Monday, March 4, 2013

Who am I? Why am I here?

Some while back now, prior to the so-called presidential debates, the network I had tuned in broadcast several clips from past debates, ones that chronicled gaffes, bad body language, shifty eyes, and so on. The one that caught my attention showed the much mocked Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, who prefaced his debate by asking “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Like most, I suspect, I didn’t know twenty years ago that the admiral was one of the most highly decorated naval officers of our time, that he had founded an organization on behalf of POWs in Vietnam. He deserved far better than we gave him. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Though maybe I should have been paying more direct attention (which frankly, however, seemed irrelevant, because I already knew who had my vote), mine is a poet’s mind, meaning among other things that it rarely proceeds in a consecutive manner. So the admiral’s question, strangely, got me thinking about who I am, why I am here. Not that these, strictly speaking, were philosophical issues for me. Rather, I was trying to get a sense of my own personality and character as they reveal themselves via my poetry, which is the only way for many out there to evaluate my make-up.

And yet this is not a one-way matter. In order for me to reveal something genuine about myself or my concerns, I have to imagine something about you. I used to tell my students that they ought to do the same: that is, they should dream up or remember or consider the reader they have in mind for a given poem, that people encountering their poetry would learn a lot about it by noting the sort of audience its author sought to reach.

Now there are as many possibilities in this regard as there are poets. I recall the words of a brilliant poet, the late Anthony Hecht, who said that he counted on his reader to know the classics and all the major works of Shakespeare. When I replied that he thereby excluded a huge portion of any potential audience, he rightly answered, “None of us can reach everyone out there. These are the readers who let me write what I write.”

I and my dear friend Fleda Brown, formerly poet laureate of Delaware, have lately collaborated on a book called Growing Old in Poetry. It will appear –in e-book format only– next month. Let me quote Fleda on the theme I am following:

I ask myself why I’m committing to writing to you, dear reader, as regularly as if you were the ideal mother back when I should have written home and didn’t. This arrogance is what keeps most of us writing, either that, or the fear that we only exist if we keep bringing attention to ourselves.

I’ll immediately defend Fleda against her own accusation: she is anything but arrogant. But she is surely onto something here. In my own case, I like to imagine my reader as our nearest neighbor Tink, scion of a five-generation Vermont family, a man of ninety years. Now Tink is a reader, one especially fond of Louis Lamour, but he’s not, so far as I’ve ever known, a reader of anyone’s poetry, including my own, though we are real friends. No, my supposition makes no sense whatever. And yet it is an enabling fiction; it allows me to write what I write, to feel that I am a man saying something to another person, one whose wisdom and wit I admire, one with whom I would want to share personal information.

And if I speak to Tink in my head, I am reminded that he is not one for obfuscation or beating around the bush. If you address him, you need to be clear about what you mean.
Conversely, I often found among my students, even the most talented, a tendency, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, to “muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” They wrongly worry that if they just say things directly, they’ll show a self that is boring, non-“poetic,” and thus they too often leave out essential information about their implied characters, not least of all the one named I. The result, I believe, may well be that we can’t really care. If some non-specific voice is speaking about non-specific psychological or emotional issues to some non-specific listener, we –or at least I– are inclined to find some other conversation. The willfully obscure writer leaves us listeners out as he or she proceeds. That writer may seek mystery, but such a quality is in fact only possible if surface clarity is available to us. (Think of such a matter with regard to a genius like P.D. James.)

To give the impression that you, mere reader, must possess some arcane knowledge in order to “get” what is going on behind my smokescreen strikes me, to use the term that Fleda Brown misapplies to herself– well, it strikes me as arrogant.

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