Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Scent of Cut Grass

Ah, Saturday afternoon. What could be better? In the living room, Michelle and the puppies are napping on the sofa as the races and analysis preceding the Preakness provides the background music for their dreams.

Personally, I spent the morning outside, mowing the lawn, which had gotten slightly out of hand when we left town last weekend. Like my hair, it had gotten a little wild and unkempt, and now, like me, my front yard is almost bald. It looks good.

I’m sitting here in my office listening to mellow, melodic guitar pop from England, and trying hard to relax without drowsing. Soon, I’ll need to head back out into the sun, so I can forage food and coffee from the city streets—it’s the closest I come to fulfilling that primal hunting instinct, with the possible exception of those rare moments when I get to fire up the grill outside.

I catch myself in a yawn as one of the puppies rattles, adjusting its prone position to fit more snugly along the contours of Michelle’s body. The three of them are curled together, looking disturbingly cute and peaceful. Such pastoral calm should be illegal. In fact, I’ve found that taking naps with the canines is addictive. It’s the main thing I miss on those days when they are off leaping about at daycare. It’s the main thing I miss on weekends when Michelle is typically more caretaker than I am.

Later on, after they’ve awoken, we’ll head into the backyard where they can circle the peonies while foraging the fresh-cut grass. Later on, I’ll get myself another latte and my wife another mocha. Later on, perhaps, Michelle and I will wonder up to Cheviot to attend a church fair where I can try my hand at Texas Hold ‘Em or convince Michelle to ride the Ferris wheel, as though we were two teenagers trying awkwardly to fall in love. Later on, we’ll all recline together on the couch, watching some movie or other, waiting for the remainder of night to unfurl.

For now, they are sleeping peacefully and I am writing. Yes, I am writing. I think, with poetry in particular, far too many people have bought into the mythologies of the romantics. We imagine Shelley perched on a rock somewhere looking into a summer glade where his muses dither about to a soundtrack of robin song and woodpecker percussion before finally deciding to settle in for a few lines of blank verse. Or, we imagine Lord Byron, home from a ball, gazing at the alabaster curves that rise and fall in sleep beside him, and suddenly he is moved to write.

The reality, to be frank, is far more boring. In fact, if you study creative writing anywhere, you’ll be encouraged to write everyday. Write whatever. Practice your craft. Now then, perhaps every single day for the rest of your life sounds more like a prison than a creative path, and some days, it certainly feels like one. I mean, it’s gorgeous outside. While taking a break from pushing the lawn mower up and down the length of our yard, I saw a strawberry-sized hummingbird flitting about in its impossible way near the shrubs that line our porch. I’m sure that most people would rather be sitting in the sun, singing silently to themselves as they surveyed the yard and the assortment of small wildlife that has emerged with spring. Instead, I’m sitting here at my desk, just as I do everyday, and hoping that through this jumble of considered syllables, you can see a version of the scene I’ve just experienced and that it might bring the slightest of smiles to your lips.

Of course, I don’t think any writer actually writes each and every day. Doing so is a sacrifice, but there are certain sacrifices most of us just won’t make. I can’t, for example, remember writing a single word on Christmas, and frankly, this doesn’t trouble me, as long as I can recapture whatever momentum I had during the few days beforehand. Nevertheless, if you decide instead to wait for inspiration, for you to be more financially secure, or for the children to leave the house and set out on their own, you might be waiting a very, very long time.

Inspiration, it seems to me, actually emerges from the process of writing. When I write a poem, it seldom ends up in the tiny little package that I first imagined. Rather, the lines will follow their own contours. The narrative, if there is one, will follow its own logical progression. The lyric will depend entirely on the premises that lead to whatever conclusion settles into that last line.

Now then, my family needs some food. I’ll try to sneak off while they're still sleeping, and hopefully, later today, I can come back to my desk, foregoing whatever else the world might offer and jot down a line or two that might remind you of summer. Maybe later, I can write about how, as a child, I would take my boom box onto the walkway of the apartment complex, press play on a tape of favorite songs I’d recorded from the radio, and just listen and watch as kids and adults moved about in the courtyard, going from their apartments to the pool or from their apartments to the store. Somehow—as I’m sure you know—those moments waiting for my father to get home so that I could go swimming as well seem to stretch on forever.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Prisoner #1

This morning, after the dogs had been carted off to daycare to run around traversing plastic toy tables and tiny outdoor playground equipment with other puppies from the area and after my wife had departed to wind down the serpentine roads of the Western Hills in rush hour traffic, I walked into our bathroom and stunned myself.

The entire wall above the sink in the bathroom is lined with a continuous 4-foot-high mirror, so when you walk in for whatever purpose, it’s virtually impossible to avoid a chance meeting with yourself. This morning, however, I left my customary baseball cap in my office and, because of a recent head-shaving incident, was a bit startled by the image that confronted me. Normally, my hair is a long, unruly main of wavy black, sprinkled with strands of silver, and this is the self-image I still have of myself. This is the specter I expect to see staring back at me. Of course, I will get used to it. I will learn, eventually, to imagine myself differently.

Likewise, my wife is reticent to comment about my appearance now. She prefers my hair longer and is also adjusting to the radical departure in my personal aesthetics. Yet we both still love me. And we both will adapt. In fact, both of us recognize that identity, by definition, is invested with a certain amount of fluidity. At least, I hope that’s true. Otherwise, people would be mighty boring and far more explicable than I’ve thus far found them to be.

In fact, even if you don’t view your own identity as a sort of malleable construct, then you must recognize that any "I" in a work of literature is nothing more than that. Indeed, in the late 50s, as a reaction to the dominant thinking of the so-called New Critics, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell brought us a new conception of this "I." With deeply personal (and moving) poems both poets helped established the Confessional mode of poetry, sort of. Naturally, there is a long history in poetry of writing about deeply personal feelings: think of Shakespeare’s sonnets or even the odd mixture of spirituality and sexuality in John Donne’s poems. More, consider Ben Jonson’s "On My First Son." Indeed, what could be more personal than the death of one’s child?

Yet before Snodgrass, no poet had really brought that kind of attention to the every-day affairs of our lives. With Robert Lowell, of course, this notion was taken to yet more extremes: at one point, he even incorporated letters from his wife into his poems. Of course, as the 60s opened, Mr. Lowell would inspire several of his students, most notably Plath and Sexton, to follow a similar path, establishing what would become known as the "confessional poetry."

For some reason, when I think of confessional poetry, I don’t think about these luminaries. Rather I think of countless poems that seem mere celebrations of egoism. They spring up unbidden in journals everywhere like dandelions in an unkempt lawn. They extol the virtues of the speaker, and to my mind, often amount to little more than a "woe is me/I’m bourgeoisie" kind of attitude, and frankly, I’m exhausted by the ramifications that one’s identity is political. Instead, I’d like to believe that my identity is, well, mine.

Undoubtedly, much of my loathing for this "genre" stems from a peculiar form of self-loathing. When, in college, I wrote poems using the first person, they were almost always autobiographical, and they were often—though not always—lacking in merit beyond the therapeutic.

At this point, of course, I could strike like a black mamba injecting squirts of venom into the figurative veins of myriad well-known and minor poets, but where would that take you? Instead, I’ll remind myself of how my first workshops were handled. In college, regardless of whether or not a poem was clearly personal, we always treated the speaker of a poem as a character. This makes sense, of course, because in a narrative, regardless of its truth, the conventions of plot and thus character apply. Furthermore, in a workshop, referring to "the speaker" rather than "you" certainly eases the unavoidable pains of those first few critiques. Finally, it recognizes that poems are more than simple itineraries of one’s day.

By now, I tend to be offended when someone automatically thinks that an "I" has a one-to-one correspondence to the poet. Would a fiction writer have to suffer through similar naive interpretations? In fact, most poems function through a certain amount of fictionalization. After all, suspension of disbelief is already established through the genre itself. I mean, who (aside from the New York Poets) ever spoke in the meters of poetry?

After college, I carried home a handful of Kinko’s-manufactured chapbooks. When I handed one to my step-mom, she read through many of the poems, but stopped at one that described my father, "like some sort of pit bull.” Ironically, such a notion is in direct opposition to the way I see my father. Unfortunately, that characterization seemed to work better for the poem (and thus for me).

What amazes me, though, is how little poets take advantage of the endless character development and fictionalizations that are essential to poetry. I mean, why does poetry need to be thought of as "non-fiction"? Why not construct a multiplicity of "I's" as Ai does?

After all, how else can you explain to your parents that all of those poems aren’t autobiographical?

Liberation and Limitations

Robert Frost, whose poems I often adore, once famously quipped that writing free verse is "like playing tennis without a net." Unless I’m mistaken that game is called racquet ball. T.S. Eliot, who—perhaps without merit—garners much of the blame for the pandemic of free verse that struck the modernists, actually implied in "Reflections on Verse Libre" that there is no such thing as free verse:

And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.

Personally, I think my own poems tend toward chaos. Yet, today, unless you are a New Formalist, something that everyone—and their ever loving mothers—thinks of as free verse is the modus operandi. Plus, I often think that many younger poets or students fail to realize that, even when working with free verse, your poems will scan. Syllables will fall into feet and lines will fall into rough approximations of meters. There is simply no way to avoid it. Try it. You can’t. Even if you chopped the last paragraph of prose into line breaks, the—to use Eliot’s term—"shadow" of pentameter would probably remain.

In fact, I think that the overwhelming primacy of something called "free verse" in our poetry actually makes composing and writing about poetry more difficult. Simplistic definitions—which might have held in Victorian England and may still be held by those with limited exposure to poetry—are ineffective. A pronounced meter and rhyme does not a poem make. More, in order to discuss prosody effectively, you might actually need a graduate degree or, at the very least, a great deal of patience.

In college, I took a few courses in linguistics, simply because I found the discipline fascinating. I still do and would read the complete works of Wittgenstein if I didn’t fear that my sleeping schedule would be irreparably harmed. In fact, phonetic transcriptions, which simply describe the audible phonemes of spoken words, are a fantastic way to learn about the variety of sonic techniques that can make a poem interesting and elevate it past the banality of prose. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I think Elizabeth Bishop is the finest poet of the post-war generation. Yet, to study a poem in such a way, you must first learn an entirely new alphabet and an entirely new way of looking at language. You must know, without doubt, what a schwa sounds like. And I’m still not completely sure.

The problem, it seems to me, with free verse is that so often it encourages the kind of lazy composition that must have gotten my work rejected by at least two or three literary magazines. In fact, I remember sitting in computer clusters during college, long ago when many college students couldn’t actually afford a PC, watching peers dash into the cluster half an hour before class began and type away at a "poem" that our professor would likely spend more time critiquing than they spent composing.

And now, as I sit here wondering what I’ve done with my anecdote for the day, it occurs to me: nowadays, even the most finely wrought poem is free verse. We jot them down in our notebooks, tatter away at keypads, and send the little beasties off into the world with a couple of stamps or a click of the mouse. And most of the time, we expect nothing—aside from a contributor’s copy or two—in return. Alas, this is what free verse has done for us. Even our sonnets and ballads are lent for nothing. Verse, at long last, truly is free.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I am up late again, working on my customary abnormal timeframe. Rain crackles against the four windowpanes of my office and I can just hear the semi-rhythmic rush of water through the gutters and into our graded yard. Thunder crawls across lower pitches, sustaining itself into a long rest that fills with epileptic flashes of lightening.

Today, I feel as though little was accomplished. I ate. The dogs did not kill each other, and as far as I know, anything else. My wife still loves me. I trimmed my goatee for the first time in several months, and I am currently waiting for clippers that can’t hold a charge, so I can finish shaving my head. At the moment, I look something like those awful caricatures of samurai who never existed, except in an arcade game. Of course, I don’t have a sword. Or armor. Or even a fan embossed with bamboo. I simply have too much hair.

This afternoon, when—against reason—the sun made an appearance without the familiar escort of cumulonimbus clouds, I did sit outside with my laptop watching the dogs sprint through grasses, lilies, and ivy, lock together like Greco-roman wrestlers, dig at the root system of a honeysuckle shrub, and sprawl in patches of slightly yellow grass, clutching a tennis ball between their paws and their teeth. In approximately two hours of watching them scavenge and frolic around the yard, I managed to write about one page of fiction—a page that will doubtless need to be reworked a six or seven times for it to see anyone’s eyes other than those of my wife.

When my wife returned home, I spent most of the evening relaxing with her on the sofa—both of us warmed ever so slightly by the stirring of sleeping puppies beside us. One show after another flickered across the screen, and I found myself, now and again, closing my eyes, almost drifting to sleep. Part of me thinks that I should have seized the opportunity that sleeping puppies presents and wondered into my office to do one of the myriad writing tasks I contemplate each day. I could have worked on this project. I could have added to that growing document. I could have sifted through drafts of poems, slashing the occasional article or prepositional phrase. I even could have drafted a long-shot of a query letter for Sports Illustrated. Instead, I sat on the sofa feeling sleepy and content.

Now, as, technically, a new day begins, I think it would be easy for me to regret how this day has unfolded or even lament the lack of progress I’ve made toward personal goals, but such a quotidian keen over my expectations would leave me with nothing more than an ache in my hands from ringing them too much or perhaps a higher probability of actually developing one intestinal disorder or another. Instead, I’m choosing to accept the moment. Right now, my hands are jittering across a keypad, wrangling stray thoughts that could, just as easily, never be captured. Right now, I am waiting to finish shaving my head.

After all, why set goals that are unattainable? Why should you bust your ass only to fail? Why should you strive to exceed your own capabilities?

When I nearly lost my fellowship in graduate school, a professor told me an anecdote of a poet who was translating the sonnets of Borges into English. The translator took the pages to the old poet who read them patiently and then looked up to say, “These don’t rhyme.”

The translator explained that rhymes in English, unlike those in Spanish, are much more difficult to compose. Such poems can end up sounding trite, cliche, or simply bad.

The old poet looked at the translator and said simply, “Try harder.”

Tonight, I’ve managed to shave my head. I’ve managed to make a mess of the bathroom. I’ve managed to write enough to keep considering myself a writer. Tomorrow, I’ll try harder.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


One summer night in 1992, I sat atop a set of monkey bars in Fritz Park with two friends from high school, suffering the Texas heat, and discussing the plight of the world, the nature of the unmeasurable universe, and the embroidery of our own lives on the fabric of this culture. It was, without question, the type of conversation that is only possible in those liminal years of high school and college when you stand independently at the doorstep of maturity and the bevy of responsibilities that you could never imagine as a child. The conversation swirled all night through cigarette smoke, swilled coffee, gasoline fumes in a ’72 Super Beetle, and the crisp of French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches at the local Denny’s. It was 6 AM before any of us had realized it and long before such a conversation could ever near its completion. By the time I made it home, I curled up on the sofa, closing my eyes just long enough to see my ride to work come strolling through the door wondering why I hadn’t been outside waiting.

Years later, one of those friends works somewhere near LA on an artificial life project. Perhaps one of these days, his work might add a few data points toward answering the age-old question of what, precisely, life is. The last I heard, the other friend was studying Divinity at a Baptist school somewhere. He’d been through a life I can only imagine. He’d started—simply enough—as a college student in the Midwest intent on studying poetry. He lasted perhaps a year and a half before returning home to stay in a two-bedroom apartment with his little brother and his mother. I can’t honestly say why he didn’t return, but I do know that the requisite reading of Foucault and Derrida didn’t help his mindset and that he would later end up homeless in California, kept a few days in a Mexican jail, and eventually, back home again drawing a disability check from Social Security.

During Christmastime of my Freshman year, before he became someone I’d fear, we hung out a bit. He gave me the classical guitar that had brought him the visions of Bob Marley-like stardom that kept him from attending classes sometimes. We went to a rave where breakfast was served, and more, we talked about poetry. For a few months he’d been working feverishly on his own epic poem. I think, by then, he was fed up with the rigmarole of writing programs and had become unfettered from the expectations of peers, family, and professors. Instead, his sole criterion for quality was that his little brother—who was about 11—liked the poem. Indeed, his epic poem was to be a science fiction tale of piracy across the galaxy.

Even now, years later, as I sit here contemplating my own failed epics and the fictionalizations that continuously creep into my own poetry, I wonder what kind of poem that might have been. I suspect, occasionally, that I would have adored it, that it would have been a raw blend of Beat poetry and Samuel Delaney that was designed for kids who like fart jokes. Sometimes, of course, I think that such an enterprise is doomed to failure. Most of the time, I just hope he’s ok.


In graduate school, I focused solely and utterly on writing. Even though I was only 22 and should probably have been enjoying much more of Miami’s night life, I spent most of my time writing poems. What an absurd luxury.

So, after a difficult first semester, when I felt myself cracking at times, and found difficulty separating any moment of my existence from my writing, I had, to my mind, almost completed a draft of my thesis. Even as I sat in literature classes that were ladled with theory, I could not help but try to apply endless permutations of postmodern thought to my writing. If your life ever allows stress-induced paranoia to trickle in through the cracks of your own self-image, such a self-reflexive postmodern exercise is deeply uncomfortable. I came within inches of losing my fellowship simply because I didn’t turn in a paper.

When my adviser returned that handful of poems to me, I did not find any of the praise I naively expected. Instead, I found that my ideas weren’t cohesive and that my ambition was desultory at best. In fact, after reading through two or three poems, he found the effort pointless and stopped critiquing those I’d handed him. Yet, even as he questioned my use of German intermixed with my poems and the fragmented polyphony that I’d gleaned from Eliot and Bakhtin, my adviser did notice the ambition inherent in my work. In fact, a few weeks later, he handed me a damning review of Jorie Graham’s Errancy, which admired the courage to ask the ontological questions posed throughout the volume, but damned its difficulty.

I, of course, revised those poems by simplifying their structures and cutting huge portions that may have been too prosaic or, in a few instances, I simply abandoned those poems. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone—with the possible exception of Ezra Pound—could have taught me how to write the poems I wanted to write, and now, I wonder why I wanted to write such poems. And although I think I could write such poems now, most of them seem pointless to me.

It’s ironic, I suppose, but 14 years later, I’ve realized what my friend in high school already knew: poetry need not be difficult to be ambitious. I still haven’t learned to tame my ambitions. I still want—although I seldom admit it—to write poems that are not merely good. I want to write important poems that outlive me. And every once in a while, I think I know how.

Monday, May 15, 2006

I am a Pipe

At 4:45 on Mother’s Day, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my 4-door subcompact, hurtling, away from the in-laws, toward home. The dogs are in the backseat and my wife is driving. The situation makes me a tad uncomfortable, but it could be worse. One of the dog’s could be driving. I sometimes suspect that our Jack Russell terrier—having watched me adjust my wrists and dart my eyes around for the four hour trip to or from eastern Ohio—believes that driving is easy.

Alas, the world is rife with misinterpretation. Indeed, everyone in the world, excepting former politicians, believes that he or she could run this or that country better than this or that administration. Everyone, at one time or another has felt the sting (or consternation) of finding oneself in a relationship where one desires one a tad bit more than the other would like. Most people who purchase a new car believe that they managed the best deal possible through artful haggling, and yet only a small minority of consumers is correct in such an assumption. The world at large, as shaped by humanity, does not reach its conclusions through the use of logic. Of course, if you’ve been through puberty, your own hormones probably clued you into this unassailable fact when you noticed those first stirrings of desire, or at least by the time those stirrings became the torrent of emotion that begins your dating life.

Personally, I remember, painfully, a series of events during college when I simply misunderstood. At the time, I remember imagining reality with the rather cliche trope of a mirror, and that night, as I watched assumptions and desire evaporate into a nothing that was almost solid enough to cradle with troubled breath, I imagined that construct of silver and glass shattering in a background of endless black.

I dealt the best way I knew how at the time: day by day, moment by moment, finding comfort in a series of mildly illegal activities that I had clung to like a pacifier. For a couple of days, I was ok. I managed.

But, one afternoon, while sitting in a cafe, sipping coffee, playing cards, and practicing what once passed for witty repartee with a handful of friends—including the young woman who had been the object of my affection—the conversation twisted upon itself like a hairpin turn along a mountain pass. A sarcastic barb meant merely to taunt the object of my affection echoed through my head like some Alpine yodeler sounding for distance. And, honestly, there is an unfathomable amount of space in all of our heads—there are vistas, valleys, steppes, mountains, deserts, cities, towns, whole planets fragmented somewhere in the soft folds atop the cerebellum of even the most average human brain. But, at that point in my life, I don’t think I could recognize this. I don’t think that I could imagine that, in the worst traffic jam, thousands upon thousands of life stories are stacked, one behind the other, brimming with the infinite joy and sadness of waking each morning. Instead, I could only focus on that echo, bouncing around in the hollow of my skull and suggesting, not only that the object of my affection had done me harm intentionally, but that our friends—no, my friends—had been complicit in the havoc wreaking. I finished a cigarette, and left, dragging one of my friends in tow. I walked toward my apartment, past campus. Before we’d walked a mile, tears were trailing down my face and I was sobbing for breath. I tried to explain to my friend what was happening. I was upset neither by the dream that had been lost to me nor by the notion of a conspiracy against me. Rather, I was upset by the fact that my mind could construct the trellises on which such a scenario could entwine upwards into the light. I was floored by the recognition of delusion.

As I wept, my friend simply walked with me, patting his hand against my shoulder. Eight-and-a-half years later, he was a groomsman at my wedding.

Now, when I think about that time in my life, I realize I had problems, but I don’t find the difficulty interpreting the world so disconcerting. The world is difficult to discern. Other people are enigmas. And, chance, like it or not, is a primary variable in our lives. Even with flawless logic, we sometimes can’t understand it. Even with encyclopedic knowledge of the human condition, we can’t always discern the impulse that becomes a motive of action.

This, to me, is one of the primary values of poetry. Open a volume by one of the “deep image” poets like W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, or Galway Kinnell. In their belated American answer to French and Spanish surrealism, you can find metaphor and imagery working to avoid the trappings of a logical construct. The image works with the white space of the poem, suggesting gaps, directing us toward a kind of Jungian archetype. And here, we have a methodology for describing aspects of the human experience that prose, generally speaking, fails to approach. I won’t claim that such a methodology is effective or that it serves as the perfect antidote to logic, describing the way in which we foolish humans actually do make decisions. I merely want to suggest that such techniques offer us a way to open the trap door in the floor of the stage. I want to suggest that poetry is more, much more, than the simplistic use of motivated line breaks. Instead, poetry, from my admittedly limited perspective, is (like a Jackson Pollock painting) another way of describing reality and teaching us about the reality we all share (through our own tiny filters).

After graduate school, as the path I’d set for myself seemed overgrown with nettles of misfortune, milkweed of ineptitude, and briars of bad luck, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to write poems that would be dismembered in any workshop. I was experimenting—following my own surrealist inclinations. I wanted, for deeply personal reasons, to replicate the emotion of paranoia within my poetry. It was, at the time, incredibly difficult. At the moment, I can only think of three poets who’ve managed it: John Ashbery, R.M. Rilke, and the aforementioned Kinnell. Let me be clear here: I mean paranoia, not the generalized anxiety that seems to late 20th-century poetry what yeast is to bread. One poem I wrote, based entirely on a bizarre dream I had in the sweltering unemployment after graduate school, was composed through countless associative leaps with a narrative framed loosely around it. For some reason, after the first draft of semi-automatic writing, I wanted an epigraph. Thinking myself clever and learned, I referenced Rene Magritte: Je suis une pipe.

Eventually, I did realize my mistake, but isn’t that mistake lovely? There is no negation in it, only an affirmation of existence—a deeply flawed affirmation. Clearly, we are all constructs of one sort or another; no need to keep reminding us Mr. Magritte.

The background music in my office settles to a long rest. I imagine the musicians counting, years ago. It is no longer Mother’s Day. I’m weary. Time has passed differently on the page than it has for me. I’m in love with constructs now. There are many. Poetry. Fiction. The image I have of my wife. The image I have of my puppies. I’m not frightened of these constructs shattering into shards. I’ve learned to adapt. That object of my affection in the long-ago story—why, her name is Michelle, and her title in this context is "my wife." How this transpired is another story, and you see, there is always another story—there is always another performance that will spring the trap door.