[first published in the Sewanee Review, winter 2012]
According to Henry David Thoreau, “the art of life, of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do.” W. H. Auden quoted this line just before launching into “Making, Knowing and Judging,” an essay based on a lecture he delivered after he was named Oxford Professor of Poetry and which he opened by querying the very terms of that distinguished position: “Even the greatest of that long line of scholars and poets who have held this chair before me . . . must have asked themselves: ‘What is a Professor of Poetry? How can Poetry be professed?’”
This isn’t a question that many people ask nowadays. As recently as 1948, Robert Graves was still declaring, “Though recognized as a learned profession [poetry] is the only one for the study of which no academies are open and in which there is no yard-stick, however crude, by which technical proficiency is considered measurable.” Tragically, however, that long tradition has vanished. Today, poetry has become a career rather than a vocation; and at least in the United States, poets who refuse to buy a degree for the sake of a job (or, more often, the shadowy dream of a job) are generally ignored as serious artists, at least by the collegiate elite.
Yet Thoreau had it right: art doesn’t require a certificate of proficiency. It requires long stretches of emptiness, not only so that artists have spans of time to produce new work but, more importantly, so that they can attend to the plain routines of living. Great art grows from the intensity of an artist’s interaction with her own life. I don’t mean to imply that her life has to be dramatic or even all that interesting. But the artist must make long acquaintance with her days—days that are rarely trancelike but that plod through the seasons: that strip the beds and ream out the barns and trudge through the snow to the insurance office. In this sense, then, to “profess poetry,” a writer simply needs to pay attention to her hours, read the words of people who paid attention to their hours, now and then follow an urge to hammer those hours and words into her own poem, and occasionally be willing to talk about that task. As Auden said, “There is nothing a would-be poet knows he has to know. He is at the mercy of the immediate moment because he has no concrete reason for not yielding to its demands.” In other words, he is merely awake and alive.
There are days when I believe that being awake and alive is the only thing I’ve managed to accomplish with my life. Accidentally I seem to have followed Thoreau’s instructions to avoid “having anything to do.” Instead, I’ve spent, or squandered, most of my career years in being a cook, a laundress, and an underemployed, mostly self-educated, reader and writer of small obscure books. Talking about his trajectory as a novelist, John Fowles said, “I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it.” My actions have been neither so ascetic nor so ruthless. Nonetheless, there’s a selfishness about a life spent doing nothing, especially when one has growing children and a tired husband. Twenty years of well-cooked meals and clean socks are not substitutes for a paycheck.
This tradeoff seems even worse when I’m struggling to write, as I have been during the past few months. If I’m not managing to do anything remunerative, shouldn’t I at least be writing? In truth, however, my problem is not “not writing” per se. Clearly, at this very moment, I’m writing this essay. Almost every morning I write a longish blog post about reading and writing. I read seriously every day, I’ve been steadily revising a poetry manuscript, and I’ve even composed a few decent poems. I’ve finished a memoir and written the text of a magazine photo-essay. When I stand back and look at my output, I do see that I have no right to complain about not writing. Nonetheless, something is amiss: I’m not, to borrow my friend Baron’s terminology, “in the zone,” and I haven’t been in the zone for what feels like a very long time.
Being in the zone is rather like writing under the influence of a writing-specific drug: every step of the task vibrates with meaning, and the work seems to take charge of itself. Fowles said, “I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.” When I’m in the zone, I still produce words and revise, produce words and revise; but somehow my decision making feels sharper and more incisive. I don’t plod through time, dragging at words like I’m yanking an obstinate goat up a mountain path. Weightless, I fly.
Yet being in the zone does not guarantee that what I produce is any good. As Auden pointed out, poets “cannot claim oracular immunity.” The writing trance may be an intoxication, but the art that results is not dependable. Auden’s example was Coleridge’s famous fragment “Kubla Khan,” composed, according to the author, during an opium dream in a “lonely farm-house.”
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Despite historical precedent, one is not required to take laudanum or drink whiskey for breakfast in order to work in the writing zone. But drugs do add their own je ne sais quoi to the situation; and thus Coleridge’s opium-induced zone cannot really parallel my own non-opium-induced haze. Yet his description of the experience is nonetheless familiar. “All the images rose up before him as things”—yes, I, too, recognize those moments, breathtaking, yet also as simple as water, when the abstractions of thought assume a swift and automatic solidity. “With a parallel production of the correspondent expressions,” the words for those images appear under my fingers—easily, exactly, “without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
But trouble always looms. Waking from his dream, Coleridge “instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At that moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock . . . and all the rest [of the dream poem] passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”
Oh, that aggravating person from Porlock! How well I know him. He has been sitting on the other side of my desk for about six months now, kicking the table leg, snapping his gum, and trying to interest me in political candidates and asphalt shingles. He is the anti-zone, and he interrupts every single word I write. Sometimes I manage to soldier on in spite of him, but sometimes I just give up and take him out for coffee. Coleridge, however, was unable to persevere against distraction. Daily life intruded on the trance, and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished and unrevised. Though the author did publish the fragment, he did so only “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”
Despite the poet’s disclaimer, the fragment is, in truth, a wondrous piece of work; yet as Auden noted, “Coleridge was not being falsely modest. He saw, I think, as a reader can see, that even the fragment that exists is disjointed and would have had to be worked on if he ever completed the poem, and his critical conscience felt on its honor to admit this.” In other words, “Kubla Khan” is a lovely scrap, but it could have been a polished work of art if the poet had been able to step outside the trance zone into the lumpish everyday world of banging words together and taking them apart, banging words together and taking them apart—a quotidian job that is rather like trying to assemble a mechanical device that seems to be missing various indispensable gears. There’s nothing particularly joyous or intoxicating about the project, but it’s the job that gets the work done—and a job that Coleridge knew very well he had once been able to do.
Yet there’s another side to this quotidian writing story. What about the reams of work that people produce by means of prompts and “write-a-poem-every-day-for-a-month” challenges? Aren’t such assignments a way to keep the juices flowing during those long tranceless droughts? Aren’t these efforts both a form of education and a way of professing poetry?
To me, such force-fed production is almost too distasteful to contemplate. I don’t want to write, as one poetry blog suggests, “a love poem in the form of a traffic ticket” or, worse yet, a “blitz poem,” which is, according to another poetry blog, “a 50-line poem of short phrases and images” compiled according to specific rules:
Line 1 should be one short phrase or image (like “build a boat”)
Line 2 should be another short phrase or image using the same first word as the first word in Line 1 (something like “build a house”)
Lines 3 and 4 should be short phrases or images using the last word of Line 2 as their first words (so Line 3 might be “house for sale” and Line 4 might be “house for rent”)
Lines 5 and 6 should be short phrases or images using the last word of Line 4 as their first words, and so on until you've made it through 48 lines
Line 49 should be the last word of Line 48
Line 50 should be the last word of Line 47
The title of the poem should be three words long and follow this format: (first word of Line 3) (preposition or conjunction) (first word of line 47)
There should be no punctuation
The blog assures me that this is “a pretty simple and fun poem to write once you get the hang of it.” Ugh.
The prompt approach pretends that writing poetry is a pleasant activity analogous to solving a New York Times crossword. It lays out the structure: all the pencil-holder does is fill in the blanks. There’s no real labor involved, no hard-won synthesis of emotion and diction, grammar and imagination, sound and intellect. Nonetheless, a person can sit down at her desk every day and fool herself into believing she’s producing a body of work.
These kinds of writing gimmicks infuriate me. Since when is poetry supposed to be “pretty simple and fun”? Yet out there in the world today, thousands of people may be writing their so-called poems as I sit here not writing any poem at all. Without sweat or inspiration, they are nonetheless making something; and we’ve all been taught to believe that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Which brings me back to Thoreau. If “the art . . . of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do,” then I think that perhaps we, as writers, need to negotiate better terms with nothing. In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, the character Bradley Pearson, a novelist who rarely writes anything, comments on “how much I was dominated during this time by an increasingly powerful sense of the imminence in my life of a great work of art.” At the time he had no idea what his imaginary book would contain, but he felt it as “a great dark wonderful something nearby in the future, magnetically connected with me: connected with my mind, connected with my body.” Bradley is an unreliable narrator, yet his thoughts about the sensation of “not writing”—perhaps I should say the sensation of “not writing yet”—remind me that the trance and the labor, the mind and the body, cannot be divorced. But neither can they be impelled. As Bradley explains, “an artist in a state of power has a serene relationship to time. Fruition is simply a matter of waiting.”