A prominent poet who shall go unnamed once sat down across the table from me, a manila folder of my drafts in one hand, and said, without so much as a hello:“You know what’s wrong with you?”
“Probably,” I replied, “but hit me.”
“You’re too God-damned argumentative.”
The gentleman had, in the previous day’s workshop, flogged me (and my poem) with such a pronounced and obvious desire to belittle and embarrass that 24 hours later people were still asking me if I was okay. Coming from this particular person, the term “argumentative” seemed almost bizarre. But I’ve had plenty of thorny teachers in my day, enough to conclude that an intellectual worth his or her salt must needs be someone who can learn from anyone, regardless of the packaging. If I failed to hear what this guy had to say to me just because I found him obnoxious, it was my fault, period.
He went on to inform me that I deify structure at the expense of feeling. That I’m all argument and no emotion. That I’m too cerebral. And, yeah, some of that struck a chord. By the end of the meeting I was convinced he was right. My addiction to argument was holding me back. I walked away full of renewed purpose, deeply inspired to seek new inner wellsprings of emotion and instinct; to write, as it were, from the limbic system rather than the cortex.
I wrote that way, I decided, because I was afraid of not being taken seriously. Facts and arguments were something I wore like a kind of chain-mail. I used them to defend myself from having those other things, emotions and instincts, spirit and soul, criticized or found wanting. It was time to face up to it, to get naked.
My first time at a writers’ conference, I was 33 and had done no academic workshop time since completing my MFA at the ripe age of 20. I applied to Sewanee on a whim and was bowled over to find I’d be working with my first choice reader, the monolithic John Hollander. I’d thought everyone would want Hollander – he was the most famous and venerable poet on the docket and had literally written the book on form – and had been ready to accept whoever was available. Don’t get me wrong; almost everyone who teaches at Sewanee is fabulously gifted, and no one on the roster that year would have been a disappointment, but I wondered how I’d gotten so lucky.
At lunch the first day, Hollander chanced to sit next to me at the Inn. In a 45-minute conversation, “Hi, my name is Amy” was the only thing I said that did not prompt the man to bark, “You’re absolutely wrong!” and go off on a jeremiad. I walked out of the Inn with my heart pounding. What had I set myself up for? He was unbelievable. He knew everything, couldn’t let anything drop, would argue you into the earth’s molten core no matter what you said or why. I was terrified of what this semantic pugilist, this Albus Dumbledore on crack, would say about my work.
Well, Hollander did not make himself popular in our workshop. He frustrated and upset a lot of people, for a host of reasons. And I’ll tell you something: I loved him. He had what would have been, in a doctor, a horrible bedside manner. But if you were sick, this was the guy you’d want on your case. He was not only a towering genius and one of the most learned people I’ve ever met – he was a remarkably generous and kind-hearted guy who genuinely, genuinely wanted to help make writers better at what they did. You just had to look past a tidal wave of barking and bluster and snark and, yes, argument, to see it. He did more for me in twelve days than some teachers I've worked with for a year, and I will never forget it.
Now as it happened, the day after my conference with Professor You Know What’s Wrong With You, John Hollander gave a reading – it must have been one of his last, as he was disabled by a stroke not long afterward – that hit me so hard I don’t think my solar plexus will ever be the same. Hollander, the Emperor of Argument, a man who in some ways seemed like a walking cautionary tale about the perils of self-protective investment in argument and the cerebral and deifying the truth, was an exemplar of what argument could do in poetry if anyone ever was. In the hour of poems he read, people laughed, they wept, they gasped with shock and delight. Humor, sentiment, deep longing, profound loss, sly ironies and wistful reminiscences – all turned on intellect, every damned one. My meeting of the day before came back to me in waves. What was I supposed to make of this?
I’m still working it out, to be honest, but as I continue to write poetry my relationship with argument is definitely shifting. The poet who suggested so gently and kindly that I was perhaps leaning to heavily on the cerebral really did have a point. But surely argument, like feeling, has a legitimate place in poetry. A tool to use or misuse like any other, it can, in skilled hands, dazzle and thrill – and in unskilled ones, I suppose, it can deaden and dull.
I’m going to sign off with a poem from John Hollander’s collection Picture Window. I have a lot to say about this poem, but I’ll leave that for another time.
The songs come at us first, and then the rhymed
Verses like speech that half sings; then the tunes
Of summer evening – the train whistle’s sigh
Westering, fading, as I lay in bed,
Sunset still creeping past the lowered shade;
The gossip of swallows; the faint, radioed
Reed section of a dance band through an open
Window down at the far end of the street;
The Good Humor Man’s bells who tolled for me.
And then the strings of digits that we learn
To keep like bunched keys ready to unlock
All the boxes we get assigned to us
By the uncaring sheriffs of life itself.
We play by ear but learn the words by heart
(Visions we have by head); yet even when
The sight of the remembered page has dimmed
The jingles that we gleaned it from remain
Lodged with us, useful, sometimes, for the work
Of getting a grip on certain fragile things.
We are ourselves from birth committed to
Memory, to broad access to a past
Framing and filling any presentness
Of self that we could really call our own.
We grasp the world by ear, by heart, by head,
And keep it in a soft continuingness
That we first learned to get by soul, or something.