5.2 Poet Timothy E.G. Bartel traces his poem's long journey from inspiration to quasi-completion. Some poems come in a rush of inspiration. Henry Longfellow claimed that “The Arrow and The Song” rushed fully formed into his mind one day as he glanced toward the morning paper on the breakfast table. Others require that long slog of work that Helen Vendler calls “our secret discipline.” “Four Counties” began in the former way, then continued in the latter. The entire first section, or “county” of the poem, “Ventura,” spilled out on a cloudy afternoon, a year after I graduated from college, while I was browsing at Borders bookstore (R.I.P.) in Southern California. As the first lines of the poem hit me, I snagged the last empty chair at the cafe and fluttered my pen across the page till “will we ever be human again?” Then the torrent stopped, and I realized what was smeared and scrawled before me in my Moleskine was something like a miniature, psychological Odyssey of my college experience.
A lot of young writers I know are really eager to write about the phenomenon of their undergraduate years, whether the hung-over buzz, the pregnant girlfriend, or the academic ennui. I guess that for a while after college I had assumed that I would escape that desire—I went to a small, Christian, liberal arts school with a dry campus and no football team where everyone is required to minor in Biblical studies. I didn’t think I had much to process. But I did, apparently. After writing the first section, I sat on it for a few months, then timidly work-shopped it at a summer arts conference. The feedback all pointed to one thing: it wasn’t done.
So I kept adding to it—scenes from post-college life. “Los Angeles” is largely inspired by my slow turning toward liturgical worship and sacramental theology in my own spiritual life, only to find that most of my friends were doing so as well. It was like we all woke up one day and realized that Southern California is haunted by Saints—their names are on practically every road sign and highway marker. “Riverside” contains scenes of my long commute from LA County down the 15 freeway to Temecula, in Riverside County. Soon after I finished “Riverside,” I decided to join the Eastern Orthodox Church.
I work-shopped the poem again, and still the feedback was: you’re not done yet, Tim. I had been working on the poem from the spring of 2006 to the summer of 2008. So I called the poem “Three Counties” and put it away again. Then I got married. My wife and I joined the Orthodox church. I wrote other poems and decided that “Three Counties” was an odd piece of psychological juvenilia.
But “Three Counties” kept snagging the attention of my mind, like a painting that hangs crooked on the wall, or a hangnail that catches on every jacket cuff. The poem was indeed unfinished; there were longings recorded there—for holiness, for forgiveness, for (I’ll admit it) a girl. As my first anniversary drew near, I opened a new draft of the poem, and decided to try writing about something like closure. The problem is, of course, that the long-lined free verse poem has not often been used as a form for closure. It’s a form for longing, as we learn from “Song of Myself,” or from “Howl.” As I worked on “San Luis Obispo,” I realized that the poem wasn’t just about guilt over sin, or becoming an adult, or really wanting to get married, it was also about about a desire I didn’t realize had been driving myself and my generation: the desire to learn to pray.
I finished “Four Counties” about 4 years after I began it, or maybe it’s still not done. Maybe not till I have a son, or lose my parents, or die myself. For now, it chronicles a search for lots of indefinite things and records the finding of a few definite ones, or what you will. I sometimes don’t know what I think of it. Maybe it is psychological juvenilia. But I know I discovered, through writing it, what it means to live with an unruly and unfinished poem and learned something about being committed to a craft that promises no answers, but can sometimes be an avenue of grace.
Timothy E.G. Bartel's poem "Four Counties" appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.