Ted!Re: The Intention essay (“One elegy quoted Mr. Spock”): what an insightfully hilarious, and terribly moving, essay! May I post it on my page with your name in bold big letters? (let me know asap because I get most of my readers on Sunday evenings, so your piece will get the most exposure that way). There’s no denying, I think, that the best, most truthful, writing usually comes from the not-entirely-young and is improved by the subtle charge of what the kiddies call “bitterness”. I’ve had enough of reading phony, cheerleading, triumphalist Yankee bilge about being “fearless” and all that crypto-Spartan bullshit. Real Poetry, for me, is about the Poet’s ongoing Disappointment in Real Life failing to be Poetic. And every possible permutation on, and implication of, that theme.—-Steve
When I received the phone call, I was overjoyed. I had won the Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award. The woman who had called to tell me I had won seemed amused at my cheering. She would probably have been tickled pink had she seen me there in my living room, on my knees, whispering thanks at the ceiling. I’d only submitted twenty or thirty poems to as many contests, and here it was, a first place! I had discerned the key, the method for manufacturing publishable product; I was on my way. In the cold light of retrospect, I wonder where I thought I was going, or just what I thought my method consisted of. The question of “What’s a published poem anyway?” does not appear to have impinged itself on my consciousness.
No, far from it. Visions danced in my head of a journal with a real binding and glossy pages, my poem sandwiched between an incoherent interview with the incoherent Robert Creeley and a second place offering from, say, Denise Levertov. At last, I had gotten through! Someone had finally understood what I was trying to do! I was no longer trapped in a world of strange creatures who seem selectively deaf, deaf only to the words uttered from my mouth, or creatures who speak a dialect slightly divergent from mine, a dialect sufficiently like my own for them to understand “Where are my socks?” or “The check’s in the mail,” but sufficiently unlike my own as to render them glazed-eyed and slack-jawed in the face of the more difficult exudations of my heart.
I proceeded to allude offhandedly to my award in conversation; to browbeat inadequately congratulatory professors with it; I even told my bartender about it, although I waited until the place was nearly empty before I bought a round. It seems, and again, I only know this in retrospect, that several people apparently fell in love with me entirely on the grounds that I seemed to be the only person they had ever met who was capable of being happy. The happiness of preferment is tenuous at best, however; Soon gained, soon lost. It sprouts, a slender weed, from the thick loam of disappointment.
By the time my copies of the journal arrived, the bloom was somewhat off the rose. Perhaps I could effect a risorgimento of sorts, at least flogging back to life a rapidly dissipating academic career with a few well-placed copies and some modest self-promotion. I had ordered fifteen copies, remitted free of charge. My mother and grandmother would each want one, and, what the hell, they were free.
Disappointing as it was to see that the journal when it arrived was thin and bound with staples, I remained undeterred; much fine poetry is published that way. The illustration on the front cover was simple, almost minimalist, in execution. Against the blackness of a night sky, white stars were conjoined, in the manner of one of those constellation charts that reveal, for instance, the figure of Cygnus, the Swan, by connecting the stars in and around the Summer Triangle. This chart, however, revealed a new constellation, one resembling the well-known photograph of the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. The word “Challenger” was spelled out in stars at the center of this supplement to the zodiac.
Bypassing my own poem, I scanned the journal’s contents: Odes to dead grandmothers, ballads expressing graduate student frustration with Latinate literary critical jargon, exempla for English teaching, anathemas against drunken driving, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the deprivations of ghetto life, student overwork, and other sorts of hooliganism; paeans to motherhood, babies, and animals, and solemn elegies to the departed heroes of the Challenger tragedy of the “O mighty hero/heroines of the final frontier / Challenging the stars!” variety. One elegy quoted Mr. Spock.
Where was my poem? There it was, on the first page, “The Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award” in boldface above it, no typos, my name spelled right.
Each in his own vehicle,
each traces his line through time and space,
a dimension in each speed and direction.
Each in his own mind
falls softly on the stony ground.
How is it we see one another,
as we whirr by in our capsule of time?
Some dance is performed,
a pas de deux, and allez.
Our Mayflies’ lives
glimmer a moment
in the flip of soft wings.
Under a green panoply
last summer’s ghost reclines,
as pale white as life,
as when last she fluttered by.
Pale ghost, robins bob again
about your feet.
But your bubble of time
has missed this rendezvous.
And I can’t stand
to have any more buds open
I really don’t remember when it hit me, but when it did, it hit me suddenly; the reason I had won; that insight into “what I was trying to do!”. I had written a poem in honor of those who had died in the explosion of the space-shuttle “Challenger”! If I hadn’t, would I have gotten the award? If I had, though, I must have been prescient, for, more than a year in advance of that fateful day at Cape Canaveral, at a time in my life when I was so caught up in my own despairs that the sky could have fallen and I would have taken it for an acorn, I had first set those words down in a spiral notebook, while seated on a park bench under a crabapple tree, watching a parade of joggers and cyclists pass in front of me, each at his own pace, each intent on his own effort. But I was only partially present in time. I was imagining my love of the summer before, over whose loss I was still heartbroken. Right here we had lain, sweltering in the grass, speaking of where we could go to be alone together, waves of cicada song coursing through the trees. Now, a year later, she was off somewhere else, on an internship in New York I gathered. How much longer had she lain in my mind than by my side!
Alienation was on my mind. My own loneliness, the self-absorption of joggers and cyclists, and my memory of how completely foreign her thought processes had been to me, combined to call up an image of everyone in the world buzzing around like a swarm of insects, each individual encased in a translucent shell, a kind of science-fiction bubble made of the infinitesimal differences in time and distance, acceleration and trajectory separating us from one another that the theory of relativity tells us should make us age, and our watches tick, at ever so slightly disparate rates. She had been nineteen, and I thirty, when we had performed our brief dance, the age difference providing a simple explanation for what, to the rejected lover, seems an insoluble mystery–the identity of the tangled contents of a beloved’s mind. My failure to unravel those contents had been cause for much regret and self-recrimination.
But wait; look again. The poem “reads” as a eulogy for Christa McCauliffe. There is the space capsule, and the line in the sky traced by the contrails of booster rockets. There are the images of flight: wings and Mayflies and robins and fluttering and whirring by. There, the fall, and there, the loss, and no distinction drawn between separation and death–a ghost, after all, is usually considered a revenant of the dead, not a doppelgänger of the quick. Could the opening bud be liquid oxygen exploding?
Forget that I never would deliberately have written an elegy about the Challenger tragedy. What else happened that day? You will forgive if I conjecture that a school bus crashed in Iowa, killing fifteen children; a minor French bureaucrat committed suicide; an illegal duck hunt in rural Texas bagged one thousand birds; an earthquake struck Central Asia; several thousand homeless succumbed in the streets of Calcutta, New York, Sao Paulo, Djakarta and Lagos to leprosy, sepsis, pneumonia, cholera, heart and lung ailments, opportunistic infections of depressed immune systems and surrender; a woman who had sacrificed her life’s aspiration to raise three ungrateful and improvident children breathed her last labored breath alone in a hospital in Baltimore; a middle-aged man in Moscow accepted the fact that he would never make love again; several Brazilian ranchers plotted the murder of a recalcitrant rubber tapper.
Now, I know all about the Intentional Fallacy. I understand that words when put to paper take on a life of their own, that what they mean is what any reader reads. The matter was academic until my own intentions were misread. “But I have intentions, and I’m the author,” I cry to no avail.
Over the years, as a result of just such reinterpretations as the one that won me my award, I have come to prefer clarity of expression to vagueness and suggestion. Earlier in my life, I had been enamored of Joyce and Faulkner, of implying over just saying, of “letting the reader’s imagination do the work.” My first direct and unequivocal run-in with the unpredictability of this approach occurred when I gave a short story I had written to some roommates of mine to read. For some reason at the time, all my stories would include some mentor figure, some old man teaching a young man something. It must have been a manifestation of wanting what you don’t have, for I never had a mentor. I have been my own mentor, and I’d break with myself if I could, like Jung with Freud, because a lot of what I’ve taught myself is wrong. Take the idea of suggesting rather than stating for instance. I had ended the story I’d given my roommates to read with a scene of my young protagonist and a mysterious old man sitting on a Pacific coastal cliff looking out to sea. I had stated that it was sunset, but, in keeping with my rule of letting the reader’s imagination do the work, of accepting the old saw that some things cannot be described in words, that no words can substitute for the abundance of a reader’s fancy, I did not have the old man say “Look out there. You can see the silver line where the sun beyond the fogbanks reflects on the water” or “Notice how all the colors of the rainbow process across the sky from the black encroaching night above us to the white sun sinking into the sea–sapphire, turquoise, emerald, daffodil, poppy, rose.” No, I wrote something to the effect of:
Old Man: “Look . . . “
Young Man: “I see . . . “
Upon reading which my roommates burst into laughter. They thought he was showing him his dick. By the time I had written my award-winning poem, I should have known that if you want them to read a sunset, write a sunset; if you want them to read a dick, write a dick. But here I was again, being coy, subsuming what was into vague universalized metaphor. It is funny that my roommates read sexuality into my story, something which they weren’t supposed to do, while the Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award committee I do not think read the sexuality in that they were supposed to. Of course, despite the welter of implications that backlight my own perception of the poem, there is very little there to excite the libidinous instincts besides sly references to opening buds and soft wings flipping. Too subtle for anyone who does not have full access to the inner recesses of my mind.
Not that there aren’t technical problems with the poem itself, above and beyond its coyness. Whether to make “capsule” plural or not worried me for some time. Saying “as we whirr by in our capsule of time,” makes it sound like we’re all in the same capsule, like Spaceship Earth, or some such banality. But saying “capsules of time” implies a plurality, a mass, and I definitely wanted to emphasize separateness, aloneness, singularity in the poem. So I settled on the singular. I guess if you read the first person plural as the royal “we” it might pass.
The use of “allez” is also questionable. I intended this French expression simply to mean “away,” but “allez” strictly speaking does not mean “away.” It is in the imperative; it is an order, meaning “Go!” Now the imperative note could suggest the peremptoriness of my rejection by the girl who inspired the poem, but what I meant at the time I wrote it had more of the simple indicative sense; “Vous vous en allez,” (You go away), or “tu t’en va,” since this was personal. In keeping with the use of “we” in the preceding lines, I could have said “Nous nous en allons” or even “nous voilà partis” (Off we go). But my facility with French was even less then than it is now, so I used the word I knew. Perhaps the French is somewhat affected, but it is, after all, the language of love, and the poem is a love poem, or so I have contended. “Pas de deux,” “allez,” “rendezvous,” are all really English Gallicisms anyway.
I know that I was being obscure and ambiguous in calling a ghost “pale white as life.” But in my naive poet’s love of obscurity and ambiguity, I thought it lent a nice touch. It occurs to me now that I might be accused of racial solecism in celebrating “whiteness,” but the unexpressed fact of the matter, and the inside joke, was that she who was haunting me happened to be someone whose skin was incredibly pale and smooth, like porcelain, like ivory, white as a ghost in person. Ivory skin, set off by coal-black hair, jade-green eyes; to this day, when I see such features on some waitress’s face, I blush and gawk like a moron. I can’t help it, white she was, ultra-white, a color unusual even in Caucasians. But you wouldn’t know that from the poem.
I could also be taken to task for using the masculine possessive pronoun with the aggregate singular “each,” especially since I had in mind a certain female’s obtuseness, but I was trying for concision and the emendation of “his” to “his or her” or “his/her,” like the emendation of “allez” to, say, “tu t’en va” would have made for a more cumbersome line. I also am fully aware that I have referred to my subject (my heroine? my inspiration? my . . . love?) throughout this piece (discussion? story? critique? apologia?) as a “girl.” Not very precise I guess; being nineteen at the time, she was old enough to vote, and she was no virgin to my knowledge. It’s just that we were being so silly, so childish, that using the adult mode seems somehow incongruous. You’ll notice I don’t call myself a “man” anywhere herein. Of course, by the above criteria, no one I know deserves the appellation of “woman” or “man.” These were our roles, let us say; she, a complete woman, playing the part of a thoughtless young girl; I, a little boy, acting the boring old fart.
I think that, despite all these mistakes, it was a good poem; it was my best poem. At least it was heartfelt. I don’t think I agree with those who believe that an icy dispassion fosters the best poetry. The best poems are written when there is no recourse left but to write one. I wrote “Each in his own vehicle” rather than throttle a jogger or take out some semis with a thirty-ought-six. For me it was the perfect evocation of a memory of a memory. Back then, whenever I read it, it called up not so much the image of her, but the sensation of my passion.
But I have learned to read differently nowadays, to suppress myself somewhat, and read the words as they stand, as others might read them, according to the slippery conventions of meaning we should have in common. And so, as I read the poem now, it seems all about the Space Shuttle tragedy, and not at all about my paltry summer of love. Isn’t it better, more noble, more heart-warming, more laudable, to write a poem in memory of an event almost universally shared, than to exalt my own trifling puppy loves? In teaching Freshman Composition, we tell our students to answer rhetorical questions. “But,” say I in my student guise, “I don’t know the answer.” Well then, answer I, the teacher, if you don’t already know the answer, the question isn’t rhetorical. Answer it anyway. Perhaps neither rhetorical (or non-rhetorical) choice suffices. Universal as that widely televised event was, there is some small universality to be found in the theme of lost love. And I have an unwriterly, a sort of historian’s, respect for, or obsession with, “what actually happened,” and I did not actually sit down on that park bench to write about the future explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. And yet, come to think of it, in writing my poem the way I did, filling it full of purity and longing and metaphor, I “do a disservice to” “what actually happened,” that is almost as egregious as the disservice I perceived the people who judge the Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Competition to have done to my poem. Where is the part about how, for several preceding summers, she had sought out someone like me who vaguely fulfilled certain seemingly arbitrary qualifications–dark hair, long nose, taller than her, older than her, taken–to have a sort of ritual summer fling with? I am aware that people tend to fall into patterns when it comes to choosing the objects of their affections, but nevertheless, how offputting to be the pattern and not the pattern-maker. Where is her mercenary view of sex, as if sex were simply what one does with boys, like filling them with guilt or playing Trivial Pursuit with them? To her, sex was not a gift from the gods, not even just something pleasurable in and of itself, it was a means to an end. What end I was and am not sure. Where is the prudery behind her lasciviousness? About cunnilingus, she asked me, “What do you keep doing that for?” About masturbation, she told me her father was against it. Where is her inordinate interest in the collected ravings of Elvis Costello? Or her curious belief that Roxy Music makes romantic music?
And those are only my observations about her. God knows what she thought about me. What she said I learned not to give credence to, whether I liked it or not. For instance, in my hard-bought knowledge of how these things go, knowing that a wild young girl like her would never stay faithful to a boring old fart like me, I had begged her to just put me on the list, not to 86 me completely, just to fit me into her schedule when her dance card wasn’t full. How hardboiled I felt myself making such concessions. Having been up the road apiece, down the pike, round the corner, and along the boulevard a couple of times, I felt qualified to assume that this was the only way to assure myself any continuing position in the mutable heart of a girl of her cynical generation. I was one off. This wasn’t the only way; there was no way. I was reacting to the year before, just as she was. Don’t ever tell a lover what you should have told the last one. If you care what she thinks, that is.
So when it came time for her to announce that she was tired of me, I saw what havoc a literal reading can wreak.
“You were just using me,” she said. Who, me? Me, who nearly faints at the mention of your name? Where did you ever get that idea?
“You said you didn’t care if I slept with someone else,” she said.
So I did. But she knew that that wasn’t what I had meant. I wanted to say how that wasn’t what she really thought, either. She wanted to get rid of me, simple as that, and, if she could admit it to herself, she had “just been using” me. But some incorrigible worship mechanism kicked in, and all I could do was stammer, “No . . . No . . .”
Where is that senseless stammer in my poem? Its emptiness is reflected perhaps only in its absence, in the hopelessness of trying to speak to people encased in shells of time and space, in the madness of addressing a ghost who can’t hear you, whose prototype you should have upbraided the year before, when all you could do was stammer.
But no, for the most part, these things are all exiled from my poem. No, I’d made her a generalized symbol of my despair, a female ghost with feet. No birthmark, no pout, no silken lips, no crabapples, no sweat, no hangovers, no blow-jobs, no grandiose hips, no climbing me like a tree, no ever-so-faint musk of roses, none of my amazement, my stupefaction, my gratefulness, none of her adamance, her ebullience, her alcohol capacity . . .
But I have neglected something, something else, something important, not in the poem. The morning after our first night together by the gazebo, under the crabapple, with the headlights flashing by, she had come into work at the loan office where we had met, wearing a dress cut out in back in a wide V that extended from her shoulders to the base of her spine. She worked at a desk facing the wall so that, for an entire eight hours, I could and did gaze at her nearly naked back. That was for me. Or I think it was for me. Or I like to think it was for me. They fired her for that. And you will never know what I see in my mind’s eye when I remember that day, no matter how hard you imagine, nor how I felt.
You must excuse me now. I feel a memory of a memory I haven’t remembered in a long time coming on.