His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
“Writing is not therapy,” I tell my puzzled students. “Often, you feel worse after you finish a poem.” On the whole, this is not what they are expecting from art.
Nor are they expecting the ruthlessness of creation: the melodrama, the exaggerations, the false fronts and manufactured views. Robert Lowell tried to explain its workings.
Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars—
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.
Listen to the shame and hubris in his words, the helplessness, the gasping clutch at glory. But the you of the poem, sitting alone in her twilit room, no doubt heard something quite different, and perhaps it drove her to close the windows and turn up the television volume to drown out the sound.
* * *
The complete version of this essay is forthcoming soon in the Sewanee Review. Because I was teaching an essay class at Solstice this week, I felt compelled to include some prose in my evening reading, so I chose part of this piece. It felt good to read it, but it's left me melancholy. The sentences were sad; even the happy sentences were sad.