Radical Correspondence

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We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.

– William Butler Yeats

I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he’d made, and directed us to a page that lay, purposefully out of time, between Wordsworth and Sappho. Upon it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:

Washing My Face

Last night’s dreams disappear.
They are like the sink draining:
a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.

I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.

Though I did not know Emerson’s work at the time, I was starting to see what that cheerful visionary said was “easily seen”: metaphors “are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there,” but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been “placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him.” He described this relationship as a “radical correspondence,” root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel “full of life.”

Wakeful life is draining; it can come to feel empty. That is why I read, and why I write, and why I try to teach. It is twenty-four years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr’s transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.

Bright and Shining

MICHIGAN BAND

I finished revising my debut novel and graduated from an MFA program in the same month. I am tired. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. Of course, one of the first apocryphal rules you learn when you start writing is do it every day. Put that butt in the chair and fashion yourself after the Postal Service. Snow? Sleet? Debilitating fatigue? Doesn’t matter. Put those words down, son.

Have you been writing lately?

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In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…

It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:

Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or

Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or

No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.

Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.

Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.

Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.

A Modern Voice Can Survive

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I collect books about hunting and fishing from the 50s, 60s and early 70s. In them I see the images and hear the voices that taught my father to hunt and fish, to be outside in pursuit of something, and I hear strains of how he taught me: this is a personal obsession much more than an academic one. Still, I love titles like Why Fish Bite and Why They Don’t (1961), and Game Cookery (1967). I love the examples of some of the first mass printing of color photography, and captions that read “A quiet afternoon on the lake is the best way to enjoy the Great Outdoors.” I love the authoritative voices of the authors detailing the best way to build a duck blind, or how to tie an Improved Clinch Knot.

Twist and Shout: Sex as Metaphor

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When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964 singing “Twist and Shout,” the veins in John Lennon’s neck bulged as he screamed the lyrics above the noise of the crowd. There were 700 in attendance that night, but 50,000 people had requested tickets to see the Beatles perform and 73 million people watched from home. What did the Beatles tap into that wrung screams and tears from their audience? It was something a little unexpected: metaphor. Metaphor has two parts: tenor, which is the subject of the metaphor, and vehicle, the way that subject is delivered. While teens around the country were over the moon with the Beatles’ sexy looks and lyrics – the vehicle of their art – what hit a nerve and gave them lasting celebrity was their tenor of longing. Sex is reflected everywhere in our culture; music, films, TV shows, books, and a lot of times, there is no metaphor, just sex. But many artists know that sex is an apt vehicle for longing.