The way some people talk about it, you’d think reading a poem every morning was like swallowing a capsule of cod liver oil: it sharpens your vision, expands your lungs, wards off the plague. It’s a psychic antitoxin. It reconnects you with the world around you. It’s good for you.
I’m not so sure about that. I mean, yeah, okay, it’s true that you can swim around in a great poem and find yourself caught up in a concentrated moment of clarity and stillness. My point is, are concentrated moments of clarity and stillness really what you want in your life? Doesn’t that kind of sound like a recipe for disaster, at least from a career standpoint?
Every time I’m on the commuter train heading into Manhattan and I’m reading a poem and I get hit by that whole clarity-and-stillness thing, I start to wonder why the hell I’m even going to work. All of a sudden I’m like Jim Carrey on the LIRR in that opening scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I need to focus, I need to be on my game, I need to banish any stray and wispy self-undermining impulses, I need to be tidy and sharp and hard, I need to do all these things if I want to realize my ambitions, and yet I want to get off at the next station and hop a train headed in the opposite direction. And look, I can’t do that! I can’t go wandering around a beach contemplating Kate Winslet and the nature of love and memory. I’ve got a family to feed.
The other morning, as I sat yawning on the 8:13 express while plenty of good, responsible Americans around me got on their handheld devices and started pecking out important instructions to their underlings and real estate agents, I came across a short poem by Robert Bly, a haunting four-liner called “Watering the Horse.”
“How strange to think of giving up all ambition!” Bly writes in the poem. “Suddenly I see with such clear eyes / The white flake of snow / That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!”
At first I thought: Yes! He’s right! Clear eyes! Look around: There’s the wake of a Canadian freighter on the surface of the Hudson River, the summer-green cliffs of the Palisades, the blur of cars on the George Washington Bridge.
Then I thought: Jesus, what am I doing? I’ve got work to do. Why am I contemplating this river-and-cliff stuff? I ought to be on my handheld device tapping away important instructions to somebody; otherwise I’ll look lazy. And I don’t even own a handheld device! Focus, damn it! Look, I’m happy for Mr. Bly that he’s got time to think about horses and snowflakes, but I’m guessing property taxes in Minnesota are a lot lower than they are here in Westchester County. Giving up all ambition is not an option for me. If I don’t stay on the ball, I’m doomed.
All of those how-to-succeed-in-business books tell you that you’ve got to be “proactive” when it comes to personal advancement, but I don’t feel very proactive when I’m reading poetry. I don’t feel active at all. The British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg once put out an album called Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, and the truth of the matter is built right into that title: You can’t. I’ve tried. The taxman looks at you as though you’re crazy. (People always talk about how tax forms are hard to understand? Well, they’re a cakewalk compared to anything by Joshua Clover.)
Anyway, this is exactly why poetry’s starting to worry me. Because the more I read poems like “Watering the Horse,” the more I crave them. Before you know it, “Watering the Horse” has led to Wallace Stevens and his blackbirds, and William Carlos Williams and his plums in the icebox, and Kay Ryan and her hailstorm, and Allen Ginsberg and his supermarket in California, and Mary Oliver and her blackberries, and Galway Kinnell and his blackberries (what is it about blackberries?), and Wordsworth gazing at London from the Westminster Bridge. Before you know it, there are entire 20-minute blank-out sessions on that morning express train when I’m not paying attention to whether the fund allocation in my 401(k) is aggressive enough, or whether my four-year-old daughter is on the fast track to the Ivy League, or whether my boss still sees me as a crucial part of the team.
And that’s a problem. Because really, if you’re not paying close attention to that stuff every minute of the day, you’re not going to get ahead.
Why we continue to have a National Poetry Month in this country is a mystery to me, because if everybody really did read and write and listen to a ton of poetry in a single month, American productivity would go down the drain, and our economy’s already got enough trouble as it is. Commuters would be blowing off their morning trains and pulling over to the side of the highway to look at shafts of sunlight on the sides of office buildings. Cubicle drones, spellbound by Sylvia Plath, would be calling in sick with that old 24-hour-stomach-virus excuse. The stock market would flatline.
Lately I’ve been trying to apply some reasonable limits to my poetry consumption. I don’t want it to get out of hand. If we’re talking about general parameters, I guess I try to keep in mind Frank O’Hara and his “lunch poems.” Maybe if I can just streamline things so that I’m thinking about poetry only when I go across the street to get a plate of chicken tikka masala for lunch, I’ll be okay. In fact, just last week I flipped to O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them,” in which he slips out of an office somewhere (“It’s my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk. . . .”) and muses on the swarm of Times Square at noon: the hot sun, the neon, the cheeseburgers, the magazine stands.
O’Hara seems to have the right idea. Go ahead and take your little walk around the block, sure, but don’t wander too far. A guy wants to keep his job, right? Yeah, I think I’m going to have to look at my whole poetry fixation the way O’Hara puts it toward the end of the poem: “A glass of papaya juice / and back to work.”