I have a friend–a real poet–who is writing perhaps a poem per day, this month, National Poetry Writing Month. I lack her workman-like ethic–or perhaps simply her skill, which improves all the time, not coincidentally, because she works. True artists of any stripe don’t always produce great work, and the reasons are simple. They don’t hoard their productivity, the way most of us do. It flows out of their minds and mouths and fingertips, into the world, to be judged, ignored, discarded, or praised. Look at the ouevre of any great artist–from Milton to The Beatles and Stephen King–and you will find a lot is not great, that is not even very good. Because they experiment. They take chances. They don’t hold back. And the great stuff flows out of that same, brave place.
There are so many definitions of poetry, but the one that sticks with me is the romantic one, coined by Wordsworth over two centuries ago: a spontaneous overflow of emotions. . .recollected in tranquility. It doesn’t mean someone in the poem is crying or shouting angrily, or even that the poet had other than serene feelings, at the time. It means, simply, an experience that is meaningful, among all other experiences, like a yellow flower amidst a vast green field. An experience worth crafting, by experimentation with language, so that it can be shared with others.
True artists, in any form, are the most generous of people. They surrender their vulnerabilities. Over and over.
I am not such a one. One month; one poem. It’s all I got. I write my poetry, for good and ill, in private places: small classrooms, garages, in the woods, carving it on trees no one will decode. That’s most of us.
Here’s to the unprotected souls, the poets–it’s their time to sing.
Shopping for Colleges
Despite the pouring rain, it’s not so much a memory of feeling, like cold and wet,
Nor of hearing the plunking relentless drops, or smell or taste, or even what we saw:
A lone girl walking along the sodden grass of the quad, a bright red raincoat
And a black umbrella shielding her. I didn’t wear glasses then, and if I had
It might have all seemed like an impressionist painting.
My buddy had come with me; a come-with guy when an experience was new.
I was ready to get out of my factory job, go back to school; but he would stay.
We arrived on a Saturday, not knowing any better, and many offices were closed
and most of the professors and students had flown. It was late May, anyway.
The pair of us crossed her path by chance, converging to cross the green expanse.
“Hey, you guys want to get under my umbrella?”
We exchange looks. “Sure!”
I hadn’t yet been to college, but I’m not stupid. The rain was nothing to me.
Once, in Korea, I spent a night in a hole full of monsoon rainwater, on a hillside.
And before that, I trudged seven miles through a storm
so that my first girlfriend could dump me, in person.
So the rain really was nothing to me. Still, we huddled, we trio of twenty-somethings,
And the umbrella wasn’t big enough, so that we scrunched the poor girl in on either side.
She smiled and we chatted for as long as it lasted, only a walk of a hundred yards.
And somehow we didn’t ruin it, by hitting on her or touching by accident/on purpose
or insisting she give up her errand to the Registrar. Later I wished we invited her
to swing back around, for coffee. You don’t always know what to say, or do, at the time.
Of course I never saw her again. Yet, sitting right there, in the dive coffee-house,
which since then had been replaced by a surgically clean campus computer-lab,
I looked over my cup, and declared to my buddy: “This is where I’m going to college.”
No pamphlets, guided tours, statistics, or Barron’s guides could have shown the way clearer.
Thirty years later, I have no memory whatsoever of the prior month, or the following month.
Can’t recollect her smell, or the color of her hair, or what anybody said.
The gym has since burned down and been replaced, that quad of green grass paved over.
Most of the faculty I knew are gone, and the football field has grown a ten-foot perimeter fence.
And the students are not even the children of my own classmates–some August soon,
their grandchildren will arrive. Not long ago, in the grand scheme, but a full third in the life of a man.
I’ve walked through so much rain, since then. And rarely have been offered
a share of an umbrella by a girl in a red raincoat, and a smile, no one within call
to protect her from strange boys. No one to tell her what the right thing to do was.
Just the invulnerability of her open heart.
I sometimes wonder if women wonder if all the thousands of smiles they’ve spent
on strangers were worth it. Or if they shouldn’t just have bowed their heads,
and moved on with their business, silently, or raised their eyes in Don’t-Mess-With-Me,
paved themselves over with concrete, and put up high, iron fences.
That would be too bad.
Because frigid damp, exposure under the wet sky, the unsureness about the right thing, are not nothing to me.