Once, in conversation over a drink or two, a fellow poet asked when I began writing. The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to catch them. “Before I was born,” I had said. I was perplexed by the speed and intensity of my response, and even more so by the seeming contradiction. What had I meant by this? Why had I responded in that way?
I have turned over those questions in my mind for years, have, in fact, been quite haunted by them. If I were to tell you that my unexpected response had something to do with coincidence would that seem like a lie? If I were to tell you that it had to do with something deeply visceral yet apparently random would that make any sense at all?
Let me begin before poetry, with how I experienced this feeling in my body even before I could write words to paper. I would try to tell you that it felt something like this: an emphatic yes! that was somehow connected to a spiritual knowing, a heady energy cocktail of mental and physical, an intersection of kismet—of the seemingly random being not at all random—as an absolute type of truth. It was a force that lit me up, sustained me, beyond what we walk through in the every day.
Eavan Boland--in her "Letter To a Young Woman Poet"—might have called it an eroticism of personal history or past, but to me it was more of a merging of notes, all to one vibration: at first through symbol and then later into language.
Connecting this feeling to words—and more specifically to the creating of story--I began to realize it was the beginnings of poetry before I could articulate what poetry was. My earliest poem drafts began around age 10. And even though I called what I was writing poetry—it did have a loose verse form—I did not align what I was doing with “poetry” at all. The poems that I encountered in elementary school—I vaguely recall snippets of Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein—seemed to be from an entirely different planet than what I was putting to paper.
What I knew: I wrote because—and as I later learned Rilke would say—I had to. I felt called, compelled, unable to not write. And, when I look back at what I was up to, even that young, I find I was doing something that would be a tangible reminder of this confluence that I am trying to describe even now.
By the time I was in my early teens, I had filled a three-ringed notebook—I remember, it was the largest I could find at the time—with poems written in longhand. Not 20 or 30, but 100 or more. Meticulously organized. Most of them are signed and dated with a final note: “inspired” to indicate when I had first drafted the poem, and/or “revised” for when I considered the poem complete. Eerily enough—especially given my discussion here--some of the poems even have drawings or newspaper articles clipped to them. Most are written on notebook paper, but some are on receipts, hotel stationery, suggesting even then the power of that impulse to write.
Testament? Talisman? I could hardly say. But what I knew was that it was evidence of my experience of confluence, words that somehow arrived through me in my attempt to create, understand, perhaps re-create the energy that got me to the paper in the first place.
It sounds staggering, but it was not until my mid-twenties that I made the connection between my impetus for writing as a child and the world of poetry. So, when I began to realize that poets talked about the idea of confluence, that they too experienced it, longed for it, thrilled to it the same way I did, I was stunned.
Sitting in workshop with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina in 1995, I found myself struck again and again by what he said about “supposed” coincidence—“Nothing is coincidence!” he would often tell us emphatically—those moments of intersection that cross our lives in exactly that time, for exactly that way. When he talked about this in terms of poetry or of being a poet—he often called poets “masters of the superior secret”—I, and my younger self who could not put that confluence experience to words, were hooked.
When Dickey talked of books, he talked of books “choosing,” their readers. As he writes in Sorties (collected excerpts from his journals): “Isn’t it a marvelous thing, this having a house full of books. Something crosses the mind—a flash of light, some connection, some recognition—and one simply rises from one’s chair and goes, as if by predestination, to that book, to that poem.” I can hardly get over the word predestination. That feeling of being led. Of being called.
Later, in Sorties, he marvels at the “odyssey” of books, how “things once written down, long ago, by people long since dead, find their way” into a reader’s hands at just a specific time.
My delight in these discoveries only continued. Imagine connecting these impassioned moments from Dickey’s workshop with other tangible circumstances and examples. I think immediately of the poems that arise from these random—or seemingly random—confluences—the way that the unexpected suddenly crashes in and becomes something new. Though there are countless examples, Marianne Moore’s “Four Quartz Crystal Clocks” remains one of my favorites.
In 1939, Moore received a Bell phone bill in the mail that included a flyer titled “The World’s Most Accurate ‘Clocks.’” I think of the piles of unwanted junk mail that we receive and rarely even acknowledge today, but in 1939, this insert must have been a bit of a surprise. Taken by the moment and the information, Moore was compelled to write a poem based on what she learned about the clocks from the flyer. (She even wrote letters to a Bell representative, Paul B. Findlay, to confirm her accuracy.)
It causes one to wonder, what if that insert had not been mailed? What if it had not captivated Moore as it did? And, by what act of grace was this story--and the insert itself--saved? The original flyer, published in a Fall 1981 edition of the Marianne Moore Newsletter, shows us not only the text and drawings that Moore herself saw, but contains Moore’s notes, presumably toward the poem itself.
But Moore’s example is only one. Anne Sexton, in a 1968 Paris Review interview with Barbara Kevles, gives us two incredible instances of how confluence resonated with her. First, through her interaction with Saul Bellow, and second, in her unexpected encounter with Rimbaud’s words that eventually inspired her to write the poem “Flee on Your Donkey,”:
(Previously in the interview Sexton talks about how she writes an apparently feverish fan letter to Saul Bellow about Henderson the Rain King. In the morning, she regrets her perceived exuberance and mails him an apology. She says:)
“Saul Bellow wrote me back on the back of a manuscript. He said to me, “Luckily, I have a message to you from the book I am writing [which was Herzog]. I have both your letters—the good one which was written that night at 3 A.M. and then the contrite one the next day. One’s best things are always followed by apoplectic, apologetic seizure...” The message that he had encircled went this way, “With one long breath caught and held in his chest, he fought his sadness over his solitary life. Don’t cry you idiot, live or die, but don’t poison everything.” And in circling that and sending it to me, Saul Bellow had given me a message about my whole life. That I did not want to poison the world, that I didn’t want to be the killer; I wanted to be the one that gave birth, who encouraged things to grow and to flower, not the poisoner. So I stuck that message up over my desk and it was a kind of hidden message. You don’t know what these messages mean to you, yet you stick them up over your desk or remember them or write them down and put them in your wallet.”
One can hardly even begin to consider all of the intersections that had to happen for this message to arrive to Sexton. What if Bellow had not made the connection between her letters to him and that part of his manuscript just then? What if he only saw Sexton’s first letter—or felt compelled to respond-- because of her apologetic second one? What if he had circled a different passage, no passage at all, or picked plain stationery? I love that Bellow uses the word “Luckily.” It is suggestive of the confluence--that at just that moment, at just that crossroads in time--Anne’s letter arrived. How fascinating that it took Sexton writing to Bellow and Bellow circling his own words for Sexton to see what would later become a type of life message to her, and one could argue, a message of some reassurance to her. (Though one admittedly has to take into consideration the multiple poisons of Sexton’s life and tragic end.) And how powerful and profound this must have been that Sexton put this message over her desk, memorized it, used it as the title for her Pulitzer-Prize winning Live or Die, and then called it to mind a few years later in this interview? And, in discussing this passage of confluence, she is opening it up to be repeatedly rediscovered, even by us, in this exact moment.
Yet Sexton’s discussion of confluence does not end there. Instead she continues to discuss the pull of words, of taking a conscious action even when the subconscious intention is not yet—or may never be—known. And she gives us another example:
“One day I was reading a quote from Rimbaud that said, “Anne, Anne, flee on your donkey,” and I typed it out because it had my name in it and because I wanted to flee. I put it in my wallet, went to see my doctor and at that point was committed to a hospital for about the seventh or eighth time. In the hospital I started to write the poem, ‘Flee on Your Donkey,’ as though the message had come to me at just the right moment. Well, this was true with Bellow’s quote from his book. I kept it over my desk, and when I went to Europe, I pasted it in the front of my manuscript. I kept it there as a quotation with which to preface my book…. [in my book] You say there’s a tension there and a structure, but it was an unconscious tension and an unconscious structure that I did not know was going on when I did it.”
Again, the words reaching at just the right time. The books calling from the shelves, the line calling to the reader.
This second passage of Sexton’s reminds me of my own experience with Doug Goetsch’s poem, “Love Songs,” in the Fall 2010 issue of New Ohio Review. When I encountered the poem, I was in a tide of loss, feeling unmoored in recent grief. I was mourning the death of two loves: my grandmother, and my friend of 13 years, Eric, who had committed suicide only weeks after my grandmother’s death. Creatively, I was also in a strange place. I had the nagging impulse to keep writing about love and nostalgia even though I was convinced every word was hopelessly sentimental. I was raw, stubborn, wanting the words to take me anywhere, really, but into the tide they seemed to be be taking me into. I did not want to let go. I did not want to believe them.
And then Goetsch’s poem. It begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing neighborhood football, admiring how “Richard Perry [could] throw a football way further than anyone/on the block.” How Richard Perry held them all with “a kind of charmed suspense,” how he later told them, in a huddle, “Love songs/are the best songs there are.” And then, I got to this passage, where I felt a knock—hard—at the back of my breastbone. This passage, which, in part made me chuckle, and then, I will admit, brought me straight to tears:“isn’t it always the case with that kind of feeling,
that you have to tell everyone? Personally
I found love songs boring and stupid, like
watching my parents play bridge, but that
was also his point: to tell us something
we couldn’t know. And I wish now I could
have surrendered to someone the way
Richard Perry gave it up completely,
Something I didn’t do at age 12 or 20
or even 40…”
There was so much. But what spoke to me? He was writing about nostalgia. About surrender. About telling us the something we couldn’t know. Confluence. Kismet. That feeling in the body of alignment. Of yes.
And then I turned the page:“…I’ve never shocked anyone**
with a confession that strange and tender,
stuttered without embarrassment because
he had love, he had Regina and a song
in his head that he knew was worth more
than his rocket arm which could launch
footballs into the sky. And in case you
haven’t figured it out this is all about you.”
Again. Struck. There was that surprise “you,” as if in address. Calling. Don’t resist the poems you are writing. Stop grieving.
Would you believe there is more? There is:“You, Julie, spiraling into my arms
like a pass that’s been traveling 30 years,
like a song I can finally hear.”
And there it was. The absolute and visceral energy of the moment. The poem, calling by name, my name. A light, waiting and unexpected as I turned the page. Perhaps a divine moment exactly when I needed it, exactly when I was unaware that I needed it.
I carried the poem with me. Then I copied it and kept it in my office. It is yet another reminder, a talisman of these seemingly random—“Nothing is random!”—connections.
And as it so strangely—or not—happens, I have another confession. As I was working on this blog, I just happened to run across the Sexton passage. My reading and research had initially been primarily focused on Dickey and Moore. And yet, when I read Sexton’s interview, when I realized through her word choice that she also experienced this “just the right moment” timing, I could not help but note a confirmation, a reminder of the supposedly random, that in the end, feels absolutely intentional. In writing of kismet, there will of course, be kismet.
And, just as Rimbaud’s line was a “birth” passage for Sexton, and later a poem, so Goetsch’s poem is a reminder to me of the power in the unexpected, in the feeling of being called, by name, even, “like a song I can finally hear.” And, perhaps, at last, a song I can articulate.
And, in sharing these experiences, in exploring this idea of connection, I can only wonder how the words will spin open. What confluence comes of writing confluence? I can hardly wait for the story. Yours.
This week I will be exploring the idea of confluence from a number of perspectives. Today I began by sharing how a certain feeling of kismet rooted within me, both before and during my connection to poetry. In the coming days, I am hoping to continue to open this exchange further, to hopefully explore other realms of our perceived or perhaps “predestined” ways of connecting to words. Not surprisingly, I am quite taken by the way in which technological communication and social media have broadened and intensified potential interactions and paths of intersection. I am looking forward to the conversation.
On Friday I will include a page of acknowledgements for all of those who so graciously and enthusiastically shared their time, energy and insight during this series. However, given the nature of today’s particular piece, I wanted to share my debt of gratitude to VCCA. Had I not been able to work on these words without the sustained time and solace of a residency, I am not sure that all of the nuances of kismet would have quite presented themselves to me in the manner in which they did. I am incredibly grateful.
*there are countless others, of course, but these are the few that have resonated most in my experience to date. Also, it is important to note that the mere discussion of Sexton and Dickey in the same space could easily be a loaded gun, given their history.
**the last line on page 159 is “or even 40. I’ve never shocked anyone”. The first line on page 160 is “with a confession that strange and tender.” However, for the sake of clarity in the context of the discussion, I felt it necessary to mention the last line on page 159 in two parts.
Dickey, James. Sorties: Journals and New Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
McQuade, Molly, ed. By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. Saint Paul: Greywolf, 2000.
Plimpton, George, ed. Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Marianne Moore Newsletter. Fall: 1981.
Goetsch, Doug. “Love Songs” New Ohio Review Fall, 2010.