I’ve never been much interested in confessional poetry. I’m more interested in the ways poets toy with reality, structuring their poems not out of direct experience, but on a more elusive sensibility for an experience, hope, or thought. A sensibility that bears with it an almost urgent ambiguity, a need for the reader to supply a response for its completion. Art is a sympathetic mirror.
When I write, I am almost unbearably disinterested in basing my poems on something about myself. Though I am highly aware that I influence the poem, I am much more directly invested in vanishing behind the poem I write. I would much rather someone not think of me when they read it. I would like to somehow transcend my own narrowness.
The challenge, as an artist, is to be more transparent – more honest – than I am as a person. My various fears and neuroses, if they prevail, will only end up telling you what I am. And I’m not very great. If imagination can prevail against my narrowness, then what emerges might – I would hope – help my reader transcend narrowness, too.
This task requires from me an almost brutal honesty. An ability to take up other concerns, concerns not necessarily native to me, and wear them as if they were my own. If I were to show you all of my poetry, much of which never makes it to this site, you’d know it came from an intellectual. An academic. That’s my mind’s training, and it shows. But you might be surprised to see a theologian capable of imitating atheism, or someone who obviously is not Dante pretending to be Dante, or a person of crippling discomfiture with physical contact writing a devastating poem about love. I’ve written poems like this, aware that they are all – in their various ways – masks. I’m not an atheist, I’m not Dante, and I wouldn’t know what love is if it kicked me in the face.
I am at pains for others not to project too much of my poetry onto me. It would be a horrible mistake, resulting in wildly inaccurate expectations about my sensitivity, my interests, my patience. I am often quite insensitive, and lack many basic skills of observation. I’m a bookish academic! This does not seem to dissuade people into imagining that I hide profound interpersonal depths behind my bookishness. As if I were secretly not an awkward nerd. I’ve seen this peculiar shift in perception toward me more than once. Someone might really like a poem of mine, and then suddenly they want me to read their souls for them. I can read the theology of a dead Swiss guy for them, is what I can do. I hate the disappointment on their faces when they figure out the truth.
I’m observant, but not a wizard. Nor am I particularly attentive to those things that others find important for attention. Just today, I sat hunched at my desk, trying to imagine what music would look like if I could see it. Real useful, right? I can’t read your soul. I’m probably too busy picturing what St. Francis would look like if I dropped him in the middle of Milwaukee. (Poem idea I’ve had for a while.)
Poetry is, I must repeat, a way to transcend my own narrowness. The fascinating thing about human imagination is how it outstrips us. Through imagination, we are capable of grasping things that we have not yet made our own, and may never make our own. No doubt a better person would, ideally, make a better poet. But the point is that very wounded people can write very magnificent poetry.
One of my greatest achievements is, I think, something like this.
The most interesting poem, for me, is one I don’t consider mine. It is called “Wrought.” I wrote it almost a year ago. I wrote it entirely from the perspective of a friend, and stretched myself to such a limit-point that I cannot see the poem as a reflection on myself at all. It’s a reflection of him. My friend, he’s an engineer. I’m close to him and his wife. Known them for a few years now. He always promised his wife that he’d write her a poem. It was a joke between them. He can’t write to save his life. So he’d always say to her,
Roses are red, violets are blue,
That was his poem. It’s endearingly awful. Now, I know the two involved well enough to understand what he means: he almost lost her at one point, a very difficult and painful memory for him, and he is so happy to have her in his life that he almost has to remind himself it really happened. They’re really married, and she really gave herself to him, and she’s not gone forever. He can’t think of a better way to say it than, “You’re mine.” She understands what he means. That’s easy to see in her smile.
So, after about the 900th time he said he’d write her a poem, and she pointed out that he never would, I said: “I’ll write one for him, for you.”
Everyone at the table laughed. It’s a funny idea, being a proxy for this sort of thing. But I meant it. I’d do it; I was determined to do it.
I thought very hard about it. I worked for weeks to recall my strongest memories of them, remembering the shape and feel of what I saw. I’m an intensely visual person, so most of the memories were silent moments. Looks and touches. All the stuff I pretend like I’m too stupid to notice. (It’s easier that way, most of the time.) G.M. Hopkins calls these emotional-visual forms “instress,” the felt “stress” of a thing. Think of it almost like an epistemological sympathy. For him, instress has the quality of sound, too. Hopkins was a skilled piano player, and loved music. Sound came naturally to him. I’m still learning about sound, so I relied on my more natural interest in the visual stress of things.
The poem began to take shape out of the shadows. It had to end with some form of “you’re mine,” because those were his own words. My task was to be the exegete of his words. So I knew where I needed to end. But where to begin? And how? How does one begin to profess love for someone?
I tried to imagine the world from his perspective. The husband’s perspective. The engineer. I’m not a man and not an engineer, so I had to call to mind everything peculiar about this particular man, and what I understood about him. The point was to express his affection for her. And what was that, anyway? Women are not that interesting to me. Nor do I believe myself capable of some secret insight into what moves hearts. I now began to wonder just how stupid it was to make a promise to write such a poem.
Then he told me a story. A story about before they were dating. He knew she was going to leave (and did not know if he would ever see her again – which he did, and it ends happy). He knew that. Still he did everything he could to see her. He told me this as he put the dishes away at the end of the night. “I heard she had a taste for cookies,” he said. “So I arrived at her door with cookies.” From the other room, his wife laughed at the memory. He sighed. “I couldn’t help myself. I can’t say ‘No’ to her. Isn’t that sad?”
Though rarely serious in such conversations, I stared at him quite seriously. “No, no. That’s not sad at all. Not at all. It’s beautiful.”
So I had my first line. A response, a refutation, of his own evaluation: “I am not weak.” The phrase, which I made his, was my transformation of that story. My argument against him. He is not weak. His devotion to her is beautiful. I am not sure how I linked that with the idea of wrought iron, but it seemed to me to be fitting. An engineer would like something concrete and constructed like that. Iron would be an engineer’s image. And I could make it work. I emphasized its strength, its shape, its need. I made it work for me. That was my task. I was the exegete.
I am not weak.
I am wrought iron that, once
bent in bright primordial fires
(long before I met you)
never takes another shape.
I am not weak,
though all my angles,
my permanent contours,
turn to you.
I described and explained his need for her. I invested myself fully in his every story about her, and tried to give the form of his love its poetic contours. I wanted to show him how his very vulnerability toward her was his strength, and I wanted to recapitulate the power of his devotion in some small way. I gave the verses a stutter-step, as if he were fighting to say what he needed to say. This seemed to me to suit him.
I cannot change the way,
I cannot change –
my whole life curves toward you
like so many determined lines.
Threads gathered in and held
in your hands.
I could no more refuse you
than I could refuse myself.
His profound need for her – not mangled, but fully-formed – shaped my lines. And I shaped the image. I bent the wrought iron to fit this man that I knew, and what I knew about him. I filled the gaps with poetry. Poetry, which suggests and embraces without strangling. There had to be room to breathe.
And there had to be small, hidden personal notes. He calls the time when she was away the “dark ages,” and I cheekily included the term in my poem. Here it became a testament to his formation for her. I split “dark/ ages” across verses, to distance myself from its original meaning. I was re-interpreting him, giving his painful memory a glorious purpose.
Everything is yours.
My enduring curvature,
wrought before I knew you,
made for you alone:
time before time, dark
ages fashioned me for you –
and you alone.
She is the only one for him, as far as he is concerned. He feels this in such a forceful way that it does not do it justice to call it old-fashioned. Few people honestly think this way. And when he thinks of her, his expression always changes. I don’t think he knows. But I do, which is why I made the stanza trail off, as if he were turning to look at her and could no longer speak. Then, on “seeing” her, the final stanza takes up a new force:
And if you bent yourself close
to me, and felt the gentle
cool of my lasting shape,
the way my arms were made
to hold you (and you alone) –
you could rest here (with me).
If you curved yourself close,
you could feel that I am yours –
and you are mine.
I held the parentheses as if the grammar itself could embrace her for him, as if those curves imitated the shape of himself I had described. I also had my final line, and by then I had interpreted it with as much fullness as I could give it. This task pressed me hard. To be honest, by the time I finished the poem – in two sittings, the first half written before I abandoned the thing in frustration; the second half molded later that day, with almost no revisions between either half – I was convinced I had failed.
But he was pleased, and she was haunted that I could sound so much like him (if he had been a poet).
I was quite bewildered at what I had done. Still am. I had somehow, finally, managed to vanish behind the lines. The poem is not a testament to my skill. It is a testament to them. To those two who love each other, to his love for her. That’s what it is. I just wrote it down. I wore a mask, but not to lie: to tell the truth.