Sunday, April 22, 2012

Open Letters

I spent an afternoon last week in Stanford's fantastic archive, Special Collections: Twentieth Century Poetry Since 1945, looking at papers, manuscripts, letters, and even tennis shoes from the personal archives of Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Fanny Howe. Highlights included the typed final draft of "Howl" Ginsberg sent to Kerouac for final edits, with Kerouac and Ginsberg's handwritten marginalia; a letter from Fanny Howe to Marie Howe, in which she recounts going to dinner with John Ashberry and talking about "Twin Peaks"; Creeley's small journals full of drafts of poems lineated nearly identical to the published versions; a first draft of "Kaddish," entitled "Elegy for Mama," in Ginsberg's Larousse Elemetaire primer; the meticulous submissions logs of each poet, containing the names and addresses of magazines, poets, celebrities (Ginsberg sent review copies of "Howl" to Charlie Chaplin and Marlon Brando), and editors, with neat columns noting rejections and acceptances. The takeaway, for me, was the persistance of ordinary routine in the structure of the poet's lives; the long deliberation--the sort of order Flaubert suggested was necessary to be violent and original in the work, or what William Stafford called the whole tide of feeling and life that comes naturally in poetry--as the work took shape. It's a beautiful and unwieldy archive, managed by very smart people who know it well. Well worth the visit.

I have labored in a very ordinary haze of pain and waiting these last two weeks. After throwing Walt in the air over and over on Easter Sunday (we both had a blast), I have pinched a nerve in my neck, and am now waiting out the 4-6 week prognosis to "turn the corner," on the way to a 3-ish month recovery. This has meant a lot of lying on the floor, very little exercise, and a regimen of medications that don't do much for the pain. As a friend said recently, it is virtually impossible to get ahead of pain once it has set in. My routines have exceeded their orderliness of late. I am sleeping on the living room floor, on some blankets, in a funereal ramrod stretch. I wake in the middle of the night in a lot of pain, and end up icing my neck and waiting out the worst of it, sometimes reading or watching TV, or planning out my classes for the week, other times staring up at the pipes. I have had little excuse not to continue a recent streak of intense writing, which is good. I have enjoyed this temporary world of dampened sensation, the acute absence of ambition to do anything except rest, not move much, not hurt, and wait to get better.

One of the unexpected highlights of the Collections visit was reading a three-page letter from Adrienne Rich to Denise Levertov, circa 1973, in which Rich gently but insistently takes Levertov to task for admiring the poetry of Robert Duncan (the letter was rediscovered recently in Levertov's papers, after Rich's death). Rich writes a hell of a letter. Her tone is commanding and straightforward. Her sentences are sharp and lean. Her authority is absolute. She is very generous in her appreciation of Levertov's poetry (later this would change), and argues that there is a clear place for Levertov in the poetry world she advocates and sustains. What, asks Rich, is there to value in a poet, separate of the poems? What kind of poet is contributed to the world, and why should Rich care about him? There is in the letter a deceptive sort of alliance between Rich and Levertov reading Duncan as the third party, an evaluation that, ironically, turns against Levertov for Rich's suspicion, in a later essay, of her "falsely mystical view of art...unrelated to questions of power and privilege or the artist's relation to bread and blood." A sad presaging, perhaps, of how close an alignment Levertov and Duncan might have seen in their aesthetics, at least from Rich's perspective, at the moment their friendship collapsed.

I have tried very hard the last year or so not to make certain mistakes in my poems. As a result, I became very self-aware and I didn't write as many good poems as I might have liked. Some of the mistakes made sense: exhausted habits, phrases, and constructions I didn't want to repeat from earlier poems. Other mistakes were more deliberate, an insistence not to return too easily to certain subject matters, trying not to write and rewrite the same poem. I became obsessed with timelines and accountability. I saw certain arcs--narrative arcs, argument arcs--that seemed to shut down poems as soon as I started them. The result was a kind of weak "poetry parallelism," a walking alongside past and present experience without directly engaging any of it, as though I might just go around the block together a few times, staring at everything. Possibly, this is the weakness of Flaubert's maxim; the orderliness that is bourgeois, rather than like it.

Does a subject matter ever really change for a poet? In one of the Ginsberg notebooks, five or six years before he wrote "Howl," he makes a magnificent partial list of things he can see himself writing about in future poems. It starts: Patterson, NJ, homosexuality, drug abuse. At some point, Ginsberg decided to write about all of it, at once, in "Howl." And yet, in the earlier "Elegy for Mama," Ginsberg starts with a decidedly Christian list that does not survive to "Kaddish":

"Call Peter to the Door! Open the
Gates of Gold! X down from the Cross!
Call Mary out of her door, Cloud! Call
down the god out of heaven! Feet on
the Thundering Floor!"

There is a dangerous feeling in writing poetry, a mix of conviction and uncertainty that seems always to up the ante, looking for either the exuberant or clarifying moment. I think we know when we've written something good, and when we're only fooling ourselves, not just in reading the work after the fact, scrutinizing it, editing it, but in the initial moment itself: "I'm going to make this work, shape it into something really good," or "yeah, I'm just spinning my wheels a bit here to keep the skills sharp." When I lived in Indiana, and wrote poems out of a different kind of deliberation, I did fall back on method. All the training, reading, practice, revising, it brought me to a moment where it was possible to write and seek meaning, when it made sense to write everything, all of the time.

Aaron Sorkin has written and shot the first season of a new television show about cable news, which will air this summer on HBO. I hope it's good. I miss The West Wing. As good as The Social Network and Moneyball were, I would like to think Sorkin's best work is what he calls the "musical dialogue" of overlapping speakers, the frenetic walk-and-talks that made President Bartlett's administration so easy to like and admire. My favorite episode remains "Two Cathedrals," from Season 2, Bartlett's arrival to the press conference, his make-or-break talk with Mrs. Landingham. "You know, if you don't want to run again, I respect you. But if you don't run because you think it's gonna be too hard, or you think you're gonna lose, well God, Jed, I don't want to know you." Fantastic stuff. I don't know why, but it always makes me think of Katie, and of watching "The West Wing" with Katie in Miami on our blue sectionals, in just the best way. Martin Sheen is very good in The Way. If you haven't had a chance to see it yet, you should. There is a fantastic sense of presence to certain figures, a way they become fixed in our minds, so that it is wonderful to both miss and rediscover them.

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