Essay

The Five-Minute Muse

George Oppen, Gabriel Gudding, and Campbell McGrath: The off-the-cuff art of the poet's notebook.

by Levi Stahl

Illustration by Mahendra Singh

Despite the best intentions, poets cannot spend every waking moment writing poetry. Life and the stuff of the world are always conspiring against them, offering up laundry to be folded, garlic to be minced, blogs to be read, children to be dressed. But all the while, the mind races; what is one to do with its scattered, variegated fruits, what poet Gabriel Gudding calls “[m]y many many 5 minute ideas”?

Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers
By George Oppen
Edited by Stephen Cope
University of California Press, 296 pp., $19.95

Rhode Island Notebook
By Gabriel Gudding
Dalkey Archive, 456 pp., $12.50

Seven Notebooks: Poems
By Campbell McGrath
Ecco Press, 240 pp., $23.95
Often, they go into a notebook. A poet’s notebook can be many things: a quiet rehearsal space, a commonplace book, a tinderbox, an ongoing conversation with one’s peers and influences. Most of all, though, it is an ally in the fight against time’s inevitable losses, a hold-all for the fleeting impressions that help the poet eventually attempt to put the world into words. In his new Seven Notebooks, Campbell McGrath writes, “Surges and lulls, work and family, almost a month since my last notebook entry: if I didn’t write it down, did it really happen? The year is vanishing; time floods past; it burns us, it heals us, irradiating every cell in our bodies, like starlight.” Some of the lines thus jotted down may later turn up in finished poems; others, stripped for the kernel of an idea, may contribute obliquely; still others may eventually be revealed to be inert, unusable. But taken as a whole the notebook’s contents form a companion to the published work. To read a poet’s working notebook is to peek under the hood of the poetry: though it doesn’t let us see exactly how the thing works, we can at least identify some of the moving parts.

The daybooks of George Oppen (1908–1984), recently published in Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, are a model of that sort of notebook. These five small, handmade volumes, bound by Oppen himself from assorted materials (nail, pipe cleaners, paste, glue), present a scattershot but comprehensible account of the poet’s interests and concerns throughout his most fertile period, from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Editor Stephen Cope has chosen to exclude the many minor variants of Oppen’s published poetry that recur in the daybooks, but the remaining pages are nonetheless littered with words, phrases, and ideas that would turn up in Oppen’s work. In Daybook II, for example, we see Oppen working through variations on a line about faith and human existence. He begins with “I think it probable that man cannot long exist without faith—I think it possible that man will not exist forever,” then takes it a step further (“We really have no hope of faith, and hardly a hope of doubt. Therefore, hardly hope”), before returning to a formulation closer to his original: “Possible indeed that human life cannot long exist without faith—it is probable that human life will not exist forever.” Ultimately the thought would come to rest in the poem “That Land,” taking this form:
Whereas we have won doubt
From the iron itself

And hope in death. So that
If a man lived forever he would outlive
Hope. [. . .]

In Daybook III, Oppen describes that very process of finding the right phrasing: “The poem: correcting, one hears a line or a word as wrong, as against some idea of the good, the perfect—Correcting word by word, line by line, toward a concept which you hold, and have never experienced ?” Some lines never reach that ideal—and here and there the notebooks also include lines, or even entire brief poems, that never saw the light in Oppen’s published work, yet are memorable nonetheless, like this untitled fragment:
The sunset; madness
to deny
Our involvement
In all this all events, and insanity
To believe it.

The daybooks served Oppen as more than just workbooks. In them he also recorded his thoughts about contemporary politics and the place of art; what he was reading, which largely consisted of philosophy; and biting, epigrammatic opinions—including amusing dismissals of The New Yorker (“They used to advise young men to avoid gambling, drink and women. / And they were probably right in their time. But the single most important thing in the world today is not to read the New Yorker.”) and New York itself (“The advantage of NY—one is perfectly sure that it exists, because it is brutally ugly”). They were also a place for Oppen to work out his thoughts about other poets, as when he sets Keats against William Carlos Williams: “—even Keats feeling that he had to say something ‘profound’—Keats weakening—writes Beauty is truth truth beauty—If it were true, the line would be beautiful, and it is not. It is not in any case how poetry makes ‘meaning’ The meaning of Williams’s poetry, for example, is that life is not valuable only when it can be sentimentalized or only when it can be generalized.” All indications are that Oppen returned to his daybooks again and again over the years, adding, altering, and harvesting.

Whereas Oppen’s daybooks were private, working journals, two recent titles by contemporary poets, Campbell McGrath’s aforementioned Seven Notebooks and Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook, take a different form: they present the notebook as memory book. Both writers aim to capture a bounded span of time—for McGrath, a year in the peripatetic life of a poet-teacher; for Gudding, thousands of miles of repeated road trips—yet the results, in both style and tone, could hardly be more different.

Though the mix of haiku, free verse, quotations, and prose in Seven Notebooks mimics the motley of a notebook, in reality it is a book of polished poetry. Whereas Oppen’s notebook is rife with crossed-out words and phrases, McGrath’s gives the sense less of cross-outs than of erasures, the correct word finally decided on, the incorrect ones silently discarded. Even in the casual grace of its most journal-like entries, the book feels worried-over, honed. McGrath seems to acknowledge as much here and there, as in a haiku (“The Beach”) where even incompleteness is metrically sound:
Sand castles, low tide
throwing footballs in the waves—
need another line.

Regardless, the conceit of the notebook suits McGrath. His poetry tends to celebrate fortunate moments of awareness and rewarded attention; a notebook provides an excuse to invest even the relatively mundane scenes of everyday life with a glory they deserve because of their very ephemerality:
Like reading Rilke as the snow comes down
past the streetlight in the alley, a magical theater,
a dome of sacred inconsequence, the world
moving through its circle of illumination and passing on
as snow, falling. Still falling. Then fallen.

Though McGrath’s poetry teems with life, its effort to hold fast to time’s slippery essence ultimately gives it an air of quiet resolve, forever frustrated. Of some monkeys in a theme park, McGrath asks, “Could they feel the current of time / swirling past and around them?” McGrath writes from the pull of that current, and Seven Notebooks is his anticipatory elegy for all it sweeps before it.

Rhode Island Notebook, on the other hand, is an effort to create something worth remembering out of time that would otherwise barely exist: the pallid emptiness of long-distance driving. Between the fall of 2002 and the end of 2004, Gudding made the 1,099-mile drive between his home in Normal, Illinois, and that of his wife and daughter in Providence, Rhode Island, twenty-six times. As he drove, he scribbled down what seems to be every passing thought. In the solitude of his perpetually moving “road island,” Gudding’s mind ranges freely, sweeping up road signs (“Thank you for Visiting Ohio 5:48 am”), biological imperatives (“7:10-:35 PM EST ate & peed”), the occasional lively appearance of animals (“A / small flock of starlings, perhaps / 30 birds in toto crashes / east to west across the sky”), and even a quotation from George Oppen (“My daughter, my daughter, what can I say / of living?”) into a staggering cascade of words, a census with no organizing principle except that offered by the passage of time and miles. From the welter of words, however, themes emerge: Gudding’s anger at the jingoism surrounding the start of the Iraq War, as displayed by the suddenly omnipresent American flags on the SUVs he passes; his sadness and frustration about his failing marriage; his tenuous hold on sobriety. The inexplicable ping-ponging of thought dominates: strikingly rendered images—
[. . .] in the Winter
willows are as jumprope afros, they are
as vegetal dreadlocks

—butt up against disquisitions on dung or Nancy Reagan’s nipples; a seemingly heartfelt wish to be more accepting (“always happy / to leave Indiana. / I wish I had more / compassion in me, I wish I had / less judgment head”) instantly gives way to political frustration (“Let us build A creek over it / and wash Away republicans”). Strings of numbers—mile markers, interchanges, gallons—are directly prompted by the road, but other lines are of less obvious origin, bringing to mind a phrase of Oppen’s daybooks: “The peculiar attributes of words is that they spring spontaneously in the mind, they flow continuously in the mind. They provide, if not hope, at least opacity.” It is all turned into words, and thus preserved.

There’s plenty of dross in Rhode Island Notebook. Were the book to be picked over as raw material for finished poems rather than presented as a whole, very few of its 436 pages would survive. Yet as the book progresses, and our hours on the road with Gudding add up, the mess of language begins to acquire a surprising emotional force. If McGrath’s project is to hold on to scenes and moments, Gudding’s is to clutch at microseconds. Individually, they may seem valueless, but strung end to end they are our days—and his account of them is wearing and maddening and scatological and, ultimately, admirable.

Gudding has hit upon the essence of the poet’s notebook: a poet keeps it by his side just in case a solitary word or phrase, darting through the mind today with nothing in its train, may turn out to be just what one needs to properly understand tomorrow. McGrath offers apt advice in Seven Notebooks: “If I have learned one thing about art it is this: do not question the muse. Take what is offered.” And write it in your notebook.
Originally Published: May 14, 2008

COMMENTS (10)

On May 14, 2008 at 4:39pm Majid Naficy wrote:
I would rather read the finished poems than poets' raw materials. Yes; You write "The Waste Land" and I will be happy to read Eliot's first draft and Ezra Pound's corrections and notes.

On May 14, 2008 at 9:33pm Nick wrote:
I would rather have both; Eliot's first attempts and Pound's "corrections." They have nothing to do, at any rate, with the books Stahl writes about. Gudding's book is a record, limited by time and space, but my guess is the mind recording has practiced, over the countless miles, how to record in this way. It's a fine book, Naficy, one that documents a progression at the same time it documents a regression, and if there is dead space therein, there are also moments of real beauty. Worth a look, indeed.

On May 16, 2008 at 6:22pm rb wrote:
daybooks and notebooks and commonplace books are the working studios of poetry (as are now some blogs, and in my case, post-it notes replacing the index cards of the past)

i want to peruse all these books-

On May 18, 2008 at 10:45am Ken Ishikawa wrote:
When people say "body of poetry" upon looking at a book which collects all the written poems of a deceased poet, it feels like the poetry has ended. On the other hand, for some it may just very well be the beginning if they were obscure when they were alive because here we are being part of their poetry. The bound polished volume in the shelf is just a by product and the poems in it are just seeds. Poetry also exists in the in-betweens of works in there. Maybe that's what the notebooks treat us to: the secret life of poems.

On May 19, 2008 at 10:22pm Gary Barwin wrote:
In Rhode Island Notebook, Gudding has turned 'raw materials' into poems. The messy, emotional, raw, polished, bon mots, mon bots, passing fancy and fancy passings are the ingredients of a book created with a highly polished, considered, and deliberate intent. Just because it purports to be made of scribblings -- and even if it is -- doesn't mean that we shouldn't read it as if each meandering, each seeming irrelevance, each astounding image, data detritus or deity, is carefully presented for our sophisticated reading. This is vivid consciousness writ long and unfiltered.

On May 20, 2008 at 3:28pm k rogers wrote:
Just how did Gudding drive and scribble at the same time? I've tried it--dangerous!

Maybe a small recorder? Take a stenographer?

On May 21, 2008 at 11:18pm Linda G. wrote:
Thank you for this article. Our poet's notebooks capture our innate and often incomplete poetic nature. They profess an intimate connection between life and work and illustrate our struggle and desire to create meaning and form. I appreciate the process as much, if not more, than the outcome since success and failure are relative.

On May 22, 2008 at 5:17pm Michael M. wrote:
After a poetry reading I gave, this gentleman asked to read my notebook. I scratched my head and suddenly felt very exposed, realizing how uncomfortable I was with such an intimate act.... reading my notebook. Good thing surgeons can't check out your memories while they got your brain open, or I'd never get brain surgery!

On May 22, 2008 at 7:46pm Levi Stahl wrote:
K. Rogers,

God knows--I tried and tried to imagine it, but I can't. I can barely scroll my iPod while driving.

Gary,

I'm sure you're right: Gudding's notebook, despite being composed on the fly, differs from the notebook that would be composed in that situation by someone who didn't make a life of thinking about words and the way they work. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to come up with such gems as this description of the moon:

Still very dark

Moon now outsized bloated

and sandstone colored

Now piss yellow & snagging

in the bare spring trees

Every now and then it crashes

into a hill.

And drags along the earthlit floor

like an anchor

catching in brambles and at bridges.

We all see the moon when driving; who among us imagines its dragging progress across a resistant landscape?

But at the same time, there is a substantial component of his book that is primarily marking of time: drove this far, hit these exits, stopped at this rest stop. And that's not a bad thing: it's part of what lends force to the occasional lines that really make a reader sit up and take notice.

On September 28, 2008 at 11:08am Meghan Brinson wrote:
Poet's notebooks are particularly useful for poetry students and teachers of creative writing--they show a life the mind that extends past the moment of writing--the most difficult thing to teach. Excerpts from real notebooks are useful for this lesson--but these metanotebooks have the weight of the work of writing visible in their text--a useful lesson/reminder for teacher and student.

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Biography

Levi Stahl is the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press. He has reviewed books for the Chicago Reader and the Bloomsbury Review, and he blogs at I've Been Reading Lately. He roots for the Cardinals, but he finds a place in his heart for the Cubs as well.

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