Saturday, June 28, 2008

First Turn

I find myself in alien territory, surrounded by poets. I'm surprised by how deep the conviction runs: I am no poet. Not that it matters: it's hard to see how it could matter to anyone, except -- and I only dubiously except -- me.

No, the interesting part is the the resistance itself: what is that made of? Immediately I see in my mind's eye the college professor, whom I had shown some poems in my sophomore year, struggling for a kind way to put it. "Well," he began, reluctantly, "I think there are poetry people, and there are prose people."

He wasn't one of those professors who like to extinguish students. He had praised my prose extravagantly. And what I can remember of the poems I gave him makes me cringe. Did I simply walk away with that assessment internalized?

I don't think so. My arrogance at eighteen was massive. It wasn't that I couldn't write poetry. It was that I was going to be a famous prose stylist, the Twentieth Century's Ruskin or Carlyle. I adored elaborate Elizabethan prose: Richard Hooker and Thomas Browne were my idols. I was going to write lapidary fables and blistering arguments. I wanted my prose to be fierce, to thunder. I was confident, absurdly confident, of my mastery of prose. Poetry, on the other hand, I was a little uncertain about. I wasn't quite sure I knew what poets were doing.

I've read a lot of poetry, since then, and I'm still not quite sure. They're all doing something different, for one thing. It takes more generosity of mind to read poetry than to read prose. The genres bend more. Poetry is more opportunist, more hit-and-run. Especially now, when every vein seems exhausted. Any fragment of precious stuff is worth digging out, now.

I recognize now that my taste in poetry -- which I really had no way to conceptualize back then -- was very different from my professor's. His favorite poet was Robert Browning, whom I simply can't read: Browning's verse leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I've tried repeatedly, and I simply can't stand it. It scans, by the rules, but it sits so awkward in the mouth that it seems like it shouldn't. And of course, as someone drawn to mysticism and impatient of naturalism, I find Browning's hobby horses all rather trivial and dull. The fact that religious people are as wicked as everyone else is neither a revelation to me nor a cause for celebration; it's simply something that I thought everybody, including religious people, already knew. It's precisely our sense of our own insufficiency that leads us to wonder what countries lie on the other side of surrender, that lead us to believe in a subterranean vein of goodness: the wonder to us is not that there is evil in the world, but that there is anything else.

But stop -- I am revising my past, here. I didn't think of myself as a religious person, back then. It's just that, to a person who had been raised athiest and materialist, Browning seemed not daring and radical and naughty, but timid and orthodox and boring. What was forbidden and alluring was faith.

This is the first part of several parts. Maybe. Who knows?

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