I don’t usually have an idea in mind when I begin to write. Today, a student looked at me and said: “you haven’t been writing lately, have you?” She was right; at least I have not written poetry. It made me angry that she was right, then oddly comforted because the jig was up and I realized that I didn’t feel much like writing. I felt like watching people catch fish on a winter pier while I wore a long camel’s hair coat and kept my hands in my pockets. I always thought that one of the few reasons I wanted to be tall was because tall people look better in camel’s hair coats. I wanted to look attractively gaunt. Seagulls hovered over head as fisherman threw their remaining bait to them. This desire to be on a fishing pier in winter first came to me as I watched a couple of herring gulls up here in Binghamton, swooping and gulling forth above the Barnes and Noble parking lot. The day was that sort of neutral gray when, if it were ten degrees colder, snow might fall. It made me lonely for the ocean. It made me want to wear a camel’s hair jacket, and dig my hands deep into my pockets, and watch gulls slash and dive for torn pieces of air born clam. How do you explain something like that. As Pessoa said, the personal is not the human. We must make a bridge.
But I don’t want to make a bridge. I don’t want a greater ontology to standing in a Barnes and Noble parking lot watching herring gulls when, if it was ten degrees colder, it might snow. I once had a camel’s hair coat, and I left it on a school visit during one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It was cold. It was hot. In the tradition of schools, they put the heat on full blast as it warmed. I was teaching fifth graders to write poems, to play the guitar, to live large. We were making progress. I forgot my coat. I forgot my gloves. I was home getting ready for bed before I remembered that I’d left my prized coat seventy miles south on the New jersey Park way. I never went back to retrieve it. I kept thinking perhaps someone my size might find it, and start wearing it. He might take better care of it cherish it not as an idea, but as a coat. Since then, this imaginary short man haunts my consciousness. He walks out of the sea late at night, his coat perfectly dry. He has a beautiful zippo lighter and roams through the universe, lighting the cigarettes of willowy femme fatales. He speaks both French and Norwegian. He’s the complete package.
This is how my mind works. It needs to drift in order to write. It needs aimlessness, the sort of frittering away of time most people associate with sloth. Improvisation is vital to structure. Without it, structure is too “received.” Even in the purposely “received” structure of fixed forms (sonnet, sestina, that sort of thing) the thought must seem fluid, unforced. To have an “idea” for a poem is already to “receive” a structure that might make the actual poem impossible to write. So, when people tell me they have no ideas for a poem, I never believe them. They are lying. They have plenty of ideas. That’s the trouble. The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem. They stand frozen before the prospect of writing a poem. It stuns them into being blocked.
Sometimes better structures come to us while we are screwing around.
For example, in the fall of 2008, the stock market crashed. I was not much concerned since I have never had enough money to invest in stock. I felt terrible that venerable businesses went under. I felt worse that other firms were going to plunder what was left, get a bail out from the government, then loan the bail out money back to that same government at three percent interest. It seemed like a crime synidcate scam. I thought of a woman I once saw denied welfare because she had five dollars in a savings account. I just figured Kenneth Burke was right: in terrible times, a man ought to write decent sentences.
So I was sitting around in my bed room, looking out the window, thinking about how my mother used to take my hands and make them do patty cake. I thought of how the nun made us clap out the accents of syllables in second grade. For some reason, they were enthusiastic about the accentual qualities of English. I wrote “clap out love’s syllables. Then I wrote: Stock markets fall.” I did not know what the hell the two had to do with each other, but it was in iambic pentameter (thanks to the nuns) so I continued:
Clap out love’s syllables. Stock markets fall.
The gravity of apples and of gold
has nothing on the way our bodies sprawl
and touch the accent of what we two now hold
both tensed and tendered. Touching, we disdain
all commerce, and all wantonness seems blessed.
So I got this far, and I relaized I was going to write a love sonnet using terms from finance, old and new. “tendered” for example. I continued:
We grope and cop at leisure. We remain
stable in our instability.
To remain stable in instability seemed something devoutly to be wished for at the time, and I liked that I got nine syllables into such a short line, an acatalectic line to make up for the extra syllable of line four. It took place at the volta, the turn, so I thought things were going well. But what was I going to do next? The sentences moved against the lines, muting the rhymes somewhat. I was happy that gold and hold were a noun and verb because I heard the ghost of John Crowe Ransom telling me it is always good if one of the rhyme words is a noun and the other is a verb. I was feeling so good about it that I wrote:
And this is good, and this is good. We kiss
all nipple and thigh pleasured, we descend
to where no share, no bonding gone amiss
can cheat us of a happy dividend.
So I was having fun with the word bonding, and the word dividend. I was using banker’s language in a love poem without implying prostitution. I was being playful, but now I had to write the concluding couplet, and I always hated that part of sonnets– too much like an essay. I’m not good at sewing things up. I’d prefer for them to just scab over, but my knowledge of sonnet form told me I had to recapitulate the pertinent ideas. The main point seemed to be that things fell, but it did not interfere with the love making of the couple who, because they have “fallen” can not fall. So I went with the obvious:
Stocks fall, leaves, fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.
I should have said the “banks” of lust, but I kept changing my mind, and I’m lazy, so I left fields. I wanted lust to be a good thing. I wanted to redeem the lust for life and love from the lust that made stock markets fall. By drifting, I had stumbled upon a sonnet in which I used the words of commerce and banking to speak of love. I was happy. I later thought I chose “fields” for its relation to fall and falling– the f sounds.I looked it over and say instability at the turn did not rhyme with remain. It was accidental genius. I was in full sonnet mode and I would have rhymed, but John Donne’s ghost of oxymoron was upon me, and I said: good. It’s good that the rhyme does not pay of here.
So this is how I wrote a sonnet–by accident, but also by having read hundreds of sonnets, and by knowing the traditions of courtly word play, and by having had nuns who made us clap out syllables obsessively.
A student must learn to let his mind leap among disparate things in order to get at structure, for structure is nothing less than pattern recognition– not the grooves you pre-ordain when you have an idea, but the grooves you discover as you move through the drift of your own mind’s tendencies and trust that, if you let mind drift, then pause a bit, you’ll start to see a pattern emerge.
So I drifted at the beginning of this essay. I trusted that my loneliness for the sea, and fantasy about a camel’s hair coat would produce some sort of structure or metaphor I could hang A post on. And now I leave, pretending I am Fran Sinatra with that jacket draped over my back. A final suggestion: spend the week just jotting down random thoughts. Don’t be a control freak. All thoughts are silly, and unoriginal–including Plato’s. It’s how they are used and structured afterwards. Write them down and don’t get in their way. Then take whatever you know, and recognize patterns in the drift. Make some poems out of that.