November 10, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Is that all there is?

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Public radio seems to be playing every happy song they own, every song that includes the word “change.” Meanwhile I’ve been reading the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in the new American Poetry Review. Robert’s letters feel like great rehearsals but Elizabeth’s feel choked, written. Elizabeth, why so much name-dropping? Why the impressive stories doled out by the teaspoon? In one letter Robert writes:

I want tremendously to get away from the personal, my purely subjective and all to free as air way of writing.

I wonder when you began to feel that the first careless, regardless lunge was over, that you were waking up, that every step asked for prudence and deliberation. Lately, I’ve felt I was waking from a long dream, fearful, hopeful, thrilled, a great weight pulling me backwards, a great air-bubble pulling me upward, and somewhere a kind of birth in the substantial.

A few weeks ago I began working in form for the first time, because I wanted to try writing more slowly, to find a physical match for the deliberation and concentration that seemed to be pulling my writing. That, and another poet introduced me to a stubborn form (cynghanedd) that lets me use Scrabble tiles to puzzle out the lines, which is something I can work out in my head while following my son from room to room. Granted, these new poems aren’t much good, but the exercise feels right.

I’m just not sure whether it’s necessary to get away from the personal. Of course it’s not interesting to look only inward, but the moments I get most excited about as a reader are ones of vulnerability, which seems to almost always be couched in the personal. Last week Obama won and I felt giddy, relieved. Last night my son suddenly started walking in earnest and it felt miles deeper. While neither event will likely find its way into my writing anytime soon, that deep ache is the best of what poetry can do. Which is not to say I especially enjoy reading other people’s poems about their children’s developmental milestones. But whatever brings that ache, how can you (or why should you try to, I really mean) turn from it? Maybe it’s the difference between starting from, and remaining within, the personal.