The other night I was sitting in a late meeting, which was called a “Happy Hour,” though it was not especially happy, since no one but me ordered a real drink, when someone began to say “What we really need help with is our methods of assessment, a handle on our goals and outcomes.”
These are words I hear not infrequently in my day job.
The last is often referred to as “continuous improvability,” which always makes my head ache a little. Often these terms refer to social programs; but equally often they refer to stuff closer to home: writing, reading.
“We need a strict outcomes matrix driven by shared standards of accountability,” someone will say, and everyone around the table will nod.
One might hope Poetry World altogether different, but we live in a time when production and improvement and method and outcome are so in the water that we drink them in without even realizing it. I grasped this the other day when someone asked me for advice about assembling a poetry manuscript, and I gave them my two cents—all sound practice, tried and tested notions, but half-way through I realized I wanted to say something much closer to “Every new work of art uncovers a new form,” or “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest…” In other words, advice that would be more like a poem, a poem defined as a person speaking to a person out of some kind of necessity, the need to speak at the edge of things:
We are gong to dance
It is going to be lighted
It is going to be lighted
It will blaze.
We are going to dance.
Something bird-like is coming.
Bird-like tracks will be about the place.
We are going to light this unclean house.
It will blaze, blaze.
These are not lines by a published poet; this is a Yuma song, translated by George W. Croyn in 1934. It is an outcry, a public chant from a culture and a time when poetry was woven into daily life; a way to respond to the nightmares all people are prone to. I glanced at this poem briefly after giving my advice to my unnamed friend,which had all been about “poetry contests,” and “judges,” and “assessing your audience” and the craft of making the poems better, smoother, sleeker, less shameful, less shambling. Which, too often, is the same discourse I have about my own poems. And so I wanted to write or to ask—what is below or behind that, what space do I want the poem, the poetry, or even writing in general, to occupy in my life?
In my case, the answer mostly took the form of negatives: Not simply speech, not simply a reporting of emotion, rather a reflection, but not one I can see into, or determine the shape of ahead of time. A kind of map, but a map that is deliberately not intended to lead me anywhere—at least nowhere fast. A kind of anti-continuous improvement plan—a country of wandering, much like the French word “errer” which sounds so much like error that it has always made me conflate the two—to wander as if in error, with that kind of urgency and feeling of almost anguish.
Berryman, who I quote above, said it like this: “The serious poet should seek to explore the ‘sources’ of these global nightmares—and to explore them not just in poetry, but in person. Poetry is a terminal activity, taking place out near the end of things.”
I want to stop and think about this a little. It is hardly a remark one need accept full bore. The end of things, nightmare? A person might well ask, but why? Why not a poetry that is more humane, or more focused on happy continuous improvement type things? Why so much darkness, John? And yet on some deeper level, I know there is a truth to what he is saying—simply, that we don’t need poetry to be one more cog in the wheel of days; we need it for the core of days, which too often is a place of darkness—though also, perhaps because of that darkness, of intense light.
A few years ago, my life fell apart. I didn’t get a job I thought I was bound to get—one where I was an interim employee—and thus wound up with no job at all. A friendship ended badly. Words like “betrayal,” “confusion,” “misapprehension,” phrases like “How could you not know?” and “What were you thinking?” Around that time, my husband almost died of a freak blood clot in his leg that travelled to his lungs. He came back into himself more slowly than I would have wished, and sometimes with a gray stunned look like rare china that has been painstakingly mended, but still shows a crack. All of this is easy to summarize, but not so easy to live. At times in the middle I thought 1) I will not survive; or 2) do I want to survive? I could not tell if it helped or hurt that I knew how utterly common this all was—peoples’ lives melt down, blow up, disintegrate around them all the time. I was not sure I would recover, but I did, and what helped me most in that period was reading.
That year as everything came crashing down, I tore through Roberto Bolano’s huge novel 2666. I read books of poems, one in particular by Melissa Kwasny—Reading Novalis in Montana. Often I alternated between the two–poring over of Bolano’s forensic descriptions of murder and mayhem in a fictional city called Santa Teresa (based on the real Ciudad Juarez 40 miles from the town I then called home) or repeating under my breath lines like these from Kwasny’s book:
The true philosophical act is the slaying of one’s self,
Novalis wrote, and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.
They have left me behind like one of their lost.
There was amazing darkness and light in both these worlds, and something more—these writers were saving me by describing things of the world that had never been spoken precisely that way before. I was in a zone where I felt too much, in too disordered and even acute a fashion; I needed fresh sources, new means of framing who or where I was.
The consolatory power of poetry and prose can be difficult to convey because, on the surface, what is consoling about a reading that does not sugarcoat anything, that does not speak for the hope in anything, but merely, rather—I cannot say only—for the thing as it seen most truly and pungently through the writer’s eye and heart. And yet it is precisely by bringing “new news” that these writers helped me reengage, begin again:
But to give up on things precludes everything.
I am not-I, Novalis wrote. I am you.
During that hard season, they served as my spiritual advisors, and a strange pair they were. Often, when I was at my wits end, I would think, “What would Roberto do?”—or “What would Melissa do?” They never gave me the kind of advice I gave my poet friend. Roberto said “Go on a road trip with three of your most dissolute friends. Look for the poet whose books have all vanished and gone out of print. Move to the farthest most dangerous city you can find. Live in a room you paint blue and write down for a year just what people around you actually say.” When I asked Melissa, the answer came: “Sit under the mulberry tree in your front yard and listen. Try to build a nest with what you have in your kitchen. Dig a hole in the ground and tell it your secret; feed your voice into the soil, then cover it up again.” Chance, randomness, wildness, listening. trust—these were all the elements of their work that could not be arrived at through any matrix that could be universally applied. No application to craft alone, no rational approach to building a career. Their writing was too large and strange for that.
Indeed, here is what Bolano said on the subject:
It’s true that a writer’s country isn’t his language or isn’t only his language…. There can be many countries, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and obviously that passport is the quality of the writing. Which doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvelously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.
I like this idea that the form of the art is determined by the form of the life, the person within—or as John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother, affirming what had been by any standard “outcomes and goals measurement” a most unlucky life, yet transcendent in his breathing of it: “Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.”