I’ve recently, like most cancer patients, been concerned with the effects & side effects of medication. Side effects, the way we usually use the term, are unwanted, negative. But over the last couple of weeks, being treated for the crack in my pelvis with morphine & steroids & a bone strengthener, I have noticed periods of the day when I feel . . . good. Not high, just good mentally. Sometimes this is just the spacy sort of consciousness good for watching YouTube science videos, but sometimes, as this evening, the state of mind gave rise to a poem. Often, my poems begin with an idea, but this just began with a couple of images from today’s NY Times online Science section, one about the voicebox of a prehistoric bird, the other about a Saturn-like object somewhere 400 light years away. The rest was just a matter of constructing language as it constructed itself around a philosophical question–series of questions–I’d discussed with my friend Chris. It’s not that the insights are out of the ordinary, but, doing what a poet is supposed to do, I may have helped find some language to refract off the ideas in a useful way. I like the notion of refraction becauses it confuses the tendency toward making binary oppositions. I have no idea which drugs might be tweaking which neurons, or whether that matters.
Itâ€™s not the pain itself
but what the pain itself
Without metaphor. No
walking, just falling in
to the arms of others
(this is no comfort) be
cause then everything
is depending on a kind
of singing. No singing.
A film of light on the river,
a thistle’s worth of grammar.
Those years in San Diego were a miracle, despite anxieties about money & the lack of a “real,” i.e., tenure track, teaching job–something I had not fully recognized until writing about it over the last couple of days. (The miraculousness of it, I mean, though perhaps I am romanticizing it in retrospect.) I published a lot & won awards & lived three blocks from the beach. I wish I could have kept it up. But we moved to cold country & my productivity certainly slowed down, hard to say exactly why (or not so hard, really, but I’m coming to that); it turns out I was confused for quite a long time about the differences between writing & a writing career–a fairly major philosophical & personal wrong turn from which I may only now be fully recovering.
The Clarkson job was not, I suppose, what I had been hoping for in some ideal sense of the perfect job, but it turned out to have a number of hidden advantages. I had seen myself working in a fairly traditional English Department rather than in a mixed Liberal Arts department serving the needs of the Engineering & Business schools, eventually, perhaps, teaching in an MFA program. That was not to be. And while Clarkson had, especially in the early days, a fairly heavy commitment to its own peculiar version of “Freshman English,” the overall teaching load was (& has remained) only two preps & three classes each semester. Many of the jobs I had been applying for, especially at state schools, had 4/4 loads with three preps. Again, I had found myself in a situation with lots of time to write. I took advantage of this, but not to the extent I might–or should–have.
Instead, I got involved with local (Clarkson) & poetry world (AWP) politics. Neither of these realms of activity were bad in themselves, but in retrospect I think they were bad for me. I was elected to the Board of the Associated Writing Programs (a fine organization of which I am still a member, though I haven’t, with one exception, gone to a conference in a long time). A little later I was elected to the Faculty Senate & not long after that became its Chair. I spent my 40th birthday at Yaddo. What could be better? The problem was that I began to see these sorts of things as a more or less essential part of being a writer & this was a mistake. It also involved increasing amounts of alcohol.
I had been a heavy drinker as an undergraduate & through grad school, but had given it up when I returned to Seattle & remained dry through the Bellingham & San Diego years. When I came to Clarkson, thinking myself now some kind of success story, I began using alcohol again. It was a time of fairly high anxiety (Would I get tenure? Would I win that grant?) & alcohol, as a psychiatrist later told me, is a very good anti-anxiety drug. Too bad about the bad side effects.
This is not a confessional essay & I’m not going to dwell on booze. In fact, I’ll glide over the whole thing by saying it did become a health problem for me, though it never interfered with my teaching, so a little more than ten years ago, I entered my second period of sobriety & did so without any particularly difficulties. It is possible that my current health difficulties are related to my past use of alcohol, but there is no way to establish causation in a single case.
But I taught well & continued to make poems & get them into magazines. I published a book titled Static with Owl Creek Press & am fortunate that it was so badly distributed it is now impossible to find a copy, for it was physically unattractive & the poems were not as strong as those in my first book. Though I edited a book (Dog Music) with a friend and wrote the text for a book of photographs (A Dog’s Book of Truths) it wasn’t until 2000 that I published another book of poetry, a good one, I think, called Magical Thinking. That was sixteen years ago! I’ve only just finished the follow-up to Magical Thinking, currently titled River with Birds & Trees, which I have just begun sending out to publishers, along with individual poems to journals & magazines. The title is intended to imitate the title of a painting, or a study for a painting: I think the poems lean heavily toward the visual for their effects, though I hope they sing & think as well.
I have another manuscript nearly complete, even more visual, that borrows its title for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings–it consists of fourteen-line syllabic stanzas in numbered sequences or “suites,” so the musical element is there at least metaphorically. I’ve always thought my own verse quite “musical” or at least concerned with sound, especially rhythm & especially at the level of the sentence, though I have never felt any attraction to contemporary formalism. I suppose my poems possess “the ghost of meter,” as someone has said of a certain kind of free verse & I am often befuddled by the flatness of much contemporary poetry.
I can’t blame teaching for my slow rate of production as a poet over the last couple of decades. Partly, I think, because of my mistake, I began to doubt the value of poetry–or that’s what I thought. What I really came to doubt, finally, was the value of all the trappings of being a writer, As I said, I had become confused about this important distinction, but I am confused no more. Perhaps it is this ongoing encounter with mortality, or perhaps just finally growing old enough to let all that drop away–all that ambition–so that I have been writing lucidly in recent months & at a pace I haven’t matched since San Diego. Of course I hope to publish this current work, but I finally cannot know what will become of it–whether any of it will “last,” as they say. Some degree of success, if not fame, was once important to me, but no longer. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care if the poems find readers–I hope they will. But beyond the usual sort of attempts at publishing, I have no control over this, so I’ve let it go.
I’ve loved the Old English & Scottish Ballads since discovering them in high school–I came across them in both print & musical form at about the same time, in the college literature anthologies one of my teachers loaned me & on the early records of folk stars like Joan Baez & Buffy St. Marie. I came of age with the morally ambiguous stories of Lord Randall, Sir Patrick Spence, Matty Groves & others. I also came to love the ballad stanza’s mode of free but muscular expression & have adapted it pretty often in my own work, most recently in the manuscript I’ve just completed, River with Birds & Trees, in which every poem with four-line stanzas is effectively a free verse ballad, alternating long & short lines to develop my pieced-together narratives. Here is that standard list of variations & versions of “Matty Groves.”
My attraction to the ballad crystalized while I was in college with Dylan’s use of the form, as well as the recordings of traditional singers that proliferated in the 1970s. (I have to admit to a long-standing attraction to the pop-folk balladeer Donovan, especially his “Season of the Witch” with its fine line, “Must be the season of the witch / Beatniks out to make it rich . . .” “There is a Mountain,” & “Sand and Foam,” this last one a particularly fine example of the folk ballad put to popular use.) But the modernization of the traditional ballad can be said to date from Fairport Convention’s recording of “Matty Groves,”Â a ballad that goes back at least to the 17th century in Scotland, with a more English version of the same story going under the title “Little Musgrave.” In looking around on the internet this afternoon for links to some of these songs, I discovered a startlingly beautiful version of “Musgrave” by an acoustic band called Planxty, apparently of long standing, with whom I was not familiar. I recommend it.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
“Preface to Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.