From My Bright Abyss
When I was twenty years old I spent an afternoon with Howard Nemerov. He was the first “famous” poet I had ever met, though I would later learn that he was deeply embittered by what he perceived to be a lack of respect from critics and other poets. (I once heard Thom Gunn call him a “zombie.”) My chief memories are of his great eagerness to nail down the time and place for his midday martini, his reciting “Animula” when I told him I loved Eliot, and his asking me at one point – with what I now realize was great patience and kindness – what I was going to do when I graduated from college later that year. I had no plans, no ambitions clear enough to recognize as such, no interest in any of the things that my classmates were hurling toward. Poetry was what I spent more and more of my time working on, though I found that vaguely embarrassing, even when revealing it to a real poet, as I did. Equivocations spilled out of me then, how poetry was all right as long as one didn’t take it too seriously, as long as one didn’t throw one’s whole life into it. He set down his martini and looked at me for a long moment – I feel the gaze now – then looked away.
The irony is that for the next two decades I would be so consumed with poetry that I would damn near forget the world. One must have devotion to be an artist, and there’s no way of minimizing its cost. But still, just as in religious contexts, there is a kind of devotion that is, at its heart, escape.
These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
who would leave his wife and child because
they made noise in his study. These are the poems
of a man who would murder his mother to claim
the inheritance. These are the poems of a man
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. These are the poems of a man
who would rather sleep with himself than with women,
she said. These are the poems of a man
with eyes like a drawknife, with hands like a pickpocket’s
hands, woven of water and logic
and hunger, with no strand of love in them. These
poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,
and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.
These poems, she said….
You are, he said,
That is not love, she said rightly.
(“These Poems, She Said”)
For years I carried this poem by the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst in my mind like a totem. I loved its quality of highly dramatized speech, the sense it gives that we might actually say to each other things like “these poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant as elm leaves.” I loved the mix of intellect and sensuousness, abstraction and concretion, passion and intelligence. Most of all, though, I loved what the poem was saying, and how it seemed to so perfectly dramatize tensions I felt in my life every day: between art and the people I loved, between art and my responsibilities in the world and to other people, between art and my hunger for an experience of life that was immediate, unmediated, mine. As W. B. Yeats put it more than a hundred years ago, had such an experience ever actually happened, “I might have thrown poor words away / and been content to live.”
If you’ve never been consumed by an art, it might seem strange to think of it in these terms – as an antithesis to life, almost, or at least as a kind of parasite. But the fact is, art can compromise, even in some way neutralize, the very experience on which it depends. If to be an artist is to be someone upon whom nothing is lost, as Henry James said, then it follows that to be an artist is to be in some permanent sense professionally detached. An artist is conscious of always standing apart from life, and one of the results of this can be that you begin to feel most intensely what you have failed to feel: a certain emotional reserve in one’s life becomes a source of great power in one’s work. That poem by Bringhurst serves as both an example of this power – it carries a strong emotional charge even as it articulates emotional distance – and a reprimand to it, labeling all that supposed artistic discipline, all that self-exonerating crap about being “a person upon whom nothing is lost,” as merely a species of self-love.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that some religious poets have felt a difficult tension between their devotion to art and their devotion to God. Hopkins actually renounced poetry for a number of years. His reason was that poetry wasn’t consistent with the seriousness of his vocation, but you don’t need to read much of Hopkins to realize that the real reason was that the intensity of his creative experiences competed with the intensity of his religious experiences, and he felt himself presented with a stark choice. Then there’s George Herbert. He was also a priest, an Anglican, though not until late in his life, after he had served two terms in Parliament. Though Herbert sometimes linked poetry to God and experienced grace through words, he was conscious of some secular element at the very heart of making art, some necessary imaginative flair in himself that needed to be subdued, or at least tidied up and made fit for sacrifice:
Farewell, sweet phrases, lovely metaphors:
But will ye leave me thus? When ye before
Of stews and brothels onely knew the doores,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
Brought you to church well drest and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
(from “The Forerunners”)
I have always responded deeply to these two poets – I don’t know that any poet, of any time, is more companionable to me than Herbert (“Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed, / Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived”). But I’ve never experienced the tension between poetry and God in quite the same terms. The Scottish runner Eric Liddell, whose story is told in the movie, Chariots of Fire, once explained why he couldn’t give up running – not yet, at any rate – to be a missionary in China: “I believe that God made me for a purpose,” Liddell said, “but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure. To give up running would be to hold him in contempt.” I like this notion: God doesn’t give a gift without giving an obligation to use it. How one uses it, though – that’s where things get complicated.
And the fact is, during all those years when that Bringhurst poem was my own little private anthem, when I practiced absence like a kind of discipline, moving forty times in fifteen years, owning nothing that wouldn’t fit in the trunk of my car, distancing myself from my family, my home, my very self in order to feel these energies in my art – during all that time, I did not think of God. I mean, I thought of God, but only as a kind of intellectual stopgap, an ultimate synonym for ultimate absence, some vague and almost purely rhetorical gesture that signaled little more than a failure of both words and intellect. In retrospect it seems to me obvious what was going on, what ultimate insight was lacking from, and therefore clouding and diminishing, every sight, what hunger ruined my taste, even as it increased my desire, for the world. “Who here is the finished man / whose hands knows only what is gone?” I wrote at the time in a poem I’ve never published. “All night he holds it as he can, / his losses lost again in song.”
During one of those years I lived in Prague. I was living with someone at the time. Unlike some of the relationships I was in during those years, this one was intimate, long-lasting, and remains part of the bedrock of my consciousness. We lived in one of those grim, gray apartment blocks that surround every Eastern European city, but we lived on the top floor, so we had a tremendous view of Prague for about thirty dollars a month. (This was the year after the Velvet Revolution, when tourists were scarce and prices were still low.) One day when I was studying Czech at the kitchen table and my girlfriend was taking a bath in the other room, a falcon landed on the windowsill – maybe three feet from me. A decade later, after that bedrock in my brain had ruptured in ways I realize are never quite going to heal, I wrote a poem called “Poštolka,” which in Czech means falcon or, more accurately, kestrel:
When I was learning words
And you were in the bath
There was a flurry of small birds
And in the aftermath
Of all that panicked flight,
As if the red dusk willed
A concentration of its light,
A falcon on the sill.
It scanned the orchard’s bowers,
Then pane by pane it eyed
The stories facing ours
But never looked inside.
I called you in to see.
And when you’d steamed the room
And naked next to me
Stood dripping, as a bloom
Of blood formed in your cheek
And slowly seemed to melt
I could almost speak
The love I almost felt.
Wish for something, you said.
A shiver pricked my spine.
The falcon turned its head
And locked its eyes on mine
And for a long moment I’m still in
I wished and wished and wished
The moment would not end.
And just like that it vanished.
This is a love poem by a person who is incapable of love. It’s a rapture of time by someone who never quite enters it, a celebrating of life by a man whose mind is tuned only to elegies. It is also, I’ve come to think, in a peculiar and very modern sense, a devotional poem, or at least an early unconscious attempt at one, though God is nowhere in it. That’s what makes it modern.