Thursday, April 9, 2009
A Life Outside the Law
One of the pleasures of the reading at the Village Zendo last night was getting to hear Fanny Howe, Mark's co-reader, whose work I've admired for a long time. She read from her collection The Lyrics, a series of long poems based on her time in a Benedictine monastery. Here, though, I'm passing along the opening of The Winter Sun: Notes on A Vocation, her essay collection just out from Graywolf, a book I can't seem to put down regardless of taxes, midterm evaluations, and any number of things that keep pulling at my consciousness. It's a brilliant thing.
[Above: The fish in our pond out back.]
Since early adolescence I have wanted to live the life of a poet. What this meant to me was a life outside the law; it would include disobedience and uprootedness. I would be at liberty to observe, drift, read, travel, take notes, converse with friends, and struggle with form.
Struggling with form meant creating problems of self-expression that only I could solve. This required boundless time, no obligations, lots of conversation and love, little money, little stability but always freedom to play with sound and meaning. I was surrounded by poetry at home so this should have been easy, but another atmosphere undermined its powers.
Like the rest of my generation, I was catapulted into a double bind. On the one hand each of us was valued, treated to an education in humanist values, and nourished for a long life; on the other hand we were told to hide under our desks during nuclear bomb alerts, and to wait there in the knowledge that we were as disposable as pieces of tissue paper that could blow away like ashes.
While we learned languages, poetry, science, and athletics, the prevailing social attitude was nihilist. Not officially so, not with reference to Nietzsche, but in the stirring cavities of decision making and imagination. Mass murder, global destruction, and genocide were idle topics. We grew up at the tail end of the Victorian period and at the beginning of the postmodern. In the year 1968 the contradictory forces behind the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement came to a head and my generation embodied the conflict and attempted to find synthesis and progress.
Now the millennium has come and gone and I am in a hermitage facing of field of snow and bristling grain where there is a line of trees at the end. The sky has the wintry golden blush that makes it seem to swell like water. I hear cars and trucks in the distance. Over the years I have written during days just like these, when there was now, or cold, and some sense of safety and enclosure. More often I have written on the road in the middle of children, crowds at train stations, airports, motels, bus depots, in offices and schoolyards.
I have put this collection on the table in order to discover what I was doing during those times, because it was not just a matter of writing poems. That activity was inseparable from the dialectical questions of my generation, from the paradoxes of a life spent in a cynical social terrain.
Why was I chained to these language problems that I myself had created? Why all this scratching and erasing? It was more like drawing an invisible figure than painting what was in front of me. I wanted something to recognize: a disembodied presence.