Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Because I Know I Shall Not Know

This morning the mosquitoes are particularly ravenous. Red welts rise on my ankles as the puppies survey the perimeter of our property and the cicadas again greet the morning sun that ascends into a deep blue sky.

The day has only just begun. A cool breeze shakes the potted dahlias, seared brown by summer sun. Birds, in the distance, belt out tied notes over the churn of a lawn mower in a distant neighbor's yard. Today is a day of a promise, a day of fulfilling promises made. There is writing, marketing, and web design before me, yet I cannot help but look backwards into the brief sleep that my dogs, as ever, cut short.


Last Sunday, while driving back from the Kroger where I often procure coffee, someone with a sonorous voice read snippets from Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." I started my day with the poem, wondering at the way Eliot's rhythms, folding and unfolding upon itself like a verse from Genesis hold together the most abstract of ideas. While reading the poem, I caught myself contemplating whether or not I'd accept such a poem as an editor. And, truth be told, I seriously doubt it. There is too much abstraction, too much of Eliot's near hopeless reaching. Perhaps, I might even have accepted part II, where the wonderful imagery of the juniper tree first emerges while shying away from the rest of the poem with its abstraction and mild form of proselytization.

Of course, this is all idle speculation, but let's not shy away from idle speculation just yet.


To me, one of the most useful experiences for my development as a writer was reading the annotated drafts of Eliot's "The Wasteland". You can, of course, see the development of the poem and how a morass of disparate thoughts came together as one of the most powerful—if difficult—poems in the English language. Seeing the work of such a poet in manuscript form—covered with corrections—can do wonders for a young poet. You have a chance to see the process of writing at work, to witness the fact that poems do not tumble from the heavens, like manna, fully formed as works of art. You can see the give in take of the poet's intelligence and witness the profound impact that both Pound and Vivian Eliot had on his work.

For me, whenever I think of those myriad corrections, I'm always drawn to a comment made by Pound. "Damn Perhaps-y" he wrote while crossing out one of the many instances of the word that began a line in "The Wasteland." Eliot, of course, used that correction.

Sometimes, I wonder whether or not those two monsters of modernism made a mistake there. I do not doubt that my thinking is skewed by living 80 years after the fact of that poem's composition, but it seems to me, that, so often, we must dwell in the space signified by that word: "perhaps". I wonder what might have happened if Eliot had left us that space—let us dwell for the briefest of moments in uncertainty.


In graduate school, I suppose I cultivated a deep affinity for the modernists. Even now, when I list my favorite poets, only a handful of English-language poets who were not of that era bear mentioning: Plath, Schuyler, Ashbery, Simic, Rexroth, Dickinson, Coleridge, Blake, Hopkins, and Shakespeare. Of course, there are other poets who have meant (and still mean) a great deal to me, but if pressed, I could survive on a desert island with just those ten poets. Still, if given a choice, I'd rather have a suitcase full of modernist classics: Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, HD, and Hart Crane.

Yet, despite the profound influence of those modernists on how I approach a poem, my poetry remains oddly postmodern. Occasionally, a poem might be invested with ambition like that found in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," but I've yet to write a long poem that truly pleases me. More, there was always, that overvaluation of self that's difficult to escape in your youth—even if I imagined that "I" as a Prufrock-like character.


In both college and graduate school, I used to joke that my first book would be the best first-book since Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Now, of course, I doubt this. Nevertheless, in graduate school, that was the aim I worked toward—often finding myself overwhelmed by my own ambition.

I remember thinking how difficult writing poetry suddenly seemed—one had to be conversant in philosophy, religion, psychology, and the long-and-storied traditions of verse in the English language. Now, I suppose this is true, up to a point, but focusing on syllogisms or re-reading Kierkegaard misses the point ever so slightly, doesn't it?


Poetry, I suppose, is much simpler than that. All great poets, regardless of whether or not they've read Derrida, make memorable lines that others will long to read. They craft language to share something—often something outside of their reader's realm of understanding.

If you read, "Ash Wednesday," I suspect you will be moved—even if you are not an Anglican, like Eliot. Even if you're not a Christian, like Eliot. Even if you've never uttered the Lord's Prayer. And it is not the religion that moves us. And it is not the intellect behind those thoughts. And it is not the symbolism of Mary's colors.


Outside, the sun has dissolved the last of the clouds. Archie, our Italian Greyhound, is sleeping soundly on the sofa behind me. Dixie, our other terrier, barks into the distance, protecting the perimeter of her home. The day goes on. Everywhere there is poetry.

Monday, August 21, 2006


A chill wind blows across the backyard. A few blocks away, the first school zone lights of the fall are flashing. My wife, up early this morning, is already on her way to work with a cake to celebrate an employee's birthday.

The weekend, already, is gone. Not surprisingly, I accomplished far less than I'd planned. At least the lawn is well-coiffed. Ward 6 Review, in some respects, is functioning smoothly, and I managed to get enough sleep over the past two days. Now, I am simply waiting for fall to finally arrive, so that I can shut off the air conditioner, watch the leaves turn, and spend weekend afternoons snuggled on the sofa as the sounds of football mingle with the soft breath of naptime dreams.

With the onset of fall, my mind inevitably turns back to college, to graduate school, and to the career path I'd once imagined for myself. Life has its own peculiar momentum.

Near the end of my tenure as an undergraduate, I got the letter on which I had pinned all my post-graduation plans—acceptance to an MFA program in a state that was never touched by winter, with a fellowship. I'm not sure what would have become of me without that letter. Naturally, I went to a bar to celebrate.

Everywhere around me, other English majors were sending out resume after resume, nervously plotting the first few steps of their professional lives. Some would send out hundreds of resumes with nary a response. Others would pack their belongings and return home for a few months of free rent while trying to sort out the shape their future would take. For me, it was merely a question of waiting.

Over the summer, I stayed on at the chemistry journal where I'd done intern work and waited for August to arrive, feeling a near desperate pressure to leave Pittsburgh as soon as possible. On the first of August, I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Miami and what I must have imagined was the first step in a long and illustrious academic career.

Perhaps, someday, that bus ride will feel like that first step I'd imagined it to be. Perhaps not.

Now, I can remember the shock of seeing palm trees for the first time—the way their utterly foreign outlines stood crisp against a clear blue subtropical sky. As long as I lived in Florida, that slightest feeling of unease never left me. I was always, I suppose, a bit of an interloper in South Florida. I never really belonged there—not even on that final day when my parents arrived in their Ford F150 to haul me and boxes full of books back to Texas.

What went wrong? How could I have gone, in the course of two years, from a brash undergraduate ready to take on the world to a sulking fool with an MFA and no discernable job prospects?

And what's changed, over the ensuing eight years, to make me feel again like a young poet that can—in the limited way that poetry offers—conquer the world once again?

Now, I'm sitting outside, writing this for the handful of people I know will read this message and the thousands I believe will someday see it. I am not, as I once would have, writing for critics or for posterity or for some distant abstraction like truth. I doubt, sometimes, whether or not I'd be capable of making that statement if those long ago plans—concocted while sitting in that bar, slightly drunk, showing off my acceptance letter to anyone who cared to look—had come to fruition.

I could, I suppose, be on a tenure track somewhere, contemplating the upcoming deluge of new students with the fall semester. I could be sitting in a backyard somewhere, just as I am now, contemplating my own thoughts as they appear on the notebook in front of me, but would there be puppies in that yard? And would they be as filthy as mine are now, having rolled around in the dirt as they played on and on in endless combat?