Not for You
Bill Long 12/26/04
Seizing the Poetic Spirit
On Christmas Day a friend lent me her copy of Bill Moyers' book The Language of Life (1995), in which he interviewed some two dozen American poets to try to understand the nature of their creative impulse and the motivations for/meaning of some poems they wrote. As I began to read the volume, I had almost an instinctive sense that I knew exactly what the poets meant, that I had deeply felt the things they said were also the sources of their own inspiration.
For example, when Rita Dove describes some of the battlefields of WWI and WWII which she visited after college, she does so with the help of Toni Morrison's insight in Beloved of the aliveness of those sites--that "if you stand very quietly you know they're still there; you just can't see them (p. 117)." This was not only the feeling I had as I took my son to visit the Antietam and Gettysburg battle sites in the summer of 2000, but I recall saying the same thing to him. I remember standing next to the corn field in Antietam or at the "Elbow" in Gettysburg, where so many young men lost their lives, and looking into my son's eyes and saying, 'Will, it was right here that they died; boys not much older than you, who were loved by mother and father, who had girls waiting for them at home, were killed in the time when life should be filled with most hope." I urged my son to imagine the sounds and sights in the tranquil quiet of a summer's day 138 or 137 years after the actual battle. Thus, I understood Dove and, through her, Morrison, on the nature of the poetic inspiration.
Or, when reading about Gary Snyder, a native of Washington State, whose rich poetic imagery drips with the scent of Douglas firs and western hemlocks and the crushing danger of the logging culture that dominated that region when Snyder came of age (the 1950s), I learned that he turned to poetry after being unable to say what he wanted to say in English and anthropology term papers. "There are things that you cannot say except in poetry, and those are the things I need to say (p. 367)."
I, too, understand what it means to write academic papers but to feel that they are just not a helpful vehicle to communicate my ideas. For years I struggled to try to participate in the professional societies and the "footnote culture" of those societies. I wanted to master the antiseptic prose of scholarly discourse. But I simply could not leave out my thoughts, my feelings, my humor, my sense of the tragedy and irony in human life at the sidelines as I wrote. I wanted to "apply texts to life" rather than keep them at a safe clinical distance from us. While Snyder chose poetry as his mode of expression, I struggled for years before coming to rest on the mini-essay as my preferred form.
A Poetic Experiment
If, for Dove, poetry is about turning to the "well," that inner source of images and contradictory and ill-understood as well as ill-expressed feelings about the world (p. 113), let me try to turn to poetry now, with thoughts about the fragility (and futility) of intimate male-female relationships.
NOT FOR YOU
"Men are not the right type of creature for you," I say to her.
"You are so full of love, insight and balance, but we are not.
You were mature from the womb, while we resist maturity;
We men fight the truth about ourselves. Not being able to
ask for directions is symbolic of our unwillingness to receive truth about our lives.
We want to watch games and play games instead of addressing the pressing emotional issues of life; we want to work instead of "relate;" we want to isolate rather than "connect." We want someone else to take care of the difficult relational problems of life for us.
We carry more baggage in our rucksacks than Amtrak's Coast Starlight does in Car 2. We cannot let go of the indignities and disappointments, the humiliations and rejections of our past. We will bring that past to you and dump it in your lap. We will read you unjustly into our past and thereby show ourselves unable to appreciate the simple gifts you bring. We cannot get over our past. No, we don't want to "work on it." And, no, we don't want to talk about it.
Besides all that, we don't carry our years as well as you do. We add the pounds more readily and let them hang around longer. We don't eat as healthily as you do, we live one step above barnyard animals, and we will die earlier than you.
Nevertheless, many of us possess a charm, a seeming wisdom, a skill and dash, a boyish simplicity and vulnerability, even a personal presence that projects confidence, sexuality and security. You will get sucked in by it and think that these things mean that we will provide you the kind of security, intimacy and support you need. But it is not true. We may provide these things for a while, maybe even a few years. But we cannot sustain it, because ultimately we were not made to sustain it.
It would have been nice to live in a world where intimate connection was possible. It seems to work often enough to make people (women especially) believe that it should work for them. But realize what you are up against. We men are not faithful; we are self-absorbed and selfish and only intermittently equipped to deal with you at the level you need. We will ignore you for months and then only want you at our pleasure.
We men are just not the right creatures for you. Deal with it."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long