Each of us has his own language, his own way of using it.
After the snow had receded, I'd put boots on, off to follow the stream above the house. The world stood mountainous, timbered with a great forest, full of symbol, the piece of land below the cow fields and woods holding the sacred brook which ran wildly behind our house. Crossing the diversion ditch, the grass green to the edge of the stream, cattails folded over, the first of the deep parts of the stream where the water came up to the tops of rubber boot, the woods and the vale coming to life. I followed the stream upward, under grey late March or April skies, past the old fallen willow trunk, a curve in the stream, the adventure of meltwater in the Springtime of the year. The stream was a river, and I was big in it. There were places the water was deeper, so I must have walked with a stick before me. The water, gurgled, rushed, roared quietly tinkled, and the world was becoming green again, buds and honeysuckle, the yellow shoots that came up from the old willow's broken stump. Even better if it was raining the right kind of rain, the surfaced water pulled against my booted legs balanced on the firm pebbly bottom. The deepest wildest pools were upstream, where the broadness of the swamp narrowed to the last gully where the hill that came down from the road was a sledding course through small fingers of trees growing up in old orchard or pasture land.
Above that, beyond a picnic spot where sparkling apple wine was served one summer, the thicket grew closer to the stream and then barbed wire. Then a steep hill of brambles and trees, then the dirt road to the field above us, this in the days before Chuck Root built a house up there out of the barn that stood vacant up where Ernst met Champion Road.
Back down below the diversion ditch, over which my brother built his first tree-house, closer to the swamp and its inner pools, the stream was wider and shallow, less a mystery as it coursed and dropped under higher banks and over horsebone through the woods, then dropping below our property where it meandered into channels and muddy pools. Far below at the bottom of the road there was the old reservoir. When the summer electrical storm downpours came, a shallow brown stream ran across the front yard.
The writer's thoughts meander, sometimes the flow is greater.
As much as anything these days I reflect on a piece by Ted Hughes, the story of the poem The Thought-Fox, the explanation of the dream that comes to him after giving up on the attempt to write the weekly essay and going to bed. The burnt fox hand, leaving a bloody print. 'You have to stop this--you're destroying us.' The poem is hand in glove with the story of how the poem came about. Hughes the poet with confidence.
The same thing happened to me, perhaps to all writers. It just happened, at an embarrassing time when I should have been pushing through to prove my place amongst literary scholars and academics, as what other route is there? You've got to stop now. Make way to clear your own path, to it, to 'us.' That's what makes us writers shy. There is such a thing, as Hughes gives flesh to from dream, and it is a scary thing, leaving the psyche shaken with its 'you can't go back.' Would that it would not visit, but it does. And then you push on through, as you only can, in your own way, in your own way, self-contained, private like Emily Dickinson, protective. Realize the validity of the voice, and then to see where and whether you're being 'an idiot.'
Well, you know, you can blame yourself for everything. The shyness that comes in, breaking out in the course of normal courtship, the shyness about writing papers on even those poets who are your own, your home turf, your blood. The claim, not of 'I know so much,' but 'what little I know.' Let it come through gentle dreams and dopey musings.
Rights to be acknowledged there should be for poets. Not vagrancy laws. Take away the self-blame. Put it in your left armpit, as your mother tells you, speaking from experience about the voices. Remember, you're an Amherst man, I say to encourage myself.
My mother's books are tangled now. Now they go through their seasons. I.A. Richards next to Dryden, next to Melville and Thoreau, and now even the classics, Bernard Knox guides what used to be to her 'men looking for trouble.' Her Henry James phase, recent. Emily always. Women and literacy. Book history, a pile of Audubon Society magazines and New York Times, a sanctuary, a refuge where the assembled birds of words act as they do in natural habitat, on their migratory routes, as the Earth dictates. She shows me Fine Books & Collections Magazine. The visit restores and refreshes, reminds me from whence I come.
Me, I suppose I dreamed for years over that girl in the book, wondered where I'd gone wrong, why I' froze so often in my tracks, as if to ask, 'hey, give me a minute to think,' when it was not a time to think, except if you happened to be cut out of poet cloth and flesh and mind. And so I was not a professional, I suppose, as a writer, because I still attached my shyness to her, thus part of the thing gone wrong, whereas when you are your self, your true self, you aren't doing wrong at all, and maybe even some good, hopeful, in the world. The shyness was part of the thing that had gone right, that had been privy to a deeper self-confidence, even if it was separate from the world, separate from a professional life and compensation.
Then the shyness I tried to cover up, later on, stung, by taking up a public role that did not allow for it, that forced me out into a persona that could appear to cope with the world on its terms. A half-hearted, almost traitor sort of a role, but for the Irish, the legacy, the bardic tradition, a tribute to the places where words, and even literary words sometimes, hit the pavement and intersect with life and soul. Not that anyone would admit it, but on rare occasions. You have to be careful around rare calming elixirs when you are so. You have to be careful about identifying with them too closely.
What would you hope to achieve, the therapist asks, when you mumble about sending your book to a place in the past. Even amidst all this talk of values. Okay, well, the thing does stand on its own, sort of like that monolith they find in 2001 A Space Odyssey, the golden rectangle shaped doorway connected to it somehow, as if to enter in was to rediscover all the light, all the memories, experiences of a life, any life. You could pick up dirt and toss it up and do the same. But to send it out, in general, wouldn't that be standing up for your values, for mine, particular as they might be, outlandish, impractical...
Catching the secret vibration, the cosmic concurrence, how the poet's great documentable shyness is the doorway he passes through leaving the camel behind.
To write is to believe in a process greater, beyond one's own. I stumbled into Benjamin DeMott's Introduction to English section, and the very first poem we read, John Clare, Winter in the Fens, 'so moping dull and low our valleys lie,' spoke with such a resonance. A by-gone world, perhaps, but one's own.
I am a democrat about all this, I suppose. Not of any special talent, nor magnificent English vocabulary, nor particularly well-steeped in the great works rich in words. Aware of them, yes. And not quite a hod-carrier, neither, for words take a sensitivity, and they open up things you didn't see the day before, thus keeping you fresh, and a way of treating things, like the odd feeling of why one would need to write at all in the first place.
(If you) Blame yourself, you lose your natural confidence, the innate ability, which we all share, of being able to read and truly enjoy Shakespeare, as Hughes was allowed to do one summer manning an army radio outpost.
Turn off the news, shut down Facebook and email and Google news and all the trying to keep up with it. A recovering writer, I joke, I'll always be. And to write is the only way to discover the science of it all.
Even in youth there is a wisdom, inner, psychic, of the body, unconscious, and as we grow older, we understand. We forgive ourselves. We see the wisdom, even when it's still not easy to accept.
I suppose it would have been a bit difficult, finding yourself coming apart as a student. Was it the bug of Hemingway that influenced me, making me think I could do it, be a writer. Taking English classes, as Hughes writes in his essay, was supposed to make you a better writer. You loved the subject matter, and the teacher as much. It is the fascination of the subject matter that causes the problems. The higher cause. Even as JFK alluded to when he came to dedicate the library and the groundbreaking.
It hits at a creature level, organic, in the pulsing atoms of one's own being. The light, of health, mental and physical, the sight of the great work which lies before you. Yes, on one level maybe it is a bit sad sometimes, in a careful considered way, the work to do. Why me? Couldn't I have a career of some other sort, of some real sort, rather than this claim that floats in like clouds?
At my age the last men at the bar, nearing retirement age, speak of mortality, with tales of it, wives of thirty years, a daughter, a friend's father to melanoma. One of them explicates "Here Comes the Night," the old Van Morrison-Them Song. "Here comes the night... Oh boy..." The next day my patience seems almost saintly, but there must be something going on it, this honest late night talk with laughs over the grim. Then maybe, is that the answer, that none of us are meant to be happy, nor content, but only through the saintly act of an understanding from another, accepting the idiot creature just as he is, even in his mood of having blown everything? Speculations of a day.