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Of Late: Procrastination and Poetry

There has to be a word for the very special kind of procrastination that goes into planning a poetry course. I certainly engage in the regular kind of procrastination with which we’re all familiar — doing our dishes or reorganizing our closet to avoid the work we have to do to meet a looming deadline, or simply doing “nothing” (checking Facebook, watching sitcoms) instead of doing the “something” that actually allows us to pay that cable and internet bill each month. Even that classic kind of procrastination isn’t all bad, as explored just a few days ago by Adam Grant in his article “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” He argues that any kind of procrastinating (within reason), can allow ideas to percolate in a productive way.

But I’m focused here on a particular subspecies of poetry-procrastinating. I’m talking about the kind where you just need to set course objectives, map out a syllabus, choose readings and assignments, and head for the photocopy machine, but instead you find yourself hunkered on the floor of the university library in a kind of fugue state, surrounded by books barely tangentially related to your current course material, having spent who-knows-how-many hours poring over the details in those books that there is no way you’re going to teach this semester or probably ever.

Part of it, I admit, might be a bi-annual case of nerves and impostor syndrome — what if a student asks me about the origins of the sonnet and I remember “Italy” and the name “Giacomo da Lentini,” but nothing else? I know in my head that a working knowledge of the court of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II will not suddenly become incredibly relevant to my creative writing class, yet there I am — knee deep in the life and times of Frederick II. And — and here’s what I mean by this particular kind of procrastination — I’m loving it. I swear, there’s an adrenaline rush.

Sure, I’m going to have to stay up into the wee hours finishing my actual syllabus on my course’s actual topics, but right now I’m immersed in how this emperor outlawed “trials by ordeal,” the life-or-death tests involving fire or boiling water or some other horrible torture — innocence being proven when God saved you or healed you. And here’s a book where there are woodcuts to illustrate the practice! The internet makes this kind of procrastination constantly imminent, but nothing beats letting it happen with actual books.

There are any number of reasons why so many poets end up in academia (some of them more problematic than others), but one overlooked reason might be that it affords easy access to this kind of biblioprocrastination, and this biblioprocrastination is one of the places poems come from. Instead of the old “when a man and woman love each other very much” origin story, this one begins, “When a poet loves a lot of random books and facts and images and stories and other poems — very much.”

Scholars probably take similar joy in the textual treasure hunt, but the genesis of a poem is particular in that anything might be the treasure. When a poet is lucky, the right text at the right time might push the secret panel in the wall, or the right juxtaposition of texts might click the combination into the lock, and the door to a new poem swings open. Even when this doesn’t happen, the unexpected lights that flash from texts illuminate other ones, which illuminate other ones, which illuminate the first.

This is inspiration in intertextuality — a word coined by Julia Kristeva in “Word, Dialogue, and Novel” in 1966, though readers and writers had long experienced their own versions of the term. Though Robert Frost was a decade too early to use the term (and might not have used it anyway), he wrote the following in a piece titled “A Poet, Too, Must Learn the Magic Way of Poetry,” first published in The New York Times Book Review on March 21, 1954 and then title “The Prerequisites” and used as an introduction to his collection Aforesaid released later that month in honor of his eightieth birthday:

A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere, we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their place as stars do.

Circulation is a lovely word, whether it’s referring to poems, or blood flow, or the library’s desk of the same name. Maybe I’ll let myself call my planning (or not planning) process not procrastination, or even subgenus biblioprocrastination, but simply circulation.