This essay is not as good as it might be. It is, furthermore, truer to the degree it remains unwritten. Why then do I rasp away at a possible truth, when one glimpses so few, when I’m so inclined not to?
Poetry, for me, doesn’t seem to involve this tradeoff — each poem adds to the stock of real, obdurate things, and doesn’t, by organizing or distilling, by flourishing a lens, threaten to reduce other things to serviceable shadows of themselves. So it doesn’t matter if a poem fails. And so there’s no reason not to at least tickle the detritus that the mind receives from heaven, the crumbs of sound or sense or image. Nothing can be lost: and the first half of the work never feels like work. How easy, at first, to rearrange the chairs in my skull for that stray vision, to accommodate it.
Of course it is in the latter half of this process that the curse and the value comes—that dread sense of responsibility to the half-made thing. The illshapen thing looks like you, speaks like you — but is so ugly. And its ugliness is made hideous by the fact that its creation was a natural, unbidden joy. It reproaches you, mutely, like only a child can. You have to fix it—you have to at least try—in order to fix yourself, and to fool yourself, a little longer, that you are worth a little more than that.
Prose, at least the kind I’m able to write, is less soaked in this redemptive hazard. I’ve learned, but never recharted my life based on what an essay I wrote disclosed. The failure of an essay is more damning—because it is essentially public, the essay’s failure implies a cosmic uselessness, if not a dangerous stupidity. At home, I can flounce happily around in whatever ghoulish costume I please, and alter, and retouch it; but before I go out it has to work. And so, though to assemble an argument in my head, and play with it, is a kind of fun, a dread floats out in front of the prospect of its formalization. An essay, for me, is the second half of the poem—pure duty, pure ought. This one, for instance, only exists because I tricked myself, by promising a real person to write it (a person who sent n nonjudgmental reminder emails.)
My nature is stubborn and desperate. My aimless need searches for a task like a whirlpool searches for an ocean; my stubbornness allows me to live forever in that task, to invent problems (‘the rhythm’s off’) and fill a day not solving them, and call that day good. Good, because it closed off the grimmer byways of my brain, and I spent many hours not remembering that I wasn’t peeking behind the painted veil.
I didn’t have to be a poet. I chose to make myself one when I was 18. About to enter college, I regretted squandering my time with sports and video games: skills I understood, imperfectly, to be transient. I felt fluid, a pond of murky potential. I was also painfully self-conscious, and it seemed to me that by avowing poetry I could assume, very rapidly, and mostly free from external critique, a legible identity. To say you are a poet is almost as easy as being conflicted about calling yourself a poet. That this identity had benefits, I instantly perceived: crucially, with women. As long as I was working hard on poems, it was easy to scoff at classes: I knew where real education lay. But working hard? Here too, I was the only judge of my discipline, and as long as I had satisfied myself—quite easy, then—any degree of excess was licensed. When, by contrast, I hadn’t satisfied my sense of self-duty, a different kind of excess was demanded: because if a poem was a condensation of life, the intensity I had failed to achieve through refinement and discipline could be arrived at also by intense experience, or self-harm.
Yet it would be a sad passion indeed that did not, slowly, trap you.
Now, cabinned in what I made myself, I think a lot about fate. I want fate in my poems: I want them to grind like the planet on its axis. This means that I don’t trust the will, or things that the will makes happen—anything that didn’t have to be. I’m walking by the sea, I close my eyes, and these drain from my mind. What persists are those events—a few good, but mostly dire—that have come to me unbidden, or appear to have. The music of them. They alone have the authority of ananke, coiling up from the cleft. Of the stone pillar in 2001, descending from the sky, changing me forever. So I wait. What crumbs that do come to my placid brain—mostly bright fragments, but sometimes an idea, a verbal problem—I attack with bitter need. There’s no way out, at this point, but deeper in.
I think a lot about a Henry James story, The Beast in the Jungle. It takes the form of a long conversation between a man and his best friend. They have the kind of ambiguous relationship James excels at—there’s enough gayness for one between them, but you’d be hard pressed to puzzle out the ratio. The man is convinced his fate—what will validate his life, and, increasingly, the waiting he’s already done—is always just around the corner. He’s tensed, prepared to seize it. This goes on a long time.
Then they are older and his friend gets sick. She keeps it from him but he half knows. Then she dies. Alone, later, at her grave:
He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened—it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.
When I first read it, in a James seminar that was a little hard, the moral struck me as too clear, too American, and very tragic. Now, I’m much less sure.
It would be possible, here, to use James as a segue to bring in Max Weber, to talk about capitalism, industriousness, the American artist that even James was, and locating resistance to these systems in the body. I ought to talk about sprezzatura as a corrective to cultic productivity; about Stevens’ relocation of nobility in the imagination; about Whitman, and the crucial differences between laziness and loafing and zen. It would be prudent to make corollary points about the labor of suspending aesthetic judgment, i.e., the work of non-work, the labor of letting the world into your poems, and the permissive social thinking that ought to follow—if we can condone Arnold’s transit from objet, to character, to society.
But perhaps I’ll muse about reaction. Laziness, as I know it, imagines, but only so far—because it is wildly practical, and knows to a newton how much work is necessary to twist the slightest knob of the external world. How much breath it takes to bend a blade of grass. It knows itself, has marveled at its own powers in extremis, but knows that life is a game of averages. Knowing makes it humble. It recognizes the ocean between what it could do, and what it is likely to do. Laziness, in other words, without being a zealot, simply prefers a natural style, a non-fussy realism. It prefers the kind of slender imagination that remembers the real as primary—the caul of fancy that makes the hard earth a little habitable.
I can imagine, from the bottom of the argument I’ve dug, that the cultivation of reaction can be a corrective to the cult of the heroic, constantly individuating ego, which is so constantly reinforced. Re-action encompasses action, and depends on it: but its prefix transforms it into something cyclical, biological. It both precedes willed action and overrules it. Do violence or kindness to me and every fiber of me reacts, whereas I can command only a few glial clusters to act.
That is to say: it is a tall clear day. We’re walking, as we sometimes do on pleasant afternoons. You mention, à propos your father, St. Augustine grass. The conversation moves on, and, consciously, I follow it: but, in its darkness, the core of me has turned over, and the work begins, and the wait. In a month I’ll be at breakfast. I’ll hear its minor music.
[Noah’s first book is The Destroyer in the Glass (Yale Series of Younger Poets)]