OUR MYTH STRATEGY
The myth has been that we are extraordinarily creative
and our odd flare-ups of expression are astoundingly interesting.
This was a crucial nurturing myth in our twenties and thirties
and it felt like breathing air, like having a heart that pumped.
Then in our forties the myth persisted but with a frayed edge,
it became effortful, more willed, sometimes with jaw clenched –
there was belief but also doubt, belief with doubt
but belief enough to fuel further flare-ups and delicious riffs
spiced with pride, tarragon of arrogance indeed . . .
Time kept passing however, strangely
and notwithstanding the triumphs we can list
(we keep listing them, 1-2-3-4-5) we have sensed
in flashes of clarity toward sixty
the decay of the myth – whereupon
we worked up our new strategy
which is to so calmly and sagely imitate
the veteran achiever of persistently astounding interestingness
that a sweet scattering of credulous young persons will believe
and their belief will recharge the myth
just enough for us to feel it lives, it is alive and if so we must be too.
[published in Copper Nickel, Fall 2019]
Some of my best poems have originated in a satirical impulse and then evolved to express a perception more empathetic and sympathetic than we usually expect from satire. The genesis of “Our Myth Strategy” occurred many years ago when I––in my twenties––began to notice a similarity of attitude and manner among my teachers and my older acquaintances who were poets. In my twenties and on into my thirties, I observed how these poets moved through the world; I observed them closely. Naturally I did, because I aspired to be a “real” poet like them, a published poet, an “established” poet. As years passed and I met more of them, I realized that none of these poets older than me felt sufficiently recognized and honored; or, the exceptions—poets of true thorough modesty—were extremely few. Nearly all of the older poets I knew felt unjustly neglected, undervalued; they felt the world (of readers, editors, reviewers, critics) was making a persistent, strange mistake in failing to notice the radiance and depth of their books. Some of these poets could joke about being ignored, about not being famous. But behind the jokes, something else was being conveyed: it was the poet’s belief in his own extraordinary talent––even perhaps his greatness!
(I say “his” because the large majority of the poets I’m thinking of––poets fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years older than me––were male.) When I say that a poet’s belief in his own achievement was being “conveyed,” I mean it was being displayed, in an ongoing effort to make a deep impression. Not that it was unreal; the belief was there. It was sincere, even if more tense and anxious than the believer wanted you to see. But the belief was being performed, it was being made noticeable. The rest of us were meant to take note, to be impressed, and to consider sharing in such a sincere belief.
Such apparent self-belief––in some cases subtle, in some cases blatant––could seem not only sweet but moving in the cases when I thought the believer’s poetry was indeed ambitious, original, profound; or, it could seem absurd if I thought the poetry was derivative, hollow, tedious, pompous, or self-advertising. In the latter cases, over-pumped self-belief on the part of a bad poet presented excellent opportunities for satire. I felt this rather urgently in my twenties and thirties, observing quasi-famous poets in their forties and fifties, and I wrote lots of parodies, spoofs, pastiches, lampoons…
I don’t now feel that I was wrong to do this. (In fact, I still do it occasionally.) Indeed I think a spice of satire is crucial to the health of an art in each era; I know the gambit of satire was crucial to my own mental health as a reader. So I don’t regret having made fun of self-puffed poets. But I did tend to underestimate the human need for self-belief. The project of being a person at all, let alone an artist, year after year, decade after decade, requires a gut-level faith that the project is worthwhile. You wake up in the morning and you need to feel that if you function today in the world as a person with your abilities and your affinities and your personality, this will be basically a good activity. And if you’ve invested thousands of hours in writing poems––poems which ask for the intense attention of readers––then your need to believe in the special value of what you offer––poems, poems, poems that no one has really demanded from you––this need has a special jagged edge.
When I enjoyed tossing hand grenades of satire, in my twenties and thirties and forties, I did not vividly imagine how I would feel when my fifties mysteriously dissolved into my sixties; how I would feel when the brilliant newcomer I understood myself to be at age thirty gazed into the mirror and saw an un-famous un-celebrated odd-colleague-down-the-hall sixty-year-old “poetry professor.”
How should one respond to the realization that one’s artistic achievement has not amazed the world and that one’s life is past the midpoint? Wise answers are easy to articulate: You should remain serious about your work, and seriously respect the work of others, and relinquish all worries about fame. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
But it’s hard for the average ego to follow faithfully that wisdom. One strategy for coping with the midlife anxiety of “Maybe I’m not marvelous?” is to pretend to feel sure of your marvelousness––because if you pretend constantly, steadily, calmly, then other people–– especially younger people (including your students if you teach, as you probably do)––are likely to be convinced. And if enough of them are convinced, year after year, and if their belief in your achievement seems intelligent, then perhaps you yourself will feel a serious shoring up of your own real belief in it––almost putting you back in touch with the sense of vast potential and specialness you felt when you were thirty-five.
If you live out the psychological process I’ve just described, you are not necessarily pathetic. You are very human.
What I’ve said here amounts to a long paraphrase of what my poem “Our Myth Strategy” says in twenty lines. Not that the poem cries out for paraphrase to unpack its knotty difficulty! Unlike many poems, this one is quite transparent; I can hardly imagine a reader finding it puzzling or murky. But to acknowledge this is to run into a vexing question: What is the relation between puzzlement and poeticality?
That is a question I’ve worried about for half a century. We know that for some poets, puzzlement is indispensable to poeticality; a good poem always puzzles the reader. No mystery, no poem! However, I am not, as a matter of “aesthetic” or as a matter of temperament, among the poets who insist on mystery. That is, when I appreciate the element of mysteriousness in a poem, I feel that what I am appreciating is not something injected into it (like a secret sauce), or something indulged in for the sake of impressiveness, but rather something inherent in a deeply tangled truth that the poem has tried hard to clarify.
As a result of that attitude, most of my poems, like “Our Myth Strategy,” have turned out to be easy to paraphrase––all too easy, some of my friends (let alone my enemies!) might say.
At the same time, I do know that a poem wants to come at you with a kind of freshness. To be effective as a poem, it needs to be different in some crucial way from ordinary quotidian utterances and prosaic discourse. One thinks first of such freshness being attained through sound, through diction, through syntax, through form, through metaphor, and through voice. Of course, most poems avail themselves of most or even all of those six sources of vitality. In my writing of poems, I’ve often relied heavily on voice as the element to lift the language out of everyday familiarity. But there is a seventh kind of freshness less easy to pinpoint as something distinct from the six, though it pulses in countless good poems––arguably in all good poems: namely, freshness of thinking.
As examples, I would mention several short poems by D. H. Lawrence, such as “There Are No Gods” or “Lies About Love”; or “The Golf Links” by Sarah Cleghorn; “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers; “Frankly, I Don’t Care” by Tom Lux. You can say something about the rhythm or word-sounds or diction or syntax or shape of these poems, but you won’t be getting at the key to their poetic power; the key is in a jolt of insight. (A jolt of insight can arrive, of course, in prose, so I’m not speaking of a quality “exclusively” poetical; felicities of form, syntax, diction, rhythm, and indeed word-sounds enhance innumerable prose writings too.) The criterion is psychological: poems such as those by Lawrence and Cleghorn linger in the mind and vibrate with the electricity that characterizes poetry.
My poem “Our Myth Strategy” wants to be poetical in that way––to jolt the reader with a truth jarringly clear, in a sense hyper-clear (an effect perhaps analogous to “photorealism” in painting). The poem wants to be a little embarrassing, like someone who deftly cuts through politesse in a social situation and spells out something that is secretly half-obvious to any sharp observer.