How art gives rise to art & bends toward poetry.
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy
—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?
~ ~ ~
. . . 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
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.
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.