Grasshoppers: A Notebook
We are not instinctive creatures. We’re born with no knowledge of the behaviors we require to survive. There’s a river of oblivion through which each generation passes, and coming out the other side we piece ourselves together. In America right now this process seems to occur with tremendous force and speed. Even the old ritual in which a generation finds itself, as in the music of the sixties, appears to have dissolved. Many of us barely understand one another’s music. So often empty, the cinemas themselves feel outdated. The truest image of the moviegoer has become the solitary traveler with his tray table down, his headphones snug, and a DVD on his laptop.
When the popular culture has become so thin and scattered, the prospects for subtler art forms can seem downright bleak. The poet must live with the voice of despair, forever insisting that the truth is obvious: attempting to write poems in America right now, even among the marvelous wealth and opportunity, means to awake to isolation.
And yet a chance for the art lies in this same state. Writing about Sappho in the middle of the last century, the German classicist Bruno Snell claimed isolation as the very condition of lyric:
Though the individual who detaches himself from his environment severs many old bonds, his discovery of the dimension of the soul once more joins him in company with those who have fought their way to the same insight. The isolation of the individual is, by the same token, the forging of new bonds.
That last sentence makes a crucial point: according to Snell, loneliness and alienation do not exist as rites of passage that a poet endures before the fact, but as formative elements of the work itself; and in our society these states are not only the elements of the poet’s art, but the reality of the world and of all the other people around her. So maybe to see isolation as a purely contemporary phenomenon is a kind of self-pity. It’s certainly there in Dickinson and Frost and Stevens, that sense of a precipitous depth behind the poem, that starkness that gives profile and dimension to their voices and also establishes their poems as real things existing in the world. That feeling of sublime aloneness might have arisen in response to a historical truth, but it will remain palpable when the best poems of today are read in the lunar condominiums of the future.
Here’s a quote from the painter Philip Guston:
Where do you put a form? It will move all around, billow out and shrink, and sometimes it winds up where it was in the first place. But at the end it feels different, and it had to make that voyage. I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.
When I read this years ago it seemed instantly true, and it reverberated for me as a prescriptive. Guston’s quotation tangled in my mind with Robert Lowell’s statement about “revising and revising so that each word and rhythm though not perfect is wrestled with.” If all of the best art has roots in psychic pain, I wanted those roots in plain view, wanted their streaks of moist soil, their raggedness.
These tendencies still have force for me. But I’ve come to value the various ways a work can be “lived through.” For example, if I had looked ten years ago at the paintings of Fairfield Porter or read the poems of James Schuyler, they might have registered as “merely pleasant” or “slapdash.” I might have missed the creaturely alertness, the way tremulousness becomes strength in their work.
It’s not gravity that shows a form has been “lived through.” Gravity might distinguish successful art (as in the cases of Lowell and Guston at their best) but it can also lead to portentousness and sensationalism. The true test comes from discerning, in both individual tones and structural wholes, if a work does or doesn’t carry the pulse of animal intelligence.
One of the “special features” on the DVD of the movie Open Water shows how the camera crew filmed the scenes where schools of sharks swarm the two stranded scuba divers. Thirty feet or so from the boat, the actors bobbed, reciting their lines while the captain threw hunks of chicken to either side of them. Almost instantly the sharks materialized. Slicing left then right, they sometimes smacked the actors with their tails as they gobbled the meat.
Open Water isn’t a great movie. But what a parable about the creative process that “special feature” provides! In an odd reversal of usual filming, the real life situation feels much more treacherous than the comparably subtle clips the editors excerpted. The finished movie insists on style: you sense the directors wanted to capture the desolate wash of blues as much as the jugular drama. But if they toned down the actual violence of that scene, by razoring out all but a few tails and fins, they also intensified and distilled it. They let the moment reach its full sensory potential, then stopped.
For all of its signs of health, American poetry often seems at risk of becoming a guild system. You meet so many poets these days who talk with much more gusto about their “careers” than about the art itself. Spend a few minutes online and you can witness this strain in full force. You’d think that the very word “blog” would send a poet running for cover. Not so. Or maybe if you were a technophile, you’d expect the format to create something like those ebullient coffee houses of Restoration England where the underground lampoons passed hand to hand. Not so either. Instead, the you-know-whats (I can’t type that word again) spew down the screen with a kind of poisoned earnestness.
Could these writers really have such little felt experience outside of “the poetry world?” A poet who faults Robert Frost for being a dead white heterosexual male (what subtlety) moans about his rejection slips. Then a successful poet writes in to offer advice. It’s not tough to catch the pomposity behind his professions of humility:
My poem, ‘Vespers,’ was rejected 7 times before it was taken by The Southern Review. That same poem went on to be included in Best American Poetry. My poem, ‘Sotto Voce,’ was rejected 38 times.... In fact, 42% of my poems have gone out 18 times or more before being accepted!
Forty-two percent! Studying your own CV seems narcissistic enough. But when you find yourself reviewing your publishing record with a calculator, you know it’s time to look for help. And how about keeping up online with such people? Jesus, I’d better turn off this machine right now. Needlepoint or elk hunting, miniature golf or doll house decoration: anything’s better.
Reading Dryden’s translations of Juvenal, I’m amazed not by the exquisite technique but by something quite the opposite. More than Johnson’s translation of Juvenal in “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” and more even than Robert Lowell’s version, these poems are propulsive. In fact, they move with such speed that they feel nearly out of control. Couplet after couplet locks into place, while the larger structure remains amorphous. The poems resemble nothing so much as the profane monologues of a drunk. (Sloppy group sex seems a particular fascination of the poet’s.) But it’s not the subject matter that intrigues. Who, after all, cares about two-thousand-year-old gossip? No, these poems succeed by the sheer force of their scurrility.
The greatest risk for any poet absorbed in the act of writing a poem is the loss of nerve. Many things can cause this, but chief among them remains convention, that ubiquitous goop that shows up in poems as the stock performance of emotion or the tidy notation of good sense. By foreswearing good manners, Juvenal loses a good deal: in the entire terrain of human feeling, he cultivates a very narrow swath. But his weird blend of disgust and glee, of stateliness and ferocity allows him to accomplish incredible feats of poetic stamina. He lurks there in the history of literature, flouting all the codified behaviors that construct our poetic conventions.
Flying above America, especially at night, there’s a feeling that comes as the plane descends. The lights of the parkways and stadiums, the municipal reservoirs and oil terminals appear for an instant in minute particular. Then, with some small shift of the atmosphere or of the retina itself, they become mysterious glowing shapes again.
That moment enthralls me in part because it duplicates how form operates in a poem. Guiding the intellect and senses, form presents the detailed textures of the world and the language with renewed attentiveness. At the same time, form gets us lost: it pulls us away from our habits of perception and shows us the weird, architectonic base of design. We’re made to ask: what is this thing we live inside?
Wordsworth intuited this dual process in his Preface of 1815, when he explained his conception of meter. In no other action, he maintained, does the imagination “more delight than in that of consolidating numbers into unity, and dissolving and separating unity into number,—alternations proceeding from, and governed by, a sublime consciousness of the soul in her own mighty and almost divine powers.”
Whether or not you accept Wordsworth’s spiritualism, this description stands as a model of poetic intelligence. In one sentence it shows how technique means nothing unless it carries us to that space where sensation and thought weave together to create our individual perceptions, to allow us to apprehend significance. This is where we live when we’re most alive.
We’re made to associate “narrative” with tradition, with a belief in ordered, collective standards. “Lyric,” on the other hand, conjures the spontaneous flight of an individual imagination. Such assumptions carry some truth. But there’s another side to this Janus Gate. Narrative can be an odd invertebrate, working simply by beguiling our attention as it moves from here to there, like a snake in the grass. Lyric so often depends on a rhetorical armature.
And at times the two collide. I mean, for instance, the abrupt shift that occurs when Frost ends “The Most of It” with his emphatic “and that was all.” It almost sounds as if the storytelling has failed: “and that was all” might simply be a more brusque way of saying “Well, I guess you had to be there.” The narrative structure breaks down. But instead of foundering, the poem takes a vertiginous swoop from the logic of narrative to some sheer, unaccountable pathos.
It’s a trick that Frost learned in large part from Wordsworth, who employed it in poems like “The Ruined Cottage,” and in several sections of “The Prelude.” Still, I think Frost’s mixture of narrative and lyric has an uniquely American aspect. The man who “thought he kept the universe alone,” for all his painful alienation, keeps good company in our literature. Consider Hawthorne’s minister behind the black veil, or Robinson’s Richard Corey who inexplicably “Went home and put a bullet through his head.” We Americans tend to locate true significance in a wilderness far behind the veneer of gregariousness and good cheer for which we’re known.
And yet the segue between narrative and lyric can work the other way too. Think of the long poems that C.K. Williams began writing in the seventies, poems that branch out beyond the limits of the lyric “I” to consider enormous world events, even while they remain grounded in the poet’s private reveries and agonies. A recent poem called “The Hearth,” for example, begins with a bleaker version of Coleridge’s solitude in “Frost at Midnight”: the poet sits at the fireside in a house in the country and muses on a paper cup he’s thrown into the fire. This private moment leads him to the story of a Vietnam veteran’s horrific wounds from a napalm shell. That short narrative has an aggressively public resonance, especially since the poem has begun with the phrase “After the news... ” and has been dated “February 2003.” But as the second and final section of the poem begins, before the poet turns to the war about to begin in Iraq, something remarkable happens. Here are the first two quatrains:
There was dying here tonight, after
dusk, by the road: an owl,
eyes fixed and flared, breast
so winter-white he seemed to shine
a searchlight on himself, helicoptered
near a wire fence, then suddenly
banked, plunged, and vanished
into the swallowing dark with his prey.
That sentence has a galvanizing force: it brings the inner life of the poet together with the war that lies beyond him, and blends them together into the eerie incandescence of the owl itself. This is the same structure that appears on a larger scale in the poem as Williams modulates between the meditative lyrical voice and the voice of narration.
Such a hybrid form seems present in so much of the most ambitious American poetry right now. It allows the poet a way to reflect the truth of the individual’s relation to the manifold world, and also to transmute that relation. In addition to Williams, poets as different as Frank Bidart, W.S. Di Piero, Mary Kinzie, J.D. McClatchy, James McMichael, Robert Pinsky, Alan Shapiro, Tom Sleigh, Rosanna Warren, Alan Williamson, and Anne Winters come to mind. Whatever their worldly successes may be, these poets have largely been ignored by scholars. When they finally get the critical attention they deserve, when someone comes to write the book about them, he or she will need to begin in that borderland between narrative and lyric.
Driving home across the San Mateo Bridge after the blowout of teaching all week, I listen to the Borromeo String Quartet play Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, op. 133. The liner notes tell how the piece was first performed in 1826 as the final movement of his Quartet op. 130. Yet the audience was so befuddled that the composer agreed with his publisher to issue the fugue on its own. You can certainly hear why: no sooner does the delightful scherzo begin, no sooner do those sinuous phrases glide off the viola of Mai Motobuchi, than Beethoven cuts them short. Listening to this piece feels at times like being whipped by four horsehair bows. There is probably more appropriate music for relaxing while catching the tangerine smudges on San Francisco Bay.
But I keep attuned. And it’s not that old platitude about great art being uncomfortable that holds me. It’s that more and more, maybe as a dedication to change in my own work, I’ve become obsessed with art that empties out traditional forms. I mean art that achieves its greatest sophistication from simplicity. The forms act as relief, setting off the pure oddness of those deepest structures of feeling the artist perceives. Somehow familiarity allows the artist to come to the edge of his or her certainty and then step past it. When Beethoven establishes the two themes of a fugue he returns the listener to known territory. But when his piece reaches the final notes, and those contrapuntal modes seem to fight to the finish, you sense that, far from resolving the tensions, the composer has drawn each of them down to their ultimate depth.
Something like this process occurs in writing poems. It seems to me that true originality comes from a return to origins. The poet needs to attend to the most basic tasks of writing (“get that next tetrameter line”) and to the barest questions which hover behind those tasks (“what happens when we die?”). However messy or polished the surface of the poem may be, I’m convinced that only in remaining true to the sub-vocal nonsense and the discontinuous mental jump cuts that occur at such moments can the poet discover a path to new and vivacious structures. The alternative is becoming one of those writers who recycles the same formulas again and again.
Out of all the creative writing patois, the phrase “finding your voice” rankles me the most. To my ear it seems to prescribe the therapeutic performance of emotion; and that performance constitutes not artwork but personality. Certainly a poet wants to register intonation, modulations of tone, those inflected snippets of meaning that Frost calls “sentence sounds.” And often a poet finds these textures in previously unexplored regions of personal experience. But at the same time, such a process involves entering the social traffic of language, where we lose ourselves. Nothing could be farther from the cultivation of a persona. What an obnoxious aspiration! The EPA should send fleets of crop dusters above the poetry summer camps to spray for this menace.
“Why write poems anyhow?” The moment when poets arrive at that bedrock conundrum enthralls me. In particular, I’m fascinated by the way this reckoning occurs differently for different poets.
In my own case, the response takes the form of an image from childhood. The rows of houses climbing the hill where we lived hover above my gaze like a spectral oasis. Interrupting the blear of suburban winter, those facades stand as a promising threshold. The potted ferns in Mrs. Dill’s foyer give way to whole jungles of flora. Streams flow through her hallways. Trout rise to devour the huge orange caddisflies falling off her ceiling. Rope ladders cross a waterfall to stone ledges which lions pace, offering rides on their backs to awaiting children. Who knows what marvel they may be moving toward? Striding past my capacity to imagine them, the lions lead from chamber to networked chamber in a long parade of unforeseen, animal rapture.
Whether it derives from sadness or happiness, I want a poem to open such a space: to build an architecture where imagination and the world permeate one another.
But soon, the critic in me begins to pick apart this image. Maybe answering with a daydream pegs me as one more child of the Age of Psychology. Maybe there’s even a streak of consumerism in my picture of the pleasure dome. The waterfall seems in retrospect to have been trucked in from our local shopping center.
That picture also attaches, though, to my reading of Plato. The philosopher famously banished poets from his Republic, and poets have been arguing with him ever since. But I love the story that he has Socrates tell in the Phaedrus of how, when the nine Muses were born, the poets on earth were so ravished with song that they never ate or drank. Their skin began to dry and turn brown and green and shrivel. They metamorphosed into grasshoppers, and the grasshoppers became messengers between this world and Mount Helicon. Some work now for Terpsichore, reporting to her on the state of dance among the humans. Some serve Erato and fly down to earth to spy on the lovers. This grasshopper interlude follows the speech in which Socrates tells Phaedrus that the souls of poets are relegated to the sixth class: in the cycle of transmigration, they’re thousands of years be-hind athletes and army commanders. But still, the passage carries an air of reverence. That admiration makes sense to me. I’m willing to bear the philosopher’s contempt, willing to accept that I might be acting with the helplessness of a grasshopper who chirps simply because his body courses with sunlight, if it means I can be a commuter between the realm beyond and the ordinary spaces in which we live our lives. From as far back as that image from decades ago, such transit has seemed to me not an escape from reality, but an intensification of it. Yes. What sheer exultance to be a grasshopper, king among bugs!
Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...