"How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"
I've been enjoying a correspondence with a young poet of late. There's nothing like writing to someone else who shares your interest in an arcane subject to draw out your own thoughts or reflections on that area. He recently finished a long work in which a number of formal issues regarding sestinas and sonnets arose. He asked for help on these problems and I agreed to help. Not because I know more, but because I've seen more.
For those who don't pay a lot of attention to the technical aspects of poetics, I can only assure you that if you commit yourself to a long poem with a number of its elements cast in classical forms (instead of just spewing your immediate issues across the page and breaking the lines at an arbitrary point), the job of "getting it right" increases exponentially. The only poets who do not know how hard this is are those that have never attempted it. And they are legion in this blighted age of writers' workshops and writing an inchoate slab of feelings down the bones.
The poet in question had finally come to the first end point of the work, submitted it to a publication, and was burned out. This is not uncommon. This morning he wrote, "May it be months before I ever write another d**m poem."
If only it were that easy. When you permit yourself to seriously attend to this faded art, you'll find over time that you are only finished with poetry when poetry is finished with you. That does happen. Sometimes for months or even years. This I know.
Then, after an unknowable amount of time, it returns -- usually at an inconvenient time and an incovenient place where it is not expected, not expected at all -- "...in a corner, some untidy spot." I've taken to thinking of these moments as "The Arrival" -- something that I've never actually written about before.
Why not? Because so few people are interested in the serious practice of this art, and because to write about it brushes up against the mystical. I am always suspicious of things that travel "into the mystic." Especially so when it involves my own experience.
But something in his tone made me want to overcome this; a regrettable impulse to both warn and instruct. So I wrote back to the young poet who prayed "may it be months before I ever write another d**m poem," with some thoughts of my own after many such prayers.
You beg for months off and you may get them. Then again, you may not. Frankly, you don't have a lot to say about it.
I think you'll find, or perhaps have already found, that the poems you'll end up liking best of all your work tend to arrive first and are written after. They don't come up out of the page, or out of an immediate experience. Instead they always tend to appear almost unbidden out of that state that Wordsworth captured when he wrote, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."
I've come to think of this experience as "The Arrival." It doesn't happen often but you know it when it does. The latest experience with "The Arrival" that I've had happened about three years ago.
It came on a Wednesday evening towards the end of first New York winter after 9/11. I'd worked late and taken the subway home from Penn Station. In an almost empty car I rode down along the spine of Manhattan, dipped deep under the East River, and rose up the long slope to the platform seven stories beneath Clark Street in Brooklyn Heights.
I took the elevator to the surface walked out of the Clark Street subway into about 2 inches of fresh snow collecting on cold sidewalks with more swirling down along the face of the wind. It was late and there was nobody else out on the two blocks I had to walk to my apartment.
In New York City during heavy snowfalls, the streets grow quiet. That evening was no exception save for the whoosh of infrequent cars on the boulevard off to the east, and the random humm of trucks on the expressway that ran along the river. Every so often, a car leaving the Brooklyn Bridge behind me would hit a steel plate in the road for a muffled, faint clang of metal on metal. There was a slash of wind above the roofs on the protected side of the street that kept the stronger wind off the East River from getting to me. These slight and distant sounds -- none so loud that I couldn't hear my steps moving across the snow -- merged into a kind of metronome of footsteps, tires, faint engines and wind, all with a distinct slow beat way down below.
At the end of the last long block, I had to turn right on Pierrepont Street towards the river. This brought the whoosh of the cars on the expressway up just a notch. The chill wind got an edge on it too as I turned into the swirls of snow, and my steps, slipping a bit in the shallow drifts, made a slight syncopation against the beat of the gusts. The snow was almost granular on the concrete and it gave my steps the sound you hear when tap dancers shuffle on sand.
Then as I passed under the streetlight I heard something say, "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know..."
This was not 'said' so much as sounded -- a kind of echo under the wind at the back of my mind. Yet it was so distinct that I jerked around thinking someone was behind me, but of course there wasn't anyone there at all. It was just a phrase I had heard in the mind alone against the soft sounds of tires, wind, my own footsteps, and blowing snow.
I stopped, listened again, and it came back one more time, soft and distinct but with no whisper to it: "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know..."
But what did I know? I knew, at that moment, no more than that single phrase, but having had the experience of "Arrival" at rare moments over the years, I recognized it for what it was.
I stood there for a several minutes straining to hear what the next phrase would be. But nothing else came. I was just standing by myself on a Brooklyn corner in the snow.
I remember thinking, perhaps saying out loud, "Okay. I hear that, but what, exactly, is it that I know?" No answer. There never is. It's not there for a conversation. It's come for a visit. It will talk to you on its own terms and in its own time.
Gradually I became aware that all I was doing was standing alone in the snow and getting colder. Not really a plan. I cut across the street, went up the stairs to my door, beat some of the snow off my coat, and went inside.
The first thing I did was go to my desk, grab a single sheet of paper, and write "Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know" across the top. Then I put it in the center of my desk and stared at it as if willing some secret, invisible writing to appear beneath the phrase. Nothing came up so I shrugged and went on to other more sensible things. As noted above, I'd experienced "Arrivals" before. I've learned not to push the moment if nothing else seems to be offered at the time.
Instead, I got out of my work clothes, took a long hot bath, changed into robe and pajamas, made a bite to eat and had a glass of reasonably good Bordeaux. Then I retired, watched some movie for an hour or so and fell asleep a bit after midnight.
At around three in the morning I was woken up by the experience of something that began as a dream but, as I woke, continued as that rare but not unknown form of waking dream where the room you are in can be seen clearly while the dream images cascade over it in a kind of superimposition. This lasted, as they always do, only about 30 seconds, then faded out and then I heard this:
"Within the smoke their ash revolves as snow,
To settle on our skin as fading stars
Dissolve into pure dust at break of day.
At dawn a distant shudder in the earth..."
That was it, but it was enough. I got up and went to my desk and wrote those four lines down underneath:
"Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know"
Then my mind stopped. I sat still and looked out the two large windows in my front room that opened onto Pierrepont street.
The wind had calmed while I slept and all had become even more silent than before. The snow was still swirling across the windows in the gold street light, building up on the branches of the trees, collecting along the ledges and window sills of the buildings across the way. I looked out at it for an indeterminate time and, in the silence, I listened very hard. And then I heard the rest of the poem arrive in order, pretty much as it stands now in:
The poem has, of course, been planed, sanded, tweaked, waxed, dusted and buffed on and off over the years. I am not ready to, as they say, "abandon it" just yet.
At one point, Eugene Volokh convinced me to remove about 5 of the central stanzas for a collection of poems about 9/11 he was putting up on the web. At the time I agreed with his reasons and cut them. But over the years since, those cut stanzas have, one by two, come back in. It as if they insist on their rightful original places in the poem. I've come not so much to agree with them as to quit resisting them. They can be very assertive.
To make poems, I've found that it is possible to put yourself into a 'composing' state just by going to the work on a daily basis for three to six weeks. It's a dogged way of kickstarting the process and you'll waste a lot of ink, paper and time along the way. But it does work and that's the best thing that can be said for it. And I think that, once you are in the flow of the zone, a lot of respectable work is done that, with care and thoughtful revision, can become more respectable still. When you finally 'abandon' these poems you aren't sorry to have written them.
"Arrivals" are a different sort of beast entirely. They come when you aren't expecting them. They stay until they are finished with you. Then they leave.
Arrivals are very irritating to have around since they command all your attention to their needs and their mission. Simply put, their needs are not yours. You are, for the duration, the host and they are rude and demanding guests. You sleep when they let you. You eat fast and rather poorly at that. You consume a bit too much alcohol and far too much caffeine and nicotine.
Arrivals do not clean up after themselves and they depart without a word of goodbye. One moment they are there, the next moment they are gone in less time than it takes to see a spark. The strangest thing is that, when they do leave, you are not only sorry to see them go, you can't wait for their next visit.