Seven notes starting on the back of an envelope
I. Of the new books that I've passed through this year, Richard Hugo's "The Triggering Town" draws me back most often. Hugo writes of a certain kind of restlessness -- the restlessness of discovery, of events or places that trigger compelling ideas. I know what Hugo means when he says that more of his poems are triggered by towns than by the books he's read.
For most of my life, I've been surrounded by people who could spend uninterrupted hours reading a single book. I've never been that way. I've always been prey to a certain restlessness -- the kind that whispers in your ear , after you've been studying for half an hour, "It's time to go inspect that new building going up on the corner."
I used to fight that restlessness. Responsible people, I thought, were supposed to be able to sit still, to study, to listen for long periods of time.
But now, I think, my restlessness is my way of studying, of listening. My mind grows wary when asked to detach itself from my body and live at length through the pages of a book. I am often most still, most at peace, when walking down a city sidewalk.
Sometimes, instead of beginning a book at the beginning, I will open it somewhere towards the middle. I do this most frequently on subways or right out of the bookstore -- places where I have only a moment, but a moment in which I can concentrate intensely. The ideas I find in these moments are often astonishing. They leap out at me with the whole power of the book, triggering in my mind a sequence of thoughts which leave the world behind. Then, in the screeching of the subway's metal flanges on the tracks or a colorful restaurant banner flapping in a breeze, my thinking renegotiates the world.
One day, while journeying home from a week in the Sierra, I had an overwhelming desire to cross the entire state -- from the mountains to the sea -- in a single day. Abandoning the way home, I arrived at the ocean as brilliant dusk set in. I had that peculiar sense of unexpected freedom -- the kind of freedom that one only recognizes after the experience.
How arbitrary are destinations! I could have climbed aboard a boat and set a course westward for who knows where. Even my starting point was only certain in time. I could have claimed to have started ten years ago, in Pennsylvania. Or two years ago in England.
Poems are like journeys. Good poems are restless. They have an opening word and a closing word, but they do not really have a beginning or end. They are an acute glimpse of the continuity of things. They celebrate the continuity of life, good or bad.
Unfortunately, this view of poetry can sound callous. How, after all, can one celebrate suffering? But it's not the suffering that the poet welcomes, but tenderness and compassion -- powers which deeply touch the human spirit, though almost beyond words -- these are what the poet celebrates.
Because direct statement and rationality, or logic, are related, the ideas in poetry are not always interpretable in purely rational terms. But if they are authentic, the readers will say, "I understand." What is finally evident needs no further interpretation.
Poems are like journeys, but they are not the journey itself. A poem about Tuolomne Meadows in October, battened down for the winter, is not the same as the drive through Tuolomne, the moment-by-moment tumult of impressions. What does it mean to write about something? Try as it might, the writing cannot recreate the experience.
But the writing creates something -- something crucial. Without contemplation, the vast array of human activities go by like so many front pages of newspapers. A writer seeks to enable his reader to walk knowingly in the world. He seeks to offer his reader an awareness of the implications of his conscious being in a world whose relation to consciousness is continually being redefined.
What do I think when I re-read my poem about Tuolomne Meadows? I think of being in two places at once: here, months later, at the typewriter, alternately hammering on the keys and looking out over the Boston cityscape; and there, in an ancient Volkswagen, finding the one foodstore stripped of its walls and roof, abandoned for the winter, and realizing an isolation more pure than I had ever hoped for.
A good poem will put me in two places at once. That, I suppose, is a step towards release from the limitations of the single self.
Finally it all comes down to restlessness. In my life I have written hundreds of pages, but I have made thousands of digressions in between. Too much thought finds less and less in common with the things I most admire -- the leaves of a linden tree, the pine cone slowly disappearing in the rising grass, the stone curb worn from countless feet.
Theodore Roethke has written in a poem, "The mind too active is no mind at all." Will I contradict myself if I agree? No, because my restlessness is not the unconscious product of a too-active mind. It is my way of consciously countering a mind that threatens to become too active. For certainly my mind has warned me many times of such dangers.
It's the sensing of these simple things that keeps me in the world I love. These simple things are the triggers for thought that loves the world.