VALENTINE’S & WORTHY SUBJECTS
I’m blogging on Valentine’s week without the merest nod to the Valentine. But here is something about poetry and the heart.
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I think I may have failed to write a book I was meant to write. The man I live with was in a dark, angry mood--this happens to some people in life--and I wrote a set of poems while that was going on. One was “Neck,” one was “Wood”--they were expressions of the dark experience I was living through. They were about bad love.
Very unusual for me, I sent them out instantly, and they were all published in the following months. There are about ten. Someone who often read my poems--a distinguished poet and scholar--I will not say who--told me over tea that he wondered if that--he meant bad love--was a worthwhile subject for poetry. I’m not sure the word was “worthwhile,” but it was in that meaning range. I understood that, in his view, I should not be exploiting such darkly specific thoughts.
I didn’t think I agreed, but I wasn’t sure I could gauge what he was saying. Maybe he thought the poems weren’t good enough. I felt worried, I felt swayed, and I stopped.
Though I tried to go on writing them, there was nothing more there. Or, what I found there seemed brittle and forced.
Worthy, worthwhile subject.
I never expect to reach that pitch of emotion again, even though some of those poems also flirt with hilarity. I vividly regretted the silence that followed.
Maybe there was no further to go in that direction; maybe I had gone as far as I could.
Any more about that topic--bad love--might be repetitive, redundant--were there no change in the tenor of life.
For me, this is a true problem: life has to change for art to go on. Or is this a worn-out idea? There’s Rilke’s famous old plea: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. You must change your life. There’s Valery: Il faut tenter de vivre. You must try to live. There’s Yeats: no art without change of heart.
Yes, Valery’s is a little different. Maybe even the opposite. He knew that poems were not enough; life also had to be lived. His poem (Le cimitière marin) exhorts us to live--so both poem and life are surely necessary.
Oh lord, are poems meant to be cheery homilies? Must they take you to blissy heights?
There are many great darkhearted poems. Hay golpes tan fuertes en la vida, yo no se. That’s Vallejo’s great “The Black Horsemen.”
Life deals such hard blows... I don’t know.
Blows from the hatred of God; as if, taking them,
the backwash of all that was ever endured
puddled in the soul... I don’t know.
Maybe the problem--in his eyes--was my revelation, to the world, of dark emotional circumstances. This is another obstacle to writing. I used to feel that anything anecdotal or factual must be carefully hidden. Now I think this: Life is so short; what does it mean if what matters can’t be said? And yet, if it’s art, then it must be art. Art has to sustain and forgive the revelation.
If revelation is the object, somehow we've left the realm of art.
At any event, I know that when I read I'm looking to be moved; I can be moved by mere or sheer beauty, or I can be moved by beauty and pathos--but I do want to be told something. Something, something, almost anything. I want to stir inside a little. I want to read about love and write about love, even if it is bad love. Or especially because it is bad love--such a common vulgar thing.
But returning to criticism.
How do you get and give criticism, if at all.
You choose your critic, and stick with him? This was someone whose appreciations I loved to hear.
On one occasion I asked another poet who reads my poems what he thought of a sheaf of poems I had just brought him. I had finished the first round of Visits from the Seventh and was trying to begin the second. He looked at me straight in the eye and said, “I hate them.”
Was this abusive or was it a gift?
I knew what he meant instantly. They were maudlin and bouncy and overwritten.
At the time, I was shaken: he shook me into sense.
I rescued one of them, the darkest, “Murder,” and it appeared in Visits from the Seventh. In the welter of weak poems, he hadn’t seen this one strong one.
So, there's no right way or wrong way, and each instance has its own conditions and circumstances. In one case, there was a cup of tea, in another, a glass of vodka. The matter--the problem--is that sometimes I know for myself what something is or isn't, and sometimes I don't. I'm easily swayed by either praise or scorn. I like being swayed by praise better. I'm relying on another poet, another reader, to show me the way. And that someone may be wrong. Or may be right for himself but wrong for me. It is all a personal and artistic matter with the risks and love which that implies.
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