Monday, September 7, 2015

Why Poetry, of All Careers?

People have often asked me, of course, why I chose poetry as my principal vocation. I like to joke that it's all about money, women, and fame...which is, of course, just that: a joke. The best-selling poets in America would do well to attract more readers than a last-place major league baseball team might draw in late September of a hopeless season. 

So there have to be other motives. I could go on at length about these, but I'll try to distill my thoughts here.

I came to poetry late, not publishing my first collection until I was forty. Prior to that, I had striven to be a conventional academic, though from the start somehow, the whole effort felt a little misguided. I didn’t know why for some time.

In 1970, I was asked to teach a section of Dartmouth College’s first-ever creative writing course, not because of my credentials– I had none– but because the then chair of my department, a good guy indeed, imagined the gig would give me time to finish up my Ph.D. dissertation, as I had not yet done. This would not after all be a “real course,” he assured me, demanding neither class preparation nor any scrupulous commentary on the students’ work.

And yet in teaching that course (I use the verb loosely), I felt the return of an old itch to write, one I’d experienced in my undergrad days, when I composed quite a number of short stories. None of these was created for a course, because there were no writing courses in the early 60s where I went to school either. In the interest of economy, I won’t go into my reasons for responding to that impulse by choosing poetry over fiction. Suffice it to say that I did so choose, and though I have written a novel and five collections of personal essays since, poetry has remained my chief métier.

A different and less good-guy department chair eventually came to me and indicated that, although my rep as a teacher was pretty good, Dartmouth had now become a publish-or-perish institution. When I noted that my first poetry collection was under contract, this fellow, not quite concealing his smirk, suggested that, just as creative writing was not a “real” course, a book of poems did not constitute “real” publication.

I’d finished my dissertation by then. In it, I’d sought to ape the suddenly voguish theoretical posture. For such a reason, it remained an obscure screed, even to its author, whose inclinations were and are, non-, even anti-theoretical. I decided nonetheless to mine the paper for a few scholarly articles (at that time, one didn’t have to compose books to meet the publishing requisite), but on reconsidering my own prose, I felt something very like nausea. I recall saying right out loud, “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.” I resolved to go on writing verse and to let the chips fall where they might.

I was denied tenure at Dartmouth, but was quickly hired at Middlebury, which had something of a history of writer-professors. This was a better fit. But no matter: the real question was, why should scholarship have seemed a pursuit ill-suited to me? I’ve thought the matter over many times. It was not because I felt contempt for scholarly enterprise; indeed, I still value the training I got in world literature, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. And I have published a book of essays that –although I hope it’s devoid of jargon and hyper-annotativeness– might legitimately be called a work of scholarship.

No, my choice of poetry had to do with the fact that it more nearly answered to my own mental tendencies. Whereas scholarship, even in its often impenetrable post-modernist avatars, still ultimately depends upon premise and conclusion, upon the dialectical approach, the realm of lyric poetry –at least for me– is roughly described by Carl Jung when he speaks of true psychology as the domain “always ... of either-and-or.That is, lyric can keep multiple perspectives alive within one frame without seeming merely to be a muddle. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he famously spoke of Negative Capability, the capacity to live with “mysteries, uncertainties and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability, so understood, enables me to indulge what another great poet –T.S. Eliot– called the “necessary laziness” of the poet. To use a reductive buzz phrase, it is a right-brain enterprise. To relax the muscular, either/or approach to experience is to open oneself to unanticipated  possibilities, and to let them come as they will.

And to let them come in all their fullness. It may be cliché to say that lyric captures the intensity of certain moments, but so it does for me. This is true, I think, even if the moment that catches my attention never eventuates in a written poem. I know I sound a bit fogeyish to say so (I am in my 70s, and have a right), but the fact that most of anyone’s moments are ephemeral and diffuse seems the more evident in the age of Twitter and (the very word speaks volumes) of the Selfie. For me, the lyric impulse allows me to see certain “deeper” moments, to concentrate them in what I hope, however vainly or justly, may be memorable language. Among the very deepest of those moments in my own experience, for eloquent example, are the witnessing of the births of five children. The plethora of responses to such events could never be catalogued nor exhausted, but one can go farther toward rendering their impact –or so I believe– via the language of poetry than by any other mode of discourse.

Lightning scarcely strikes every day. If it did, I’d write 365 poems a year. But that it might strike at any moment makes me feel alive and attentive, makes me open to all manner of novelty, if I can adequately ignore mundane distractions (and of course I can’t; who does?). It feels that such newness is always available out there, no matter I have been recording my responses for more than four decades now. Until I take the long sleep, I’ll believe that something fresh may be right around the bend.