Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Poetry (A Letter Unsent, Unexplained, Out of Context)

why i don't write poetry:

i'm sitting here, capped in wool, shrouded in silence, and stymied utterly, fearful that one misstep too far for to restore, one foolish edit at the end of a string of them, will confound the entire edifice, and leave me stunned bloody in the rubble. i like the poem i wrote last night. it feels true, and truth is the most elusive thing for me in writing poetry, the ability to abandon affect without surrendering lyricism; through my teen years and into college i wrote mannered poetry, affected, sonnet, sestina; i liked incantatory forms, vilanelle, pantum (or is it -un; i'm never sure), and yet i have never written one repeating vilanelle line worth admitting as mine.

i fear free verse.

so then i recall my anglo-saxon, the welsh cadences of thomas, and i think, that's manageable. but then i find myself writing in blank verse that starts looking more and more like heroic couplets and all is lost. i can't look at myself, the words that would be mine, without sneering. it's not that truth isn't found in any of these places; there are sonnets, shakespeare (natch), that make my throat pulse engorged on the daggerpoint of weeping. and so too do heroic couplets have their place. i'm never unsatisfied with nabokov's invention, "Pale Fire," a gift he bestowed on a fictional character, and yet qualitatively better than so much canonized verse, and even more impressive in its occasional dips into studied imperfection; only a skilled dancer can dance badly well, an average dancer will always look like an average dancer -- she lacks command. nabokov's comand in "Pale Fire" is astonishing: always i reach this point, whether reading to myself or aloud:

It was a night of thaw, a night of blow,
With great excitement in the air. Black spring
Stood just around the corner, shivering
In the wet starlight and on the wet ground.
The lake lay in the mist, its ice half drowned.
A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank
Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.

(ll. 494-500, Vintage ed. pp. 50-51)

half-amused at the various flaws and solecisms that have preceeded the rousing end of canto II, and have to clench the back of my throat against a ball of lead that isn't really there, my eyes filling, an anticipated thrust from the shadows that never stops making me scream and hide behind my hands.

i wrote, for a time, in blank verse, when i could control it; but it's the anglo-saxon rhythms and consonance, the loose (in the jazziest sense) alliteration to which i return. (my keyboard lacks the keys, or else i might try to transliterate some representative passage of beowulf.)

i don't write poetry well because i don't write poetry often. i should read more poetry than i do, as well, hence the burkard purchase; a new friend's recommendation makes it easier to buy something contemporary. i often find the Times' poetry reviews too precious; i mistrust them. maybe it's just poetry reviews in general that i mistrust.

but to return to whatever semblance of a point lurks, i was happy with what i wrote last night in only an hour of moderately exasperating labor. i figured i'd return, refine, but it didn't feel urgent. and even this evening, i touched up a single word around 6:30, and felt good. now i return home, open it up, haunted by an image at the very heart of the initial impetus, an elaboration of the yoked mule thing that engendered the desire to versify in the first place, hoping to shoehorn the elaboration, which got lost in the shuffle of composition, into its rightful place. but it won't fit. so i should let it go, right? right. and i have. but now i'm back in the poem, out of the night's sundry arrangements and commitments, free to play, and this is the "entertainment" i so blithely have chosen -- ripping to shreds, and probably mortally wounding in the process, something i truly believed in last night, something i still believe in at root, this will hurt me more than it hurts you, & c.

a haunting question is: would i have even been moved to verse were it not for our conversation? yes, moonover was happening before we spoke, and it had been on my mind for quite a while. but verse was never really part of the plan, or part of the suite of expectations under which i intended to labor. indeed, as you said, i'm strongest in the comfort of the autobiographical conceit (even my fledgling novel is, predictably, working in first-person narration for the time being), and while poetry has something of that, mine at least, there's so much more to it, the intrepid patience, the hurry up and wait, that i'm so bad at. autobiography flows more naturally; evidently unlike you, i'm not bothered by the many I's looking up at me from the page -- they're affirmations of a sort, the page calling me back to its business.

this is why i don't write poetry: the fear that if i touch it, i'll make it worse.

and yet . . .

i probably won't be here long this evening (last night i was up until 2 for no discernible reason), although i'll turn back presently from this to the verse (how can i not; it lies open and bleeding out on the table) and may find the hours ebb as i fret (all of this never quite familiar enough to me to lose all novelty; to you, i imagine, it's all too common; it's your calling, no? how ordinary i feel).


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