I've never been able to verify it, but Richard Wilbur is supposed to have said --on the subject of writing poetry in the midst of World War II -- that all one needs is "a pencil, a piece of paper, and a trench." If this quotation is apocryphal, then I apologize to Mr. Wilbur (after all, trenches gave way to foxholes in world War II, which makes the attribution suspicious); but I want to say a few words about the quotation nonetheless. The "pencil" and "piece of paper" are good reminders that writing is a craft of symbolism, often using the simplest tools to convey the most extraordinary ideas. But the word "trench" mainly concerns me: it grows more meaningful as I grow older.
Although Mr. Wilbur clearly did not mean the word metaphorically, it becomes metaphorical for writers like me who have never fought a war. What does "a trench" connote for me? Uneasy protection; a marginally secure, uncomfortable spot; isolation; a locus of reflection in the midst of chaos. But most of all, it suggests an attitude -- a willingness to appreciate the insecurity within everyday life, and to seek the creative force of that challenge.
The funny thing about this metaphorical meaning is that it seems, in some ways, the opposite of the literal meaning. If one takes Wilbur literally, one can immediately identify the battlefield and trench. The battlefield is where soldiers fight; the trench is where, in the midst of great physical danger, they seek protection. Metaphorically, however, the "battlefield" is surprising. It turns out to be ordinary, daily life. The experiences that seem least threatening --meetings, errands, lawn mowing -- may actually be right in the thick of the battle. For this battle isn't waged with physical violence but rather with the calm seductions of mundane activity. The trench, then, is not a shelter from the storm, but a shelter from this subtle seduction. In these metaphorical terms, the trench is a private place in the heart, or a "back shop of the mind" (to quote Montaigne) where one allows oneself to probe the difficult or sublime regions of experience. This is both a secure and an insecure place. It is secure in its honesty: it confirms the worth of one's quest for knowledge, insight, inspiration. It is insecure in its constant confrontation with the unknown --the complex problem or pain, the deep, unanswered question.
I need the bare, uncomfortable shelter a trench affords when I suddenly find myself ambushed. The very serenity of my life lays a trap for me: it makes me complacent, pleased with myself, unwilling to risk unsettling insight or failure. The ambush may come at any time. I may be sitting in a library, reading some obscure volume to enhance my understanding of a celebrated one. Or I may be walking along the sidewalk on a sunny day. Suddenly I'll feel it: some deep part of myself lulled to sleep, some fine sympathy with the world no longer there, some dullness setting in. I've been ambushed -- part of me taken without a struggle.
In these times I metaphorically dig myself one of Wilbur's trenches. I write poems to signify previously untried nuances of thought, risking nonsense, willing to hammer away at obscurity if I sense there a kernel of real insight. I look for specific ways of reestablishing my most fragile links with the world -- links of compassionate understanding. I confront myself with some incomprehensible dimension of human life, and attempt to make a small particle of it comprehensible. I spar with failure. I realize that my attempts to clarify the world will not always succeed, because they rest on my understanding of myself, which is still rudimentary. The foolishness I sometimes think and write reflects the unexplored dimensions of myself; but it also directs me into those regions, giving me new places to illumine.
These encouragements of the trench are all valuable. But perhaps the most powerful insecurity of the trench is the respectful climate it offers one's imagination. Unadorned with the comforts of accumulated civilization, inhospitable yet necessary, the trench turns one away from what has already been done toward what is utterly undefined. The imagination's ability to inject itself into the full range of life becomes an ally; no domain that aids the flowering of the human spirit is forbidden. In this trench of the mind, one can reinvest even ordinary things with the finest feelings; from this trench one defends the world, as William Carlos Williams does in "The Locust Tree in Flower": Among of green stiff old bright broken branch come white sweet May again
This poem could not have been written from a sense of the dull sameness of the world. Eluding the ambush of mundaneness, the poem arises from the trench of keen observation and love. Originating in risk -- the risk of a new form, an unexpected method -- it offers the gift of renewal.
With this understanding of Wilbur's trench, one needs courage and alacrity --courage to foray into the unknown, and alacrity to record the power and virtue of the unknown in ways that can be shared. Though not a comfortable place, the trench is the genesis of discovery. It symbolizes the fulfilling risks of daring.