A friend of mine once gave me advice that’s worked for me: “Let not one day tread upon the next.”
Yesterday did not tread upon today. It’s 6:03 a.m. and I’ve been up an hour. I’m one of those people who goes into a dizzy netherland about 8 p.m. I have trouble focusing. I can’t carry on a conversation. If I’m at a club listening to music as the night goes on the sounds begin to pool in a great basin of undifferentiated notes in my head.
On the other hand, I can roll out of bed and be sitting at my desk writing at top speed soon after waking. I have a local weekly column called Kudzu Telegraph and it’s due at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. I never start writing before 5 a.m. the day it’s due. It’s the way I work and I now have over 200 columns in the bag. I think about it all week, but I can’t write a word until early Monday morning. There’s no acceleration lane needed for my imagination if I’m up early enough. Coffee helps (the ritual of it) but I could get started without it.
Poetry seems suited to either late nights or early mornings. It’s not my way or the highway in the poetry world. There are plenty of good poems written after midnight. There’s plenty of inspiration to be had after most people are sound asleep. It’s just that Cat Stevens’ “Morning has Broken” inspires me more than Professor Longhair’s “wee wee hours between midnight and day.”
If every poem I’ve ever written had a time stamp on it, I’d be willing to bet 95 percent were conceived between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. I don’t think I’ve ever had a literary thought after 9 in the evening. I don’t think I’m in the majority, but I know I’m also not alone. We’ll call my predilection toward dawn “the William Stafford School.”
Stafford got up early before the house awoke and did his poetry work. Then he went on with his day of teaching and simply being human—family, community, yard work. The next morning he did it again. And the next again, for over 60 years. In one poem he once said, “The light along the hills in the morning/ comes down slowly, naming the trees/ white, then coasting the ground for stones to nominate./ Notice what this poem is not doing.”
The poem is not staying up late, or it would have missed that light.
Light is a word that would be common in a concordance to my work as well. “Dark” isn’t there much. “Midnight at the Oasis” I’ll leave to Maria Muldaur, and Wilson Pickett can “Wait ‘til the Midnight Hour,” but I’m going to bed.
When I was in high school I rose every morning at 5 a.m. for three years to throw a hundred papers in our neighborhood. My mother got up when I did and helped me roll them. I threw them out the open windows of my little Volkswagen Beetle. The paper route didn’t teach me to be thrifty or save money. I was great at delivering newspapers, but terrible at collecting for them. The route was good training for the William Stafford School though.
I never got over it. I must have altered my teenage genes. Getting up that early for three years in a row must have been like a low-level dose of radiation or like overdosing on a mind altering chemical. After that my friends started making jokes about my bedtime.
This morning I walked the dog at 5:15 and stood in the street for at least ten minutes looking at the moon through the leafless oaks. The dog pulled at the end of his leash and, wide awake, I looked at the moon. I wasn’t considering writing about the moon. That’s almost impossible in a post-modern world. What I was doing was taking the morning in before anybody else. I’m glad I didn’t miss this one, and I’ll be at it again early tomorrow.