Learning to Pivot
As a freelance writer, I never know when I’ll Skype a researcher in South Sudan or interview a flavor chemist about the molecular composition of cherries. (I’ve done both in the past two weeks.) My editors call this “pivoting” from one story to the next, but it somehow seems akin to shifts throughout a poem, and just as unpredictable. Sometimes this means booking an Amtrak to DC at the ding! of a new email, other times it’s canceling dinner plans to meet a deadline. Perhaps nothing has prepared me more for the intellectual hopscotch of freelancing than studying poetry; at the first line of a poem, I don’t know where the poet will lead me. I like waking up without knowing if I’ll get a cold email from Poetry, asking if I’ll contribute this essay.
For most of my life, I thought reading poetry was like unraveling geometric proofs. Use a series of facts to solve for an unknown. Find the measure of x to solve for the last angle within a shape. Geometry had rules, and so, I thought, did poetry. The syllables of metered verse fit together like jigsaw pieces; in high school, I thought a poem was something to be solved, that the pieces were supposed to click together at its close. But these solutions never satisfied, and I suspected I was approaching verse from the wrong perspective altogether. How could I get through a creative writing degree if I couldn’t read a poem? Finally, one of the professors explained that a poem is meant to be experienced, not deciphered. He said poetry was short-form prose with line breaks, and the visceral reaction to a poem was often the most truthful. I could work with that. I could let my heart crumble then glue itself back together in Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here,” savor every chill of “Howl,” and absorb the world of “The Lady of Shalott.”
I turn to poetry when my prose feels flat or too predictable. A poet’s ability to create worlds out of connotations and spaces will never cease to astound me. Each line is a tightrope without a safety net. In Anne Carson’s new book, Float, there’s a one-line translation of Émile Nelligan: “Do you want me to astralize the night?” The word “astralize” is doing the heavy lifting here, despite not appearing in the dictionary. In “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” E.E. Cummings marries the cosmic and the mundane through sound:
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their samesun moon stars rain
These lines are a grammatical maelstrom, but rhythmically produce the effect of being transported to a pinprick town on the edge of the planet where everyone square-dances, a place that belongs in a Thornton Wilder play.
I also love the wonderfully disorienting moment at the end of the first stanza of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You”:
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forthbetween each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
Is O’Hara comparing himself and his lover to trees wearing eyeglasses? Maybe the meaning is a secret, like the “secrecy” of their smiles. I myself picture a camera lens speckled with sunspots moving in and out of focus, photographing the two people from afar.
I do not know which to prefer,The beauty of inflectionsOr the beauty of innuendoes,The blackbird whistlingOr just after.
Stevens’s poem is baffling at best — it’s one I still read like a proof — but this stanza is deft in its argument. The lines grow progressively shorter, creating more empty space on the page; combined with the phrasing, the enjambment leaves an emptiness that mimics the void after an experience ends.
Poetry has allowed me to embrace the unexpected, and taught me to reject expectations. Becoming a freelancer was never part of the plan — I started during my last year of college and didn’t stop when I graduated. This lifestyle suits me, as I’ve never been a fan of convention. Not to mention the hours spent drinking too-sweet coffee on trains, and what other profession allows pajamas on the job? My freelance years have been the most fulfilling, but at the same time they feel anticipatory, as if I’m on the verge of something else. Where Percy Bysshe Shelley says “poetry is a mirror,” this lifestyle has been a periscope, refracting my assumptions until they emerge distant and different from where they began. Poetry has had a similar effect on my writing, shaping the texture of my sentences and my willingness to take risks. I do not know which to prefer — mostly because I’ve never had an office job — but I can say the beauty of inflection will be hard to match if I decide to call it quits; if that day arrives, I may look back and wish I were freelance again. I didn’t expect to like poetry, but here I am.