resulting bruise, as if it were something he could measure himself by. "Want a knuckle sandwich?" he'd say, and wouldn't wait for an answer. I was careful not to hesitate as I walked past his favorite spot in the school yard, and was careful to look at him directly, but not too directly. Jackie understood the averted eye as well as he did a limp. He also understood that if you said, "Hi, Jackie," it was a sign of fear. He was a classic bully, I think a lawyer now. He never hit me. I don't know what I would have done if he had.

    Perhaps the fact that I didn't get hit had more to do with how tall I was for my age than it did with brilliant walking. I was five-ten by the time I was twelve, skinny, but well-coordinated. I suppose this was why I became president of the Cobras. We were a team, actually, not a gang. Therefore, getting those blue-and-gold satin jackets with "Cobras" on the back was a mistake. Within two weeks, Marty, our second baseman, was chased by a few of the Italians. Ronnie was beaten up by the Gauchos, his arm broken. He had walked one street too far, looking wrong, probably even walking wrong. We sent the jackets back to the store, had "Athletic Club" sewn below "Cobras." None of us was mistaken for a rival gang member again.

    In the case of the Cobras and our unwise jackets, I'm speaking as much about the value of tact (a minor aspect of style) as I am about survival strategies or their absence. Tact implies an awareness of your audience. We had all been too self-involved to know what a name like Cobras would mean to the Gauchos. Ours was a failure to understand the resonance of language and its social significance. Yet the underside of tact is that those who master it can become too careful, can give up important aspects of self just to temporize, get along. Had we sacrificed identity by sending the jackets back? In fact, we told ourselves, we really were an athletic club. We were modifying our language in the direction of the truth.

    Those of us who write know that the modest claim is usually more credible (and therefore safer) than the grand one. But we must admit that its attendant pleasures are necessarily that much smaller. There's the trade-off. The grand claim, stylistically and substantively earned, is a rare phenomenon, therefore a worthy one. Our stature, however, required tact. By contrast, the Gauchos were the Gauchos. They had a fist behind every jacket. They walked boldly, and in numbers. One can say that they had a style equal to their intentions.

    Yet, as we know, such matters are relative. A year after Ronnie's broken arm, the Gauchos lost a rumble to the Panthers from nearby Corona. I don't know if the Panthers had style, but they did have substance: more members, more weapons. The Gauchos were the real thing, though provincially defined. Local heroes often discover they're bums when they move to the next-higher league. Worse is when they don't know there is a next league, and a league above it. The Gauchos lacked, finally, a sense of dimension. Blake was on the mark when he said that you have to know what's more than enough in order to know what's enough.

    The style Richie Goldstein and I affected when we tried to nonchalant our way past Crocker and his boys served none of our intentions. We were walking home from the movies. Ahead of us, in front of the White Castle, was a bunch of rowdies, openly drinking beer. That much we could see. It was one of those they've-seen-us, lets-not-show-them-we're-afraid situations. Richie and I decided to brazen it out (with our best out-for-a-stroll gait). But when we got closer we saw Bilgan and his boys. Crocker wore his blond hair Elvis-style. And he had a package of cigarettes rolled up in the shoulder of his T-shirt in the tough-guy style of the period. This accentuated his muscles. It was too late to turn around, even though I said in a half-whisper, "That's Crocker," and Richie mumbled something like, "Oh, no."

     They got silent as we approached, backed off to let us pass. We were about twenty feet beyond then when Cocker yelled, "Let's get the kikes," and seconds later I felt a boot strike me in the back of my upper thigh. Richie was on the track team; he got away. I ran, too, but they caught me after a block and dragged me into a doorway. They kicked me a few times and I remember Crocker saying, "Take this, you dirty Jew." But one of his boys said, "Wait, I know this guy from school, his name is Dunn. He ain't a Jew." Crocker stopped kicking me to ask if that was true. It was three-quarters true (my maternal grandfather was Jewish), and I said "I'm not Jewish." There are ways to rationalize such a desperate response, but I still wince a little when I think that I allowed Crocker and his gang to think I was more like them than Richie. Crocker helped me up, asked if I wanted a beer. It was his form of apology.

    I headed toward home, relieved and ashamed, and rang Richie Goldstein's doorbell. His mother answered, ashen-faced. Richie was hiding behind the sofa, but came out when he heard it was me. All his life his family had told him stories of the Nazis. He had finally met one, and so had I. When I saw his face, I lied to him, told him that I, too, had gotten cleanly away. At that moment, did I understand what collaboration meant? Did I understand how appallingly simple it can be? I can't remember.

    Guilt aside, nonchalance is a bad tactic with certain theorists. If the theory says Jews must be killed, or some equal aberration, evasive action might make sense. Acting nonchalant is stupid. The more we know about history, the more we know that in such circumstances we must forget about subtler, forget even about poetry if we are poets, and attack the theory and its proponents. I've always admired George Oppen, who, because he felt he couldn't do both, gave up writing poetry in the 1930s in order to be a political activist. I take this as evidence that he had too much respect for poetry to be polemical with it. And too much commitment to changing the conditions of the world to permit himself the ambiguities that poets must honor. Such ambiguities would have prevented him from being single-minded, and he must have needed to be single-minded just then. When Oppen returned to writing poems twenty-five years later, there was no nonsense and much substance behind his lean and jagged style.

    Oppen, I think, would have known that your most subtle moves don't work very well when you don't know where you are. Richie and I had been in Crocker territory, and we acted as if we were dealing with Jackie Sternberg in a Jewish school yard. A political error.

    To know where you are requires imagination. To move well requires skill. Behind both, optimally, should be a sense of history. Concomitantly, you need nerve and/or a keen Darwinian fear. The boy in "The Balek Scales" had everything but a sense of history. He didn't know that the weak, without weapons and careful planning, always lose to the strong. On the other hand, he can be likened to the great religious figures and the brave thinkers. He went ahead anyway, in the face of enormous odds. The difference between a politician and a radical is that the politician seeks consensus. The radical usually is too driven and impatient to wait for the committee's vote. Radicals originate. Politicians implement. The boy was an emblem for knowing where one is (under the collective thumb of the Baleks), and seeing through what passes for the truth. Also he's an emblem for the virtues of risking getting lost. Bilgan the Giant didn't exist, a fact he couldn't know, and it took supreme courage to venture far enough to confirm that.

    The great poets, it seems to me, have slain more giants that never existed than ones that did. On one level, this means that we live with various mystifications—like religious dogma or government-speak—against which almost any honest poem is a corrective. On another level, more parallel to the boy's quest, the non-existent giants fall as poets successfully reconcile their ways of seeing and feeling with external realities. Such reconciliations cast a light. They clarify and disabuse.

    My early New York peregrinations have driven me to want to know at all times where I am. As this pertains to my writing, I'm capable, at best, of a keen and useful alertness to the landscapes of my poems. But needing to have such surety is something I must work against. Sometimes it's desirable, indeed necessary, to move without a compass. A poem can die if there's no departure from the known place. Therefore, I've learned that I need, now and then, to get myself in a little trouble. Insert a foreign detail. Say something I can't yet support, or even fully understand. In a sense, to step out of my neighborhood. If I'm not lost after I've gotten lost, I may have something to talk about and a new place from which to say it.

    Recently I was in Atlantic City, and made the kind of walking error that suggests I'm not as careful or street-wise as I'd like to think. It was late, raining. I was returning from Resorts International, the casino I often frequent. My car was parked two blocks away. The quickest way to it was through an alley. Why, knowing the neighborhood as I did, would I choose the quickest, not the safest, way? (My choice was proof that I didn't quite know where I was, or didn't sufficiently care.) I had my rubber raincoat on, the hood up. A black man walked toward me from the other side of the alley. He was middle-aged, tall, bareheaded in the rain. I saw him. He saw me. We gave each other room, each of us wary, walking like crabs: slow, sideways while going forward. As we neared each other, he said, "Don't mess with me. I have a gun at home." I held up my hands, as if to communicate "No problem." When I got to my car, I was shaking. Later, I loved recalling that he said he had a gun at home. That was style, of a sort, in search of substance, and I loved thinking that you're in trouble if you leave your substance home. There's nothing to be proud of in this instance. But if I hadn't walked foolishly, I'd have one less story to tell and embellish.

    The adult situation that arose most inevitably out of my childhood occurred in Syracuse several years ago. It was the White Castle and Crocker revisited, and it may go to prove that Santayana's truism has a flip side: Sometimes one who fully understands his history is doomed to repeat it.

    Galenti, my neighbor, the biker, the drug dealer, was sitting on the stoop with a pistol in his hand. I was about fifty yards from the house when I saw him. Somehow I knew he was waiting for me. My first impulse was to pivot, go in another direction. But, like Crocker that night, he had seen me. Once again I reasoned that the best course of action was to show that I wasn't afraid. I used my walking tall, medium-sized, animal walk.

    This was Syracuse, and I was a thirty-year-old graduate student at the university. I lived in a poor part of town in an old house with thin walls. The gun-toter lived in the other apartment on the ground floor, and we shared a common basement. In the winter, he kept his motorcycle down there. A few months earlier he had almost strangled the upstairs neighbor for blocking the driveway. A month after that I had called the Humane Society because he was repeatedly mistreating his dog. They had taken her away. Did he know that I had placed the call?

    "I was waiting for you" he said as I approached. "There's a goddamn sparrow in the basement. Been shitting on my bike. I want to shoot it, but the bullets might go up into your living room. Is that a problem?" It was a relief that I wasn't the problem, and, though still afraid, I said no, but I would catch the sparrow for him. That I did, trapped it with a pillow up against the rafters, transferred it to my hand, and took it out into the sunlight, where it burst open my hand and gloriously flew away.

    I could have been shot. But if I had backed away after he had seen me, I think he would have made my life miserable from then on. Did I know where I was? Maybe yes, maybe no. It could be said that I knew existential territory better than I did the political territory. After all, I was walking into a situation where I had no power and few resources. If he'd been inclined to harm me, I had made it easy for him. On the other hand, he could harm me anytime he wanted. Something about living on my own terms impelled me forward. Was it a good decision? Well, it worked. But empiricism is a lousy way to determine the value of an act. The boy in "The Balek Scales" failed empirically, succeeded as a beacon, a spirit. The Baleks were exposed as scum, the fixers and cheaters of the word. I saved a sparrow because I was afraid to show I was afraid.

    Inherent in "The Balek Scales" is that one must walk wrong in order to walk right. The boy did everything wrong—according to the prevailing ethos of his society. Crocker also did everything wrong. But Crocker sought nothing beyond the viscera of his malice. Knowledge would have cramped his style. The boy walked wrong in pursuit of knowledge and toward an eventual justice he could only intuit. His style —as emblematic poet—if he can be said to have a style, is inseparable from his convictions and his deeds. It could be called clean, efficient, a style which properly drew little attention to itself. As a poet he'd have been a Hardy rather than, say, a Keats.

    The story as a whole sticks with me, prods me. I think it says to me that you have to know where you are, but that that's just the beginning of useful consciousness. Then you have to go where you can't.

    In life, as in art, there are many ways to get where you can't, very few of them heroic. On such journeys it is not unusual to find tact and chicanery, not to mention innocence, complicating courage and moral intelligence. But good stories make us dream. The boy in "The Balek Scales" is who we might be whenever we hear some inner voice and trust it, and go with it as far as we can imagine.

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Table of Contents

At the Crossroads: An Introduction 3
Stepping Out 7
Bringing the Strange Home 17
The Good and Not So Good 35
Basketball and Poetry: The Two Richies 43
Some Reflections on the Abstract and the Wise 49
Gambling: Remembrances and Assertions 65
Complaint, Complicity, Outrage and Composition 75
A History of My Silence 93
Artifice and Sincerity 107
The Truth: a Memoir 115
Alert Lovers, Hidden Sides, and Ice Travelers: Notes on Poetic Form & Energy 125
The Poet as Teacher: Vices and Virtues 137
Journal Notes 145
Touching the Leper's Hand: Possibilities of Affirmation 151
Poets, Poetry, and the Spiritual 159
The Hand Reaching Into the Crowd: James Wright's Grace and the 1993 World Series 175
Experience, Imagination, and the Poet as Fictionist 187
Poetry and Manners 193
Love's Artifice and Fernando Pessoa 203
Acknowledgments 219
About the Author 223
Index 225
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