Friday, May 26, 2006

Blessed Rage for Order

I have spent the last two days in a flurry of scrubbing, washing, folding, arranging, and re-arranging. For Memorial Day, Michelle’s parents, sister, and niece are once again making the trek down to Cincinnati. The arrival of guests, of course, prompted a newfound dedication to the arts of housekeeping for my wife and me. Sadly, neither of us felt much of this fealty until sometime after 7 in the evening on Wednesday night. But from that point forward—excepting limited respites for sleep, work, and the caretaking of canines—we were bleach tornados spinning through the house leaving a semblance of order where none had existed before. Yet, for some reason, unlike previous exercises in frenzied cleansing, we excised all the clutter, rearranged furniture that seemed out of place, and transferred leftover moving boxes from the living room to basement. I suppose, in our typical fashion, we had simply procrastinated, and whether consciously or not, we realized that the window for actual spring cleaning was slamming shut.

Now, although my feet hurt and my back aches, I’m pleased by our work. In fact, our house has never looked better. I’m pleased by the spare and elegant beauty throughout the house. Now, my office is the only room (not counting the basement) where the decorating theme seems to be clutter. But that’s as it should be with all these books.

Tomorrow, my father-in-law will head off for golf. Michelle will, reluctantly, return to work. I will resume the cleaning—perhaps mopping the hardwood floors—after I’ve done a fair amount of writing.


In graduate school, we read Steven’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” as supplemental instruction during a poetry workshop. I can’t remember the precise reason why we looked over this particular poem, but I do know that the subject of the poem speaks volumes about the very nature of artistic endeavor. The speaker, with her song, is a maker—just as any artist is. Plus, I’m always delighted to read the poem and spot the near onomatopoeia of alliteration describing the sea at the very moment that Stevens rejects the notion of a direct correlation between the mindless sea and the maker’s song.

Yet, despite my adoration for the poem and the number of times I’ve read this single work, I can only remember one thing that professor said. As we started reviewing the poem, he recited that first line, "She sang beyond the genius of the sea.”

Almost breathless (it seems to me now), he repeated the line then said with marked amazement that Stevens had probably written more than a hundred lines of verse simply to arrive at this starting poet. The line is that good.

Obviously, I can’t speak to the truth of this assertion, and to be frank, I can’t imagine myself writing that many lines simply before arriving at my starting point (never mind the destination). Yet, if you read the line, I think you’ll agree: it’s easy to see a poet working his way up to such a pitch perfect line.

Imagine that kind of devotion to a single set of ideas, a single work, a single form (blank verse). Imagine the lines that excised. Imagine what the task of revision would take to compose such a poem.


In college I wrote one poem in particular about the young woman who is now my wife. I remember sitting in a cafe on Fifth Avenue, mumbling the poem over and over again to myself as I scribbled in one of the many notebooks I carted around.

I wrote and re-wrote the poem, changing a line here, an image there, tweaking it ever so slightly. Perhaps I cut a line or two. By the time I felt I had a workable poem that would fit nicely in my ongoing honors project, 20 drafts of the poem clogged my notebook, leaving little room for much else to happen.

If I remember correctly, I ended up with a fairly competent narrative poem. The imagery was crisp and vivid, the turn came at precisely the right juncture, and the resolution with its hovering sense of irresolution was perfect for the poem. Of course, thematically I now find the poem embarrassing. Still, a year ago, I found that poem again, typed a soft copy onto my hard drive, and started fiddling with it once more.

I kept working on the ending, adding a line or two and then deleting the new additions altogether with the idea of keeping the staccato pace of the original. It’s still there on my hard drive, unopened.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll find the right lines and finish that poem.


With computers, revision is both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, it’s much easier to twiddle with a word or two and find—as Amy Lowell would suggest—the "right" word. Yet, it’s also tempting to stare at a poem you’ve written and conclude that it’s lovely, simply because the word processor has built something far more orderly than your own handwriting could manage.

Of course, we have to find a way toward that order.


Sometimes, I think that Stevens is my favorite poet—without exception. I like to imagine him strolling slowly to work. In my vision, his face is cast down to the sidewalk and he is noticing the cracks and occasional weeds that spot his neighbors’ lawns. He, of course, is thinking about a poem. He is whispering it to himself as his footsteps fall, marching him closer and closer to his desk. When he arrives at work, he jots down a few notes or edits the poem that currently occupies his thought. And when he has reached an impasse, he sets his notebook aside, pulls his desks forward, and opens a file, ready to sell insurance.


Blogger Les said...

You can read and listen to "The Idea of Order at Key West" here:

1:52 AM  

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