Thursday, December 6, 2007

Adventures of the Letter "I" (a nod to Louis Simpson)

The poet Louis Simpson has a book titled Adventures of the Letter "I"; furthermore, the title alone makes a much needed critical comment: One should never confuse poetry with autobiography.

Of course, some poets utilize autobiographical elements within their works; however, as a teacher of creative writing, I routinely remind students that they should never assume that the speakers in poems are the authors themselves, regardless of whether the bards are established practitioners or their novice peers.

As one of my old mentors used to rhetorically ask, "Why be yourself in a poem when you can be someone really interesting?" Far too many of us think we live fascinating lives; thankfully, we have written testaments of the power of the human imagination that make our humdrum lives more intense and spiritual because various authors went beyond themselves: they created metaselves that sustain generations of readers like the breathable air.

Therefore, I quickly learned as a student that creative writing was my challenge and new love, not re-creative writing. According to Shakespeare, the poet's task is to "give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name." I can recall the first time I wrote something that came out of that "airy nothing" at the tail end of a semester of trite, expected doggerel (humankind is bad, nature is good; she did me wrong and now I'm sad; I took drugs and saw God, etc.). I discovered my subject matter with each successive line; I relinquished the anal-retentive aspect of my education and decided to trust my mentor's advice: I let each poem's voice find me.

And that was quite the opposite of what many urge ("Find your own voice...") in workshops and coffee bars. For I realized that my "own voice" needed to come to me and not vice versa; the imagination, if I gave in to the kind of "total immersion" Elizabeth Bishop believed in, would provide me with both the subject matter and the delight of each new destination. (I've begun to ask waiters and waitresses to "surprise me" with the chef's newest dish or specialty--such requests have yet to displease my tastebuds.)

To have an open palette, whether it's food or metrical feet, means that I'll also be open to revision: I don't take the first draft of anything I write as the gospel. Rather, I find revision to be as intense a joy--and a mystery--as I do foreplay: I'm not interested in quick self-gratification, both in writing and in loving. Therefore, I take my time. Rilke suggests that one should live "a whole life for the sake of a single line." No one will ever accuse me of being prolific when it comes to publishing poetry, and I've yet to find one poet who's valued because of his or her prodigious output. To go back to Elizabeth Bishop, she published approximately 100 poems during her lifetime, which is far less than what some contemporary poets have published even before they reach middle-age (and history tells us they will likely never be Bishop's equals).

When Robert Frost noted that only "old, musty things" should be looked at in workshops, he understood how critically blind authors can be when it comes to their latest creations--or re-creations: "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." Yes, I know that Frost was a racist and an egomaniac. But he also wrote "Directive," a poem that illustrates with each turn the speaker's--not Frost's autobiographical self--unplanned journey through wonder and sorrow: "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."

Each poem's numerous drafts are chances for the "I" to discover wholeness beyond confusion.