It is remarkable how little thought is in a book. The evidence of thought, yes, but thought itself is absent. I say this having recently finished a few so-called great books which left me thought-bereft. I see from this point that reading is not thinking, if by thinking we hope for fresh thought. Looking back, I recall being prompted by books, but those prompts were more properly self-contained goads occasioned by the achievement of the books themselves. The promptings were mine, not the books’.
As I read now I find myself having read, not having thoughts. As I finish a book, I reach for another book. I do not reach for the pen or computer. My lovely laptop computer, buffeted by cigarette smoke and the strains of Motorhead, I am told, as I write from a favorite bar, having dislocated myself from any context that might prevent me from saying what I think instead of what I hope from myself.
For the guilt is mine in asking books to do my work for me. And it is my fault in seeking to explain myself and my poetry, instead of writing, and allowing the writing to explain itself. I am going to suggest an analogy here to Apollinaire, who it seems to me accomplished a great deal without having explained a damn thing. And now I will leave the suggestion behind as I move on. Bon chance, analogy.
I cannot explain my writing as if to fill an empty or emptying cup. I cannot simply draw lines and call it art. Specifically, I have granted myself a label – Concrete Formalist poet- and having done so, I have not written a poem. I have written well of concrete formalism, but now find I have nothing to say that would add to the subject or fill in the gaps, or sustain the sentiments of explanation and support.
What do I say, now, buffeting my lovely laptop with cigarette smoke. I say I write in form not to justify form, but to fuck with form. I created a structure divorced from obvious cultural models which I can erect and challenge by turns. What is it to experiment – to think – but to redesign, abolish, and create. Every move can be explained, but the moves in themselves need no explanation, except to say: here is thought. To do as I do is to think, not to remember what I did. A book is the memory of thought.
But what is a bar? Well, I can say this is a lovely bar. Dark and smoky, where the bartenders put on the music, which tends toward the loud, profane, and authentic sort of rock that would seem divorced from thoughts of books. Should I write about that? No, but I can write in it.
Where I am is hell, there is no other, writes Robert Lowell in Skunk Hour – and where I am is heaven, if by heaven we mean thought in life and not as difference from non-thought. If by thinking you retreat you will build where you come to rest, if you rest, if you escape. But I wonder who escapes, or do we customarily choose to believe that life is thought in the truth of obligations, and life is hell in the fact of failure. Do we embrace thought as surely we believe we do, or do we embrace death, which is the absence of thought in all its forms.
If by thinking you advance – well, how will you know, except that you continue to run as one uncaught. The dead cannot think or extol thought. They extol books. Their thoughts are patterns aligned with patterns derived from books sponsored by authors who may have had thoughts. It is impossible to say what is life and death without having lived and died and lived to tell.
At this moment, thought is alive. It needs no further explanation. What will you wait for, to live again. To think.
My challenge then – to return the focus directly to myself – is to think alive in poetry and in writing about my poetry. Happily, I cannot be tempted to write in any other way, as I do not now read theory and do not make my living reading or teaching books. Either I think and write or I do nothing. I play solitaire. I attend to my obligations and I play solitaire, waiting, wondering what the fuck is wrong with me.
Now, having written all this, you might think I suppose I have hit upon a Formula for Life. But no, I will rest at some point and be overtaken, then run again. Having reached one point of understanding there is no law that demands I must by necessity continue in understanding. It takes a great deal of energy to reach an understanding. It is easier, much easier, to live in the words of others and mirror or parallel the understandings achieved by others. Either is the same thing, to mirror or parallel is to react in relation to the dead. There is no thought in an eclipse.
But I have found, much to my dismay and disgust, that others’ understandings, while prompting in me a desire to do the same, have in themselves provided no real support to explain my writings to myself or others. And explaining is something I must do as there is no one else to explain what I do. And, given the fundamental principle that art matters, what I do matters, as the poems are good poems and I am their only representative.
The form of explanation should be (now I’m guessing) suggestive rather than argumentative. Again, I do not want to contend with the dead on our shelves or the dead that read books and report on them to the near dead who study them. One problem of course is that suggestions imply openness or a seeking for response (which is fine) whereas I receive few if any responses to my suggestions. I can suggest, but I cannot rely on response. I cannot force the horse of response to the trough of suggestiveness. I cannot pick the grape of suggestiveness and hope for the wine of response. Or, I can hope – or do more than that: I can have …faith? But I cannot rely on the proof of response.
Faith tied, however, to human feelings, is a contract this poet is not entirely comfortable with. This is a war of words though and I must use what arms suggest themselves and are available. First rule is: what are my models. Well, my own experience (as I allude to above) is one where I imagined promptings by books that were more properly my own. So, I can say I have faith in my suggestions but do not delude myself. A reader’s response is their own prompting from within, whatever the name on whatever the book that occasioned that prompting.
So, we are clear on that point, yes? Whatever promptings you, the reader, might experience – and which I am dedicated to provide in my poetry and explanations of my poetry – are your own. These words are an arrangement in what we share and obtain in what we share. The analogy is in music, where the song claims for itself nothing new in the notes assembled to the purpose of song-making.
Let me return briefly to the books I have been reading.
The books are largely a return to books I read long ago. This effort was based on the desire to capture the promptings that sponsored my poetry. I can see that this was a failed effort. I have lived truthfully these years: written, married, worked, had a child, read, written, loved and been loved. All this is to the purpose of thought in the present, which cannot be recaptured by visiting the past. How odd, and encouraging, that I did not miss anything of importance in what I read when I was 22 years old, but took the promptings fully and acted upon them then, and now find nothing new in what I read, either of what I read when I was 22, or in what I read at 49. Without knowing it, all this life and this work has been all my own and is not supportable by others’ words. Where I am is, by occasion, hell – in that I am alone in my thoughts, and heaven, in that I believe in my thoughts. I cannot be undeceived, except by some authority that would disallow or contextualize thought. I neatly avoided a University life, preserving myself from contextualization, and I believe in God, who I trust disallows nothing that is proper to any effort to negotiate this narrow, human space. Safe in God, I am secure in myself – for the moment! There is a lot of work to do before I realize and can see and point to any sort of redeeming evidence aside from these suggestions and explanations, however complete they are in themselves.
Thank you for reading.