Beach Coast, S x

How art gives rise to art & bends toward poetry.

Thou Child of Joy,

Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy

Shepherd-boy!

—from “Ode” by William Wordsworth

Every winter I find myself turning briefly to the Romantics. I partake of Wordsworth and Keats, there on the treadmill in the basement, staring at an old mass market anthology, yellowed and torn. But it’s been sustained, my poetry reading, this cold and snowy winter.

It began with seeing a couple of surfers in mid-January. I was down in Florida, staying at my sister’s condo on Melbourne Beach, a few miles down Highway A1A from where we grew up in Satellite Beach. My wife and sister had left, and there I was alone with the dog. My schedule was to read Anna Karenina, and then work on planning my Spring classes, and then take the dog for an hour’s walk. Sometimes I got out rather late. Like the day at 4 o’clock when, in a silent empty subdivision, I witnessed two boys roaring toward the beach on skateboards, their surfboards under their arms, and I tagged along and watched them surf.

The episode triggered a confused longing in me for my own beach-town boyhood—but also a surging hope: gladness that kids were still growing up partaking of oceanic gifts. And also I felt a comfort in this new human wave that’s rapidly overtaking me; it will seem fitting and proper when I dissolve into that bottomless, fathomless sea of DNA from which they’ve arisen. At least I hope so.

The emotions I felt from seeing those surfer dudes, the embodiment of my own beach boyhood, were such a welter of loss and love that I wanted to capture the experience of witnessing them at play in the waves. But for three days I didn’t know how. What form might such a piece take? I should at least journal about this, I thought. But I’m a lousy journalist. (Journaler? I was a handy Space Coast newspaper reporter back in the day.) I kept thinking, How can I let that moment pass? Not make something?

~ ~ ~

Dresser, Wall x

. . . I don’t wish to add

to my sons’ sorrow. If I could play three notes

upon the fiddle, I’d do that instead.

—from “What I Told My Sons after My Father Died” by Todd Davis, collected in In the Kingdom of the Ditch

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[Kim Adrian.]

In the midst of my dithering, I reviewed Thomas Larson’s new memoir for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and writer Kim Adrian followed a link to my site and commented on my Q&A with Tom. I went to Kim’s website in turn, and read some of her fine work there. I was intrigued by the title of one of her essays that was listed but unlinked, “Questionnaire for my Grandfather.” It appeared in Gettysburg Review in Winter 2009 (Volume 22 Number 4), and I tracked it down, reading it electronically thanks to my university library’s database affiliations. Kim’s piece concerns how her grandfather’s molestation of her mother affected her mother, and therefore her. The form Kim adopted—a formal questionnaire with increasingly personal questions for a man she never knew—makes the unbearable tolerable, and its surprising form bespeaks a powerful artistic shaping of experience.

I felt impelled to try that approach, and began writing an essay in the form of questions to the surfers. (Thus does art give rise to art—in a way that seems as necessary as experience itself. Without Kim’s essay, I might have let my moment at the beach drift for a few more days and lost it forever.)

After I had a draft, my early excitement and pleasure shaded, inevitably, into dissatisfaction. One dilemma was that I couldn’t decide whether to work in both of two aspects at the end: that I drew energy and hope from the surfers’ native-animal rightness and that they provided solace for my faster-moving fate. Somehow both elements gave me faith in the future of our species. Those boys, there atop the cresting wave that shadows me, whether they become architects, accountants, or Navy Seals, will have their beach days for all their days.

As I tried to refine those culminating feelings, I sent a draft to Tom Larson, with whom I had been emailing in the wake of his interview. He suggested dispersing the feelings: “Something is expiated but I’m not sure it has to be stated.” I felt I needed those emotions to cap the event, as they did in life, but he offered an even more challenging idea: to end on an image I’d used of me. As it was, I’d placed it just before the feelings: I’d impulsively pulled out my iPhone and, standing awkwardly on my dog’s leash, had tried to take a photo of the surfers.

“We had a poet come to Ashland [University] last summer, Keith Flynn,” Tom wrote, referring to the low-residency program in Ohio where he teaches. “He had many great lines. One was, begin the piece/poem in drama or action; leave it in motion.”

~ ~ ~

“If you want to write a topic that’s rather large, you use an image as a point of entry rather than taking on the topic in a frontal way.”—Billy Collins, in the intro to the video above of him reading “The Lanyard”

Finally I did disperse some details, if not the major emotions. And I tried ending with that image of me trying to capture something permanent from a fleeting encounter. Though I sensed Tom was right, the new ending was hard to get used to. Did it put too much emphasis on what could be seen, at the expense of what was felt—on image over meaning? And yet, it grew on me, a closing emotionally resonant yet grounded—my feelings made flesh.

Meanwhile I kept fighting with what was now the penultimate paragraph: those big emotions and their meaning.

What you’ve got here, I told myself, is a Billy Collins moment.

WWBD?

Billy Collins-Trouble with Poetry

Billy Collins? What’s he, the gateway drug of poetry? You could do worse. Maybe some poets would dispute that. Back in the ‘70s it was wildly popular Rod McKuen who got no cognoscenti cred or respect—playing tennis without a net and all that. But the question here is really what impelled me to read Billy Collins, and thus Todd Davis, and—in three shakes of a lamb’s tail—to find myself ransacking the shelves for William Carlos Williams. (Where is Dr. Williams when you need him? He hasn’t paid a house call here in many a moon.)

Turns out, having returned to Ohio and read three collections by Billy Collins, I’m not sure what he’d do. Because he never has such a Billy Collins moment. Or rather, many of his poems are moments but his are funny. My essay’s a murky soup in comparison with his wry musings on household objects and his affable dry-eyed riffs on mortality.

Still, I read, hoping to absorb something. Some way of handling my urge toward epic pronouncement. At first I played a little game with some of his poems, mentally taking out line breaks and grouping lines and stanzas into paragraphs, forming essays similar to my surfer lyric. I like Collins’s poems partly because they don’t read like Poetry—like what I’d write as poetry, too intense and elliptical—but instead are akin to little essays, somewhat like what I do write, or might.

Yet there remains the dilemma that Billy has refused to help me with: whether to risk in my short essay doing both—celebrating those boys as fine native animals and having their meaning comfort me in my own animal fate—when neither aspect can be developed in my flash piece in a stereotypical essayistic way. Which hasn’t stopped me. You write a sentence and see what it says. That leads to another sentence. All of which leads to discovery of meaning and to angst over meaning.

My monkeying, however, has distressed friends and family who loved the early draft I shared from the beach. They feel I have ruined it, over-worked it. They don’t understand that the standards for form are so high for Art. Which in practice means that it takes so much to please my fellow-writer gatekeepers and to overcome their resistance to mere emotion or lack of craft. That the longer you spend with a piece, the more you see not only its flaws but its own bent toward clarity of emotion and meaning.

Alas, they do understand that something precious can die a-borning. That it may take more talent than I have to sharpen and perfect a piece while retaining the magic of a heartfelt first draft. Maybe that’s what takes genius? Being able to do both? To catch the ineffable first wave of emotion and reflectively shape its expression?

And I do realize my lament concerning “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”  itself is as ancient as poetry, as these further lines from Wordsworth’s 1804-vintage “Ode” show:

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

So I turn toward poetry, as if by instinct. Of course the affinity between nonfiction and poetry has long been noted. But it can help anyone writing anything, or any living soul, to paddle toward poetry. You’ll capsize in some of it, but then you’ll find a poet, like old Billy, who seems to have been reading your emails.

Condo Porch, Belle, Sea x

19 Comments

  • shirleyhs says:

    Richard, you struggled mightily in this very helpful essay. I have learned so much about writing through your transparent, humble position as writer/maker. Thank you for sharing the struggles. I spent a whole day with a blog post yesterday too, when I wanted to write it in just one hour. These ideas/feelings/memories/intimations of mortality seize you like Jacob and don’t let go until you give them a blessing. And, of course, you are wrestling at the same time like Jacob also.

    Here’s my favorite line: “. . . it can help anyone writing anything, or any living soul, to paddle toward poetry. ”

    The zen method might be to take the best picture possible of those surfers. Add this line above. And a picture of your youthful self or yourself with your son.

    And then the lovely quote from Todd Davis.

    Even Billy might be pleased.

    • Richard says:

      I did struggle, Shirley. I am not sure I’m glad it shows! But the essay IS about my struggle, almost past, mostly because I’ve fought it to a standstill. Maybe the hardest thing about art to me is that ultimately comes down to not knowing, for me at least, what to do.

      Your hard post must be the one just up about your mother and Shirley Temple. I can sure see that it was hard, because it read so well.

  • Wonderful, Richard. But I now I want to read the essay. :)

  • Can you tell I haven’t had my coffee? That last sentence is proof. :/

  • Dear Richard, Shirleyhs mentions in her answer to you the “intimations of immortality” ode by Wordsworth, and that started one of those funny riffs that happen when one is relaxing on a holiday, and reading many others’ complex thoughts, and one’s own thought is drifting here and there, and one has a realization that may be important or not, but it feels like something one wants to say. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that goofy old bestseller “Up the Down Staircase” from the sixties or seventies (it’s purely a read for crass amusement, certainly not in the Billy Collins or Leo Tolstoy region of discourse). I’m fairly sure that in that book it was that some callow young wit exchanged the title “Intimations of Immortality” for “Imitations of Immorality,” or perhaps it was in some other work which now has passed out of my memory. At any rate (there’s really no way of making this long, meandering thought short, I hope it’s worth it), that, I think, is how one distinguishes between serious, good, emotionally-wrenching and soul-elevating art and the sentimentality and careless sexuality of Rod McKuen. It’s not that I’m a prude, I don’t care if McKuen romanced every woman and man both in his immediate surroundings and took careful notes on the results for his poems: it’s just that the results are so worthless and disappointing. It’s his “imitations of immorality” which don’t lift us beyond ourselves or give us any internal experience, emotionally sexual or otherwise, to take to our graveward destiny with us and say: “This is a definitive moment and experience of being human, for me as well as for others, and I am here to proclaim it.” That’s what he pretended to do, and many people accepted that, I suppose, but where is it written or spoken about that being human is easy or facile or only a matter of stringing a few words together in perfectly understandable (and flat) language that no one has to reach for or try to achieve the meaning of in themselves and their own lives? Art is not only a teaching experience from person to person, it is also teachable and should be: why do we laugh at “The Lanyard,” ruefully, after having begun with a solemn commitment to listen? What reaches our soul in that poem? There’s a sting, a pinch, a something which must be encountered and entered into and accepted as part of our view of ourselves, as the poem seems almost to have a self-contradictory drift or wink, or nod. And to get back to you and your post after all this long stuff I’ve said, I find your picture of yourself standing awkwardly on the dog’s lead while taking a photo of the surfers much more a true and funny and tender and worthwhile image of humanity balancing itself to achieve art than McKuen’s (or many another’s) apparent words of love and romance to all and sundry, much as I love a good love poem. A good love poem is written as much to the universe as to another person, and to that parallel part of oneself that does the loving, and I suppose that I had better stop here or my less than B. Collins self will threaten to descend to the level of an R. McKuen, but I think you will find your own way out of your dilemma as to whether to do an essay or perhaps write a poem, or even maybe mix forms and write your essay with a poem in it here and there, just as a new venture (though I don’t know whether you often write poems on the sly or not). Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your family, and I think you can be trusted with your own poem of love to life and its continuance as signified by your chosen image, whatever you may choose to do with it. I think you are quite right to find inspiration in poetry for other kinds of writing, and funnily or not, I think it’s rather an unconsidered point that many, many children (but how could I say “most,” I haven’t done a conclusive survey!) write poetry before they even think of writing prose. What’s that old (somewhat sentimental, warning!) poem, “Backward, turn backward, oh time in your flight,/Make me a child again, just for tonight.” My mom often says that, even though she’s a very happy older person, and I think it’s a good place (will she ever shut up? you say) to end this. Let’s all be children in a real sense again for this occasion, and see ourselves balancing tensely and tenaciously on a dog’s lead, dog possibly trying to do dog-like things at the same time, inconveniently, while we persist in trying to find the proper view in a very small camera to take a picture of something that captures an essential part of the human experience for us all. I hope I’ve represented that fairly. Sorry for being such a windbag (but it’s partly your fault for writing such wonderful essays!)

    • Richard says:

      Sublime, Victoria. What a brilliant distinction you draw between art and dreck. And I appreciate your endorsement of my essay/poem’s ending image! You know, it has occurred to me that Wordsworth IS my model for the grand sentiment. So maybe I’m in good, if dated, company after all.

  • cynthia says:

    This post has such a strong narrative drive–I kept wondering what would happen next. I love reading about process.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Thanks so much for mentioning that, Cynthia. It was a goal! As in the essay itself, though I’m not sure it works there, unless you care about a geezer tugging his little dog’s leash toward the beach.

  • Kim A. says:

    How eerie — and totally unexpected & sort of fun — to read this post, & see that my essay prodded you like that. I remember writing it (questionnaire for my grandfather) in one big surge, but not before doing so much work (or worrying) of exactly the same kind you describe in this post. Circling and circling and circling the subject & being frustrated by both its largeness and its amorphousness & knowing there was a way in, but never finding the door. It took overthinking to the point of mental exhaustion to get to the form of a questionnaire: like just tell me—subject—why you are so frigging haunting! Tell me now! Anyway… a “geezer tugging his little dog’s leash toward the beach” is a great image. Tugging is really what pulls essays and poems along, don’t you think? —in that lateral, searching way…

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      So great to have you check in, Kim. I never would have guessed the form was so hard for you to find! Maybe that was what made mine hard – I stole your form and then have had to struggle with other aspects, with mine’s particular content.

  • “You write a sentence and see what it says. That leads to another sentence. All of which leads to discovery of meaning and to angst over meaning.” Exactly — and would you want it any other way? Thanks for a wonderful read…

  • Oh, so much to ponder. Some of the same questions/dilemmas I keep bumping into, which all come back to the central question of who am I writing for? What kind of reader? And is it possible to please both my family/friends and the writer/readers I deeply respect? I don’t know if it is. It feels like it isn’t possible.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      You may have gone to the heart of it with this comment, Tracy. I wind up with the age-old question, Why should anyone care? I guess I answer it with intent and craft. Why do I want to tell this story? Is my motive at base generous? And can I bring aspects of craft to it to transform the merely personal into art for others? Like you, I feel it’s often beyond me, at least some of the time.

      • I wonder, perhaps it (when it encompasses the really important, truly profound feelings) is beyond all of us, most of the time.

        I just read your Goodreads review of Gilead (because I’m currently reading it again). I was momentarily surprised by your dislike, and then not.

        I like the book. I don’t love it, but I’ve found plenty in it to like.

        But when my husband asked whether I thought he would want to read the book, I said definitely not–for exactly the reason you cited. I’ve found myself liking the ideas, the theology sprinkled in the narrative, while simultaneously being annoyed by the narrator.

        So I wonder whether that isn’t a problem with craft. But I do find the John Ames character incredibly true-to-life. I have often sat and listened to elderly people, and those nearing death. Preachers, pastors and sincerely pious people have often sounded to me exactly like John Ames–resentful, whiney, and frightened. Sometimes they are aware of their weaknesses but usually they are unable to stop their petty yapping.

        I think those who loved the book responded to something deeply personal, a resonance that felt like something in their own lives, and a compassionate connection with the ideas. Therefore they overlooked the flaws in craft, and felt a need to live with and forgive the flaws in the character of John Ames (a stand-in for themselves or someone they love?)

        In his narration, John Ames frequently bemoans his inability to express the depth of his tenderness. Another question that recurs is the value/meaning/purpose and/or futility of anyone’s guiding vision. How far short of the beauty of the vision our efforts always seem to fall.

        I think even the best writers rarely, if ever, achieve the art they envision.

        But perhaps the beauty, the value of our work might actually be found in the brave, heartfelt, passionate attempt to share what we’ve seen/felt/experienced.

        Your essay and this discussion has helped me realize something I needed to know.

        These past 6 weeks have been rather rough for me. That story is so full of one-thing-after-another that it turns slapstick in the telling. I needed a kind of booster shot in the arm:

        Here it is: as long as my motivation for attempting to share what’s in my heart is truly generous, and if I have learned (and continuing to learn) as much as I can about the craft of writing, while trying to live generously, carefully and just plain decently, some people (but not all) will probably be grateful for my attempt to share my dream, the art I envision making from my experience. And I’ll know I tried.

        • Richard Gilbert says:

          Wow, you’ve got the makings of a great review of Gilead right here. I hope you will review it, bringing this balanced perspective. No question, it’s a special novel—I didn’t like it, but saw that. I had forgotten I’d reviewed it, too. My “policy” is to only review what I love, but I make exceptions (and usually regret them).

          Your writing standards are worth your posting, too, Tracy.

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