by Kirby Congdon…….
This writer leans toward using experience as the best tool in learning how to do anything. It hurts to get criticism, rejections and, most devastating, seeing one’s own flaws by oneself. One can find excuses to dismiss tactless remarks from friends but the writer himself is his own best guide and he can be his own most severe teacher. This may be because he or she does not have to admit the embarrassment to one’s pride one may feel in receiving involuntary advice!
Stanley Kunitz, a well-known poet, remarked that his work-sheets for just one poem were voluminous. He had a class for writing poetry at the YMHA in New York after World War II. He did not offer any particular theories beyond being empathetic toward his inexperienced students. His first assignment as our teacher was for us to go home and write a poem on one idea that he suggested focusing on. My own response was not so cooperative. Relying instead on finished work, I explained to Mr. Kunitz that “writing to order” was beyond my capabilities. Writing a poem was, for me, a spontaneous act that could not be dictated or be somehow a controlled process.
A similar interpretation is suggested in Richard Wilbur’s familiar “Mind,” a poem which may be the first one in literary history that considers the process in the actual writing of it. In this poem the narrator points out the somewhat irrational fact that if a blind bat misjudges the dimensions of a cave then he changes his pattern of behavior, From the bat’s point of view he rearranges the cave walls in his mind and avoids his mistake. An interpretation of this is that anyone flying around in his creative mileu learns how he can do it without crashing or, let us say, without ending up with a secondrate painting, a bad poem or a dead neuron in whatever metaphysics he’s involved in.
This writer cannot believe that Richard Wilbur simply jotted down his conclusions in poetic laguage and let it go at that any more than Picasso or Michelangelo did. The creative process doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. For the hook in “Palimpsest” the author was very content to have anything be that hook. But as the poem found its own voice, the poet found he was obliged to discard his main idea that propelled him and listen to his work rather than dictate it. This is much like composing music or a painting; the artist is the work’s amanuensis, not its boss. This is like letting the immature child bring up its parents. That reverses our usual kind of approach for human activity. But it happens. Perhaps it can be explained but do we want to? The experience is perhaps the closest we can get, by way of explanation, to inspiration. It is our own mind that is operating rather than education or discipline. What’s going on? As Mr. Kunitz implied, he didn’t know what he was doing; he just did it until he got it right.
Our critic, because we sense what we are trying to do, is ourselves. Failure is inconvenient, but it does not destroy us for we alone may not know but we do what we want. It becomes almost a religious impulse. That remark can be misinterpreted but we will not need to retract it because it provides that rare experience which we will not forego, and that is meaning, wherever that may come from. As John Donnelly, a reader, has suggested, meaning must come from a sense of keen consciousness. But how? Can we pin it down when every single experience is unique — be it the spider exploring his environment or the scientist with all his laboratories exploring his?
The title, “Palimpsest” is from the Greek. “Sest” refers to rubbing while “palim” serves as our word, “again.” (I like to think our word “paling” for a fortified fence relates to the repetitious pattern of all its stakes lined up in a row suggesting the activity of erasing something. Even the word “pale,” referring to a man’s wan complexion suggests one even tone of color rather than the healthy variation we expect.)
Will the sun still rise or rain fall
when evening shreds the light
from the seasons of my mind
as reason reaches out one day more
to deny its own demise?
Will the wall of words I built
let my time survive
beyond the wars we wage abroad
when even friends have no bodies now?
The songs I sing could fill the sky
for any stranger’s eye.
An author’s words, restored,
can be heard again as their return
comes alive and an age is identified
by such single signs left of common sense