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So, I had this idea to talk about a walk, or really to try and take you all on a walk. I feel at times the kind of attention one is open to on a walk is not dissimilar to the kind of attention that can guide one through a poem. By a walk, I mean something between a stroll and a hike, that movement into the outside world with a hope of encountering it. The kind of walk, which if someone asked what you were doing you would say I’m going for a walk. That kind of walk. You feel things you notice things, your body is activated and engaged. It is constantly making intuitive and sensual decisions. You see something and look at it, or you see something and move around it. You hear and smell and touch. Sometimes you wander off with your mind and you are very much far away from the actual physical world you are moving through. Sometimes you are taken by something – a scrap of paper on the ground or an animal or anything and it draws you toward, it draws your attention toward. And then mostly on you continue with your walk, parts of it elevating in meaningfulness and parts of it floating away almost completely unnoticed.
I think about reading a poem. When I read a poem – I say it aloud – even when I’m reading it to myself – I move through it. The saying it aloud, which is hearing and speaking at the same time, feels to me like the guided and unguided aspects of a walk. And in many ways, poems are the temporary things that occupy the spans of time it takes to see them or hear them or read them. The walk with the endless mystery of its uncontrolled and unfolding perspective can feel like the poem – while we easily recognize their stable characteristics, we can feel, especially in the acts of deeply encountering them, some aspects of the accumulated moments of poems experienced – those moments inside the actual words on the page without you, and now made alive as depth-full presence. Reading the poem aloud – mostly just keeping going and taking things in as it is read. One knows one is missing something and one knows one is accessing something as well. My idea with the poem is that it is to be experienced.
Often when I’m reading I will gather the books around (sometimes on the kitchen table or other tables in the house) and keep them together so that even just moving by them excites some idea or memory. Little connections knocked against you during your day. One is reminded (almost sensually) of the things those books are when walking back and forth by them.
It’s like a memory – holding the peripheral meanings that swirl around it, elevated by the structure of its central concerns identified or not. And I was reading Stevenson and I was reading Thoreau, too. So there were all the Thoreau books and Stevenson books on my kitchen table and I read this in Stevenson, “The woods by night, in all their uncanny effect, are not rightly to be understood until you can compare them with the woods by day.” And when I read it, I instantly remembered Thoreau having said (earlier that week) in his journals, the journals in which he is often documenting his night walks through Concord, that one does not know the day until they have walked at night. And then I remembered Stevenson, saying of Thoreau that he was dull and priggish and unfriendly. And not having ever met him, one gets the distinct impression that he is just fine not having ever met him. And so here they are together on my table saying, not surprisingly, seemingly opposite things. One, that you don’t know the day until you walk at night, and the other, that you don’t know the night until you walk at day. And I kept thinking that now, at least for me, those things were basically the same thing. Years after they are gone, years after there is nothing they can really do about it, I have put them together and think fondly of how similar they are. Look, I thought, they both enjoy walking at night.
Thoreau, constantly writing journals of his daily experience, taking and forming from those journals his books – almost like cuttings from a plant to be given away, to go grow in other people’s homes. And Stevenson, who made formed things from the imagination to go activate the imaginations of others, so giving and playful. Both struggling with ideas of place and home (one traveling constantly, the other notably still) and both dying at forty-four, leaving behind the uninhibited refuse of their committed literary lives. I would think of the writers, their selves present in their books, their similarities and differences, just right out there for me to sort of endlessly engage in. One basic thought of the book is as a continued them, and their lives reanimated in their public and their private selves presented so vigorously in print, and sort of multiplying in the attentions to them. And while this idea felt like it could be a real response to time and the solidity of the object, it felt so strange pairing the two of them up and making them do that. As if just because there on my table they were, they had to talk.
There are these fantastic stories from the 18th century about the lives and communications of books. There are poems really about every part of a book animated and talking to every other part. The covers to each other, the bookplate complaining to its contents about where it has ended up, or the poem itself calling to be set free from the confines of the boards holding the pages in. Or the other conversations of books with each other. Like Swift’s Battle of the Books – them interacting on the shelves and speaking with each other, introducing each other, berating each other. Ancient and modern tomes bickering over the respect or lack of respect one is given or deserves. The moral of the story of all the books beginning to speak to one another is usually that in no case will it result in them getting along. And this is blamed naturally on the character of the reader, on the reader’s inherent disregard for the differences in the books acquired – to have so many different efforts brought together – to encourage so many unlikely relationships – or at least encounters – and the ability to unbalance seems at the center of the experience of life with books – the visions and ways each conjure – their different tones and languages – their voices and the places they bring us, the places they want to go.
And so I thought that if I was going to talk about books, maybe I should just take you on a walk, but on a walk through a library and have each book sort of do the explaining for itself. And then I started thinking about which library, thinking about the different types of libraries and how books come together in them. Not just what happens when they do, but how they end up where they are. It’s hard to talk about one library without wanting to talk about all of them. And which one would I choose? And then I thought not to take that walk but just to list and present all the different kinds of libraries – the public ones gathered and arranged systematically by many people over years and years, the private ones in individual homes constructed intuitively over a single lifetime. And others like the temporary ones you take away on a trip, the books one might throw in a bag for a walk, or the trunk of a car – I think of Joshua Slocum sailing alone around the world in the 1890s, rigging up his boat to keep moving and it sailing on while he went below deck to his little library and read Moby-Dick. Or the imaginative libraries, like the one that grows over time between two friends (made up of the books they actually share but also the ones they talk and think about, too, the ones they associate with each other). Or the private library inside of the public one, the books you go back to over and over again and take out and how they become yours. It’s so rare that a book is out there on its own, removed from the others.
Thomas Gray notoriously wrote in books that belonged to anyone – if he saw a mistake or something he thought could use clarifying or expounding upon – and it seems his university library (and libraries as far afield as right here) are still full of books that are full of his scribbled notes. And I thought I could just write about him – poet, private scholar, marginaliast, friend – correspondent, whose private communications inspired countless public ones, whose descriptive letters of the Lake District are as responsible as any other work for the appreciation and enthusiasm of the Romantics for the place. The life of the book that is as much about the active experience of being inside them as writing them oneself. Gray writing so few poems, and considered to have stopped his literary output altogether the decade before his death, but the reality was that he was writing in the margins of his books, most notably his copy of Linnaeus’s Natural System (a catalogue of living things) – writing on every bare spot of it, writing and drawing pictures – hundreds of notes in English and Latin, that spanned the mundane to the poetic – practical and imaginative, at one moment describing the inspiring forceful movements of the wings of a bird in flight and the next describing how tasty or salty it was.
And now I was just getting desperate. I had tried so many things. I went back and read the description of the lecture I was to give. There wasn’t a walk anywhere to be found. I said I would talk about the intimate and communal experiences of poetry and how they relate to the book as an object, as well as the private library and the porous experience of the book in real and imagined space. Oh no. Was I really going to try and do that. What did it mean? I knew what it meant, but would I just go and enact it or would I take it apart and explain. For me the porous experience of the book was simple, it was the only way I had come to understand them. I would be eating a sandwich or I would be sweating and the oils in my skin would get onto the page or I would go to grab a book I hadn’t gone to in a while and the dust would come off it, straight into my lungs. Or I would be walking down the street and the experience of some poem I had read earlier would reemerge in my walking self or maybe even in my words. I would say something and the voice of someone else, or even stranger, the impulse of someone else would come out of me, mixed with what felt like my own. And my experience of the real actual book, my experience of touching and holding it and having the poem close to me and my experience of the lives of the poems and poets that accompany me when I’m away from their books, blends completely with my self as a person, a reader, a poet. The porousness I meant – that things move in and out of you fluidly and not exactly effortlessly, but not in a controlled way either. It’s an openness. That’s what a pore is. And to think of what the poems I was reading were doing and how they were entering me and how aspects of them would come out of me at times. It is easy to think of it as feelings and understandings – you read a poem and its understandings of things enter you as understandings. Or feelings: You feel that in the experience of reading a poem and now that feeling is in you and capable of being had, and out into the world as feelings are sometimes sent outward. But really the porousness was about all the slight things, the ways and aspects of the poems that enter you unnoticed, or at least unidentified. And that’s the closeness to the poem, I think. I had the idea that spending all of this time trying to figure out a way to make a lecture about something like books in the poet’s life was just too much and had made me scattered and oblivious to the basic experience of standing up in front of a group of people and telling them about something. I couldn’t, after all, stand up and tell you everything I’ve been thinking, and yet being with books sort of encouraged just that.
In Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing, he berates the indulgent parent who gives the child too many books, so that instead of being forced to find the meaning within, the child can sort of browse and gather to their imagination’s content. And that a few books, regardless of how good they are, are a better inspiration to the youngster. All I can really say is that it is probably sensible to heed this warning, but I have not, so sort and browse I continue to do.
I had been reading for years and I had been making notes for this lecture for years. I had a pile of paper scraps, and every time I would have an idea or a line would come to me I would scribble it down. And every time I would find something in a book I was reading, I would stick into it a little piece of paper – writing down some particular quote or noting what imaginative place it brought me to. I was reading and thinking, not certain where I was going with anything, and for most of the time I wasn’t really sure what the lectures would even be about, and in fact that kind of helped me keep going. I’m a poet, and I’m the kind of poet who really doesn’t know what he is doing when he is doing it. I make poems to find out what they say, not to make them say what I want. In fact, if I know where I’m going I rarely ever want to go there and would never actually end up there anyway. And for a while I thought the lecture should be about that – the experience of not knowing. Of moving inside the poem to find out what it will be, of letting the book be formed by that unknowing creation and not responding to it with any prepared set of needs and expectations.
For ten years I worked on a project – I was gathering quotations on birdsong. I started it with a friend but he drifted away almost immediately and I just kept doing it. I would find, in whatever it was I was reading, a caw or a call or an explanation of sound, and I would take that quote and copy it down. I’m not really sure why I was doing it. Birdsong seemed appealing and English. It felt at first, I think, like a kind of getting to know the poets I loved. The poets I loved loving birds. Dickinson through her window and Coleridge out in the hills. I think I found their joy and excitement joyous and exciting and wanted whatever that was – and that is basically what I got. That seemingly random and impromptu appearance of birds in our lives and how that was mimicked in my reading. I would be reading along and then there on the wire of some narrative a bird would land and start to sing. For a while this project was the most enjoyable thing – and I wasn’t just enjoying myself, I was getting something done (sadly, that’s my inner response to pleasure and leisure). There I was, no matter what I was reading, building some archive. To what end I really didn’t know, but something was being made, something was growing. Then, after a while I would find myself waiting, not exactly skimming a book, but waiting for that moment I could take something from it.
Bird-watching is, in many ways, not about the birds but about their surroundings. It feels, while you are doing it, more like you are trying to act like a bird. There you are still, there your head moving quickly and anxiously in relation to some slight sound or movement. You stare at trees and bushes and the sky most of the time, and only rarely see another bird. The joy I think is being in the space they are in and imagining, in at least some way, you are attending to things they attend to, so that eventually when you do see the Elegant Trogon you feel a bit like the two of you have something in common. But with the books it began to feel too tactical. Like I was staring at them and only really interested in when the birds appeared. And so eventually I just stopped. I imagine there are plenty of reasons for tactical reading, for the kind of reading that has you getting something you already know you want, but that for me is the complete antithesis of art. So that if what I’m reading is art, treating it that way is not only undermining the work I’m looking at, it is making me less absorbent and less capable of big experience and feeling.
I remember I wanted to start the talk with a brief description of a scene in a film by Jacques Tati, where he (he’s a French film actor, think a shy well-mannered Charlie Chaplin) and he, lackadaisically wandering through the market and up to his attic apartment by way of every possible stairwell and through every clothesline, doorway and tight corner getting there only to open a window, and what he was doing was opening the window so that a bit of light reflected off of it and went across the courtyard to land on a caged bird and once it hit the caged bird the caged bird started to sing. And he left the window open and adjusted for that reason. And it is not that finding what you have gone looking for is not pleasing and it is not even that books being places you might do that is not a profound and exciting part of what they are, but just that, as a poet, I found the experience of the unknown is what excites me.
For me the closest I can come to telling seems to be sharing. The idea that one might get up and tell how things are the way they are or how things should be the way things should be seems, in a basic way, off from my experience of poetry. And it is so easy to imagine books as the solidifying process of an otherwise organic poetic experience – containing a mystery more than being a continually expanding one, but my experience tells me otherwise. And so a purposeful tactical writing feels odd. I want an investigative writing – experience and finding out as part of the speaking. Why would I say it if I think I know it? And once I do doesn’t that make me want to question it? I thought, I know why I’d say it. I’d say it if you asked. And I thought one way to give this lecture would be simply to stand up here and have you all ask questions before I talked instead of after, and just answer questions until we were done. I could know a little about who you are, what you want and need instead of presenting some abstract relocation of my mind and experience for your benefit. And I thought, the thing about questions that appeals to me is basically how they express the location of the questioner. So that instead of talking into a big void of interest and disapproval, it would be more like talking with a friend. And I thought, really what I would do is open up for questions and whatever the first question was I would just try and answer that for an hour, using the placement and concerns of that individual to bounce off of as I talked, and as I did that the rest of you could locate us and the conversation’s relation to your own thoughts and concerns.
There is this moment in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying when Cyril asks Vivian if he is prepared to prove that it is not Art which imitates Nature, but Nature which imitates Art. To which Vivian replies, “My dear fellow, I am prepared to prove anything.” I find it charming, not because it expresses some willingness to be false as much as an interest in the desire to engage any imaginative possibility. I find when I read him, no matter who is speaking and no matter if the work is fiction or not, I want to attribute the quote to the author. It’s part of having the author there with you when you are reading. And I thought this, for a lecture on books, could be the central idea. That application of belief that the words are the author’s, those senses feelings ideas attributed to that author and how simultaneously we feel we know the author and the author in a way knows us. I wanted to write about that experience of the book as an object one carries around and has with one – in one’s life, during one’s day and how the accompanying intimate experiences both of reading and of just holding and having and being companioned by can elevate that sense of proximity to the space of friendship and love. And how, simultaneously, whatever is living of the author can unfold and grow and change as it appears, be made as it appears.
The realness of these authors is only difficult when we think about it. How present they seem, equal at times to the flesh-and-blood ones that walk around. And I don’t want it to be so simplistic. I don’t believe that there the real authors are in full, presenting their spirits encapsulated in their perfect poems, but there maybe in the same way that a gesture might instantly activate in you an awareness of a person and express or create some actual presence of them. It is not as though they try or if they do, it is not as though their trying really brings them forth then after they are gone or while they are away, but almost their being in the presence of the poem seems to have left a residue of them for you to pick up when you spend time with the poem too, and what is that spending time but a kind of friendship.
Emerson, in his essay on friendship, talks about the ability to speak freely and to be heard that one finds comfortably in a friend, the disposal of inhibition in the face of acceptance. I identify that access of understanding as the central component of friendship. That it allows one to be oneself. So I think about the ways one might find oneself in friendship with poets, one might find companionship and understanding. Not that what they say makes you know them, but what they say makes you feel with them or heard by them. And it is that activatable companionship that the book as an object seems to propose. It can have, at times, while you are reading it, some aspect of the private letter, that expressive communication which presents from the outset a belief and interest in you.
There is something about the letter that gets us closer to the idea of the book. And poets, not uncommonly send their poems in letters and so the letter becomes some reconstruction or almost publication of what came before it, as the book might later. I think of Emily Dickinson. Resisting the harsh machinery of publication for the more intimate opportunities of private expression. She’d send a poem in a letter. And a poem might appear with as much or as little contextualization as was desired. And a poem became, in that moment of sending it, a physical thing, that they might have it in their lives too. That it traveled all the way to them. That they might have it to keep and save, to read and return to. I am sending you along this poem please do not share it with anyone or I am sending you along this poem please share with the whole family. I find in experiences of poems shared this way, that kernel of the book. Its making multiple. Its making possible. That it can travel and be and stay in other places, that while it may change the experience of the poem (as it has been private and with the poet alone), it may change that, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish it. And for the receiver, for the reader, that experience of encounter is the becoming real of what wasn’t there –
At half past Three, a single Bird
Unto a silent Sky
Propounded but a single term
Of cautious melody.
At Half past Four, Experiment
Had subjugated test
And lo, Her silver Principle
Supplanted all the rest.
At Half past Seven, Element
Nor Implement, be seen
And Place was where the Presence was
And you could read a letter or a poem over and over again, reawakening the place and experiences of it. Its impossibilities and complexities, not that having that physical thing in front of you made it more controlled, just more proximate and alive –
At half past Three, a single Bird
Unto a silent Sky
Propounded but a single term
Of cautious melody.
At Half past Four, Experiment
Had subjugated test
And lo, Her silver Principle
Supplanted all the rest.
At Half past Seven, Element
Nor Implement, be seen
And Place was where the Presence was
I wanted to do a lecture on that repeated quality we are allowed with recorded things. One might see something and return to it in their mind or try and conjure up a memory. Not making the poem complete, but accessible the way having a score for some music allows it to come to be repeatedly, actually. And the form, of its coming to be, retaining some obvious and physical presence. A presence that is reiterated each time it is returned to, but one that feels always in movement and always different as a living thing you know to be a particular someone is different each time you encounter them. And this to me is maybe the core of the book. The poem as a physical object, that it may be and be returned to. Not that it is the same, but that it is capable of being again and again. That it is capable of being elsewhere and here. That it may be for one in some fashion similar to how it is for others, and that by being that way, there is a coming together of people.
In the beginning of one of his published journals, Jean Cocteau addresses his readers “the unknown friends enlisted by books” and imagines these friends as his “sole excuse for writing them.” And reading that sort of validated my sense that though many of my friends may not have accepted my friendship in person (something about our personalities or selves in the way), there was something about their impulse not just to write but to make and share books that encouraged it later. And even his articulation, once shared, gets to be mine as well. I can take on his language and I can be comforted by the support our similarities imply.
There is a kind of book called a commonplace book. A commonplace book was to record and refine the ideas, anecdotes, and quotations that most forcefully made themselves a part of one’s life. Those moments when a particular thought or expression answered the question one had struggled with or made a new question that landed in one’s life with profound meaning. And because most of these were essentially quotes from others, it was important to have them in a place one could access. A place one could return to, not just to the feeling or even the idea, but to the language of it. That there was some concrete locale to all these articulations. And the book itself (and each one was a kind of companion) would accompany you in the world. These were all things one might return to in conversation or one might return to when speaking publicly. But, for the most part, a commonplace book was a private storehouse of those points of understanding that helped a thinking person move through their life. It was a lifelong endeavor, keeping such a book.
And one of the ideas for my lecture was simply – to take all the quotes and anecdotes and lay them down one after another, presenting, I guess, not only this span of thoughts and ideas, but the various and exceptional community of authors I met in books and the books I met them in. The quotes maintain some energy of the whole they were pulled from. The impossibilities of understanding their contexts giving the sense, the vastness of what is out there. So that even done without commentary, you (the listeners) would be left with some sort of display of ideas about books and some greater sense of one poet’s experience of them as objects made, read, and found. And as I thought about it, I came to think that the constellation which would be more appealing would be that of the books themselves. This is, after all, a lecture about things, made things and the poem and how it finds its form in books and how the books form the experience of the poem and how the poetry passes through books as a way to find some stability in time, some stabilizing moments for them in the passing of times and lives. So it wasn’t even the poems I wanted to get to but the constellation of forms. And I had a theory. My theory was this:
That interior to poems are all the various ends they will never meet. Inside them partially, those objects they did not become. The vibrant qualities of vibrant things are often that which they did not contain. The energies of intuitive choice seem to me to maintain in themselves at times the things they didn’t choose – never actually having to say no, but just a following of impulses to find a way. So that at any point in a poem the next word can really be any word at all, and there is some energy of that constant possibility that I believe the poems maintain, even when they are done kind of making the words that are in them, and find themselves all written out. And maybe it goes further than that – that whatever possibilities there are for the poems, those possibilities are left open, are maintained in them as they proceed toward some eventual home, as, say, in a book. Books as form, as things, can be present in the poet, as a sort of end space or culmination or object, they can be basically absent from the poet, who, focused on the particular poem, is not compelled beyond whatever thingness it’s got. Books can be an unlikely or uninteresting destination for poetry, or can be just one of many interesting destinations.
That to be a poet one might write forcefully toward some end, even if that end is not seen, understood, or recognized. The toward – maybe not even a poem – but then there they are sometimes – poems – pushing themselves toward some shared existence – say, in a book – not even seeing that yet. To be in that space toward, without the limitations of a goal. One can have in one’s mind so many various books – that one can hold at times the deep and nuanced possibilities without being able to fix on any one. So that in you there is this multitude of formal possibility – changing – growing – presenting itself. So that as a poet, for me, the imagined library provides the landscape in which the things of what I make are made – and this feels formal – that one can hold in one’s self these various formal results – and have in one no exact expectation –
So my theory was just – that the inside space of the poet could contain an imagined library, and that always-changing library could create a private cosmos of formal possibility. There is some aspect of writing poems that feels like feeling around, like a kind of echolocation, and it seems to me that books are made some way the same. Making them (from the very beginning) one has the sense of bouncing off and away from – various points recognized and solid, and in these bouncings off and away one finds a trajectory. So that while writing the poems (and when I say that I tend to think of ink and paper already), some sense of the physicality, the continued physicality, the eventual existence of the made solid place of the poems is present. That it can be to some extent present despite the maybe obvious fact that that writing, that the poetry of that moment, is unlikely to end up in a book or any other kind of public form. That the form of the book can be somehow related to that experience of making throughout, so that the closer to the forming of the book, the more maybe the physicality does its thing – repels or attracts – so that that thing that is to become the book (that thing that is to be the book) becomes in a way that has been happening all along. Not wittingly or knowingly, but has been present.
And I don’t imagine that the central location of poetry is the book. Really, no, I imagine the central location of poetry is the world, the human world in which language is shared and kept in all sorts of ways. I think of the book as a constantly present and capable continuation of the acts of making poetry. And here I’ve gone and given you my theory without explaining a central part. Pages papers letter manuscripts alive inside of it. Experiences of the making mimicked in how it’s made. To say it seems simplistic, but I will give it a try – there are all different kinds of books of poetry. That’s it, there are all different kinds of books of poetry. Not that there are all different kinds of poetry that end up in books, which I think of as the more common sense of it. But that unlike most other forms of writing, poetry shoves, nudges, and creates its own spaces. And the only way I imagine to really express this, and the only way I imagine to express that cosmos of formal possibility, would be to describe hundreds of books, hundreds and hundreds of books. Not their poems, exactly, but their forms and the forms they came to have because of their poetry.
That, it seemed to me was the most obvious idea for a lecture on books. To display some part of my cosmos. What it is I bounce off of. And so I started to list and describe – books made privately and given as gifts, the book made from a diary that has the big present face of the author on its cover, the book of fragments gathered by one’s family, the pink-paged book with its musical notations, or the enormous book that expresses with its size the nature and depth, the vastness of its endeavor. The thin narrow book with its thin narrow poems. But the more I started to list and describe the more abstract they seemed, which makes sense. When I’m not thinking about them, that’s exactly what they are – abstract presence of meaningful things. But here we are actually thinking and talking about them, so that I want to go deeper, I want to describe them more. The form of the book built around itself, so that when I’m describing a book of short fragmentary poems, I can say there they are on their big white pages, the space around them expressing time or making quiet, and the quiet and time around them elevating them in some way or making the ink and presence of words more solid, and the experience of that page after page, or the touch of the paper when you’ve been looking mostly at it – the physical qualities of sparseness.
And even that didn’t work, look how removed from its person it is. What poems are they, who is this author, where is this book?
So I guess we’ve come all the way around, and maybe the only way to do this is not to describe that imagined cosmos but to introduce a single point in it. Describe a single book. Describe the life of a single book. Over here the tree growing that the paper will come from and over here the poetry starting to form in the person or in the family of the person as the person is forming, and then the poems over time happening and finding their form while the sources of need and want around the poet grow, drawing the poem out into the public world and the ways that object comes to be and then following just one of them, just one book out to its recipient, and the life that person has with it, reading it, scribbling in its margins, speaking its poems aloud or leaving it quietly on the shelf.
Yes, I thought, that’s the lecture I should give.
Table of ContentsTHE LIVES OF THE POEMS
[ Spokane – January 27, 2014 ]
[ New York – April 2014 ]
[ Tucson – September 2014 ]
The Friend the Stranger & the Anonymous Spirit
Friendship, Porousness & the Intimate Experience of Poetry