Sunday, April 30, 2006

Someone Else

This is a rather obvious thing to say, but I am constantly surprised by the ways in which poetry is a response to, well, things--at least for me. I mean, there are times when poetry is more of an introverted exercise; that is, the poem seems to arise from within or self-reflection. I went through this period last summer/fall when that seemed to be the case.

Other times, like now, for instance, poetry has to be a response or reaction to something exterior. Which doesn't mean that a poem is a response to something big, some big event. Or that I see something or hear something or read something in the paper and think, 'oh my, I must write a poem about that.'

More that poetry is a necessary response to small or incident things, or parts of things. That the response of which the poem consists is not so much a direct response, but an indirect one. That there must be a constant series of 'inputs' (to use a term my dad might say) for there to be an 'output.' That there just must be this flow of things against and across consciousness, like Bruce Springsteen covering Pete Seeger, or a trip to Borders, or reading the paper, or a sunny day, or nasty brutish experience such as wrecking the car--this flow of stuff across the giant filter of consciousness, like the fine mesh of a whale's 'teeth' filtering out the plankton from the wide expanse of the sea.

Which makes me think of Moby Dick. Which is a great novel that I keep intending to re-read and don't. Or maybe I'm thinking of one of Kipling's Just So Stories, "How the Whale Got His Throat."

One of my consciousness filters recently was hating Wallace Stevens, which was really unfair, possibly because he is dead and possibly because I do admire his poetry. This bout of hating Wallace Stevens has not necessarily resulted in a poem, mind you, but it felt productive. I was doing one of my lunatic exercise walks (since I can no longer run, I persist in putting on exercise-type clothes, using handweights and walking very fast and hard, pumping my arms--but it is good exercise), and I suddenly found myself hating Wallace Stevens. What triggered this I don't know. Perhaps it was the trivial but absurdly cumulative misfortunes of the past week or so. But I suddenly hated him in his proliferance (is that a word?), hated him for having written so much and so well. Hated him because he gets some kind of credit for having had a full-time job as an insurance company executive and writing so much and so well. And that really irritated me. Did Mr. Stevens have to cook any of his own meals? I think not. Did he have to go grocery shopping? I think not. Did he have to clean his office, ever, either at home or at work? Not on your life. Did he have to pick up the dry cleaning? No way. Did he make his own doctor's appointments? Probably not. Did he ever have to lift a finger to do anything except go to work and write poems? No, absolutely not. HE HAD A WIFE AND A SECRETARY FOR THAT. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to live such a fully supported life. One where all you had to do was hold a job and devote yourself to your art. But heterosexual men and closeted homosexual men were able to do that for years in the late 19th and most of the way through the 20th century--middle class men. They had wives. I cannot imagine the luxury of living such a fully supported life, where I didn't have to take care of myself--someone else did that for me. It's like being an eternal child. Wallace Stevens' wife probably laid out his clothes in the morning for him. She probably helped him get dressed. When he came downstairs, someone else had retrieved the morning paper, polished his shoes and had a hot breakfast on the table for him. When he finished it, someone else cleaned it up. His house was immaculate. He probably never thought about it. When he took off his coat and boots, someone else hung them up for him. Someone else wiped up the puddles of snow melt that he tracked in. When he came home from work, someone served him a hot dinner. Someone packed him his lunch. God, life is grand when your wife is your personal servant.

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