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The Occasional Curse of the Duty-write
The duty-read is slogged through easily enough and usually for good reasons: sometimes one needs to finish a book so that one can cross it off a list or take a test or assure an uncle or aunt (with the proof of knowledge of specific passages) that his or her gift of literature was a great choice. But the duty-write is another inconvenience altogether. If your love of writing poetry is a matter of public record – i.e. if your family and friends know there’s a poet among them – you may be familiar with this phenomenon. It occurs when a friend or family member asks you if you will write a poem for a wedding, say, or some other red-letter event. TV’s Carrie Bradshaw, writer and sex columnist, must deal with a duty-write in an episode of Sex and the City, and she’s not even known as a poet.
Of course, the request to write a poem isn’t, in-and-of-itself, an inconvenience or even an imposition. Such requests are flattering. What’s more, a commission from some source other than a muse or MFA instructor can free up a poet, provide a precise focus, a real-world deadline, a license to make lines.
But while it’s nice to be thought of enough by a loved one to be asked to write some poetry, your typical loved one likely doesn’t want the kind of poetry you would prefer to write. (And while said loved one may own your book, it’s a safe bet the book’s spine is still pretty smooth.) Your fractured verse narratives or free verse collages or guttural sound poems (wonderful as they may be) are not wanted at most weddings. Something that goes ‘abab’ – for good or bad – is often the ticket. But even then there can’t be too many references to shadows and lost innocence, to baby birds pecking their desperate way out of eggshell. I was privileged enough to write a poem for my high school graduation, but the anguished free verse I ultimately read to the assembled students and their camcorder-hefting parents was, I now realize, too moody, too prickly, too turned in on itself – not unlike myself at the time; not unlike Madero, the young poet in Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (which, at times, is less a remarkable novel than an anthropological study of poet behaviours – the mating rituals, the migration patterns, etc.). You may recall that Madero is a poet for but a brief time when he accepts a waitress’ commission to write a poem for her. “‘Consider it done,’” he says. “‘One of these days I promise you I will.’” But she wants the poem immediately. Madero tries to explain that one “can’t just write a poem that way, on the spot.” He’s too young a poet to understand that human needs and public occasions don’t have time to wait on inspiration.
Still, at least Bradshaw and Madero write their respective poems. Some time ago a friend of mine found a half-brother she’d never met. The friend, who doesn’t read poetry, asked if I could compose some lines for her to give to the half-brother, as a gesture of goodwill. I was flattered, but turned down the gig. I figured, perhaps condescendingly, that she just wanted some homemade Hallmark verse, and anyway I was (I rationalized to myself) too busy. Now I realize I was being arrogant, ungrateful, and (worst of all for a poet) complacent. I should’ve accepted the challenge, for my own sake as much as for hers. When we automatically assume that poetry can’t speak to the non-specialists we chloroform and gag an entire art form. And we take ourselves way too seriously. My failure to write the half-brother his poem was mine, not poetry’s.
Not everyone fails the occasion. George Johnston, the neglected Canadian who wrote lovely occasional poems, didn’t drag himself to the duty of writing them but, rather, rose to it. Indeed, every now and then, an occasional poem manages to plant both hands firmly on the tiles and pull itself, gleaming-wet, out of its occasion. But we usually just call these victories ‘poems.’ They may start life as duty-writes but they are anything but duty-reads.