July 17th, 2009 09:27 EST
Stringing Words Together as an Occupation is as Dicey as Diamond Cutting
Writing is like playing with explosives. You never know what is going to set the charge or detonate the device. You never know enough, even if you have a sapper`s certificate, advanced degrees, favors to trade and a showcase full of prizes.
When I was fourteen I started writing quatrains in the style of Edward Fitzgerald famously misrepresenting Omar Khayyam. Then I wrote couplets in the manner of Alexander Pope. It was Pope who introduced me to Homer. Later, feeling my oats, I emulated Gerard de Nerval, scaring myself half to death in the process.
As time went on I became more respectful. By the time I`d finished a stint in the Navy and gone to work as a reporter I had become so respectful of Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and quite a few others, that finishing a poem seemed as remote a goal as sainthood. My respect had turned to fear.
I regarded each word with the apprehension of an apprentice diamond cutter. The danger of cracking it the wrong way obsessed me. Working after fourteen-hour days as a reporter "I always regarded poetry as my real work "I saw that his apprehension was casting a pall over my work as a reporter.
A reporter has to resourcefully gather facts, wheedle information from the unwilling and reticent, and then martial the facts or seeming facts and comments quickly and appealingly into stories. Some reporters are better at getting the facts than reporting them. Those who are better at the big picture than waking crooked governors up at 3 a.m. usually end up writing books. I was good at delving into seemingly innocuous files.
The poet`s quest for the perfect word is incompatible with the reporter`s need to compromise his desire for excellence and meet deadlines. Reporters can`t afford to be known as thumb-suckers. I was pretty good at meeting deadlines. My metabolism is slow, so hits of adrenaline were welcome. Deadlines always looked to me like another bullet dodged.
But my secret life as a would-be poet had stalled. I would fall in love with my researches, whether for the subject of the poem or for a decision as to how the poem should be written. I`d remember something Andrew Marvell had written, and then spend months studying Marvell. I`d find myself imitating Rimbaud and spend months dissecting his poems. I`d write a few lines about Omani pearl divers and wind up months later in the Mughal court in Delhi "in my head.
In short, things were not going well for me as a poet. I liked writing poems too much. I hated to finish them. I never thought they were finished. I liked burying them with elaborate rituals. Viking funerals were common. And the whole idea of getting them published felt like a death march. Besides, I was getting published every day, and it was easy. All I had to do was work hard for peanuts and harangue myself about the public`s right to know.
I think all this had something to do with my becoming an editor. I didn`t much like the desk work involved in editing, but I liked working with typographers, compositors and darkroom people. I liked seeing words in type. They had edge and shine and shadow. They had precise weight, heft, and a visual logic. They fit into turtles " and were wheeled around groaning composing-room floors. The tails of commas could be cut off to improvise periods. Sentences could be excised and dumped in a kill box. Words could be picked up with your fingers "if you belonged to the right union. And finally, at the end of the cycle, everything was put to bed. There was a daily sense of having passed through fire.
Poems were different. They were forbidden passions, mistresses, vices, illegitimate children, offshore bank accounts, arms caches, crimes against the ordinary, anarchic protest, sabotage, treason.
My life of crime was not going well. By my mid-thirties I had become as respectful and wary of each word as I might have been of a Mafia don. I knew how easy it was to cross a poem, to betray it to the authorities, to testify against it and end up in witness protection in a town where books are as suspect as newcomers. I knew how easy it would be to rat out a poem, cop a plea, bury the body. I knew I didn`t have the heart to finish a poem, to make words say what I wanted them to say rather than what they wanted to say. I wasn`t up to being as subversive as poetry required.
I always thought as a reporter and newspaper editor that I was bullying words for a greater good. I felt I was doing my bit to uphold the republic, and if words had to pay the price, well, it was worth the price. But my role as bully poet ill fit me. I liked for words to run around like beads of mercury. I liked to admire them the way I admire fireflies. I don`t tell fireflies where to light, and I didn`t want to push words around and make them serve meanings which in any case I felt unqualified to entertain.
Perhaps if I`d finished college instead of dropping out "crashing is more like it "in my third year, I would have felt more confident about saying what I meant and meaning what I said. But it took many years to recognize that I had suffered a breakdown in college, and it took me quite a few years after that to feel I had anything to say. In some ways I loved poetry too much to write it. Trying to write seemed like intruding where I wasn`t wanted or needed, a kind of vandalism.
Poetry was like the girl who was too beautiful to approach. If I had married her, if she had been willing to have me, I would have been too much in awe of her to be a husband. I would have treated her like the holy of holies, the inner sanctum which might be willing to tolerate me once a year, if I incanted the right things and wore the right robes and tied a golden cord around my waist so that I might find my way back to my state of paralytic awe.
This girl was for someone taller and more handsome than me, someone better born, richer, smarter, friendlier. If she smiled at me I looked over my shoulder to see who she was smiling at. If she addressed me I stuttered. And if she persisted in the folly of liking me I assumed it was my bounden duty to go to some remote place and get myself killed so that she wouldn`t have to face the consequences of her misjudgment. I was altogether too honorable in her presence.
I`ve always had a hunch that writing involves a certain amount of disrespect for the sanctity of the words. Journalism is a kind of language fast food, and it enjoys a long history of rationalization in its behalf. But poetry, to me at least, is a kind of sacrilege, requiring the constant forgiveness of the gods.
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