I mentioned in the last post that I didn’t write any poetry after about 1980. I don’t think I gave it much reflection at the time, and in fact don’t even remember being aware of stopping. It seems to have just happened. Now, though, looking back, I see how important that aspect of writing was to me, not only in helping me unearth and express some of my deeper thoughts, but also in acting as a training ground for my use of the language. No one taught me to write, though I did have one or two writing classes in 1967 and attended the Writers Workshop at Cranbrook that year. By that time I’d already written dozens of poems, seven or eight essays, about the same number of short plays, and was well into Radius, my first novel. I was still an amateur, for sure, but largely a self-taught one.
Actually, the very first thing I wrote, as I noted in an earlier post, was a short play for my high school Speech and Drama class. I chose a play only because that’s what the teacher asked for. Buoyed by that experience, I knew I was destined to write but I didn’t immediately follow it up with another play but instead focused on poetry. Only after a solid year of that did I think to write some short plays again.
I think I initially focused my writing on poetry because it seemed easiest—how naive the young! But in the early days, my impressions of life were incomplete and probably mostly incoherent, and since poems didn’t necessarily have to add up to a fully amplified thought but could quite successfully represent a fragment of one—or even just a feeling—they seemed to be suited to my primitive level of development. If I didn’t have a meaningful philosophy (or even understanding) of life at that point, at least I could record stray thoughts and images as they occurred to me. Thus poetry was “easy.”
As time went on I realized that by my own estimation, I wasn’t a bona fide poet because I didn’t have a style—I’d never really developed a “voice” in my poetry. Just a casual look at my poems will show quite clearly that I experimented with many forms—rhythmic and rhyming, freeform, fragmentary, story-telling, you name it. I never hit my stride and settled into a pattern that satisfied me by being a vehicle I could count on to say in more complete form what was on my mind. The novel did. Thus I gravitated toward that—and poetry became an adjunct, an intellectual and emotional outlet for the problematic little intricacies of life. My actual vehicle, I began to think, was the novel.
I say this only in retrospect because, as I mentioned, I didn’t really consider all this at the time. Everything happened organically and without much forethought. Things just evolved and like a new life form, the novel superseded the previous species, though examples of that species lingered quite a while before finally dying out.
In writing a novel, I was disciplined to take a character and an idea to a final and meaningful conclusion, something I wasn’t compelled to do with poems. Certainly there’s a discipline to writing poetry but I didn’t feel the calling to submit myself to it. Maybe I wanted to talk at length, to come to a more considered and comprehensive understanding of people and society, and the novel gave me a better chance to do so.
The poem, it seems to me now, presupposes some of that understanding, and at the time I just didn’t have it. I was playing with words, with ideas, and had little knowledge in the early days of what a person was or what society consisted of. Writing the novel started to give me some sense of that, whereas my early poems were only scattered insights that lacked the kind of unity that would teach me to see that “big picture.” That’s what I gradually discovered about myself—I wanted to see things as a totality; moreover, how did we fit into it? My later poems were longer and better (Sitting in a Room in Oregon, Fog and Rain), but I considered them too introspective to be able to do the work I was interested in doing.
I kept writing poems, I think, as a kind of occasional safety valve, or to write down random features of experience that seemed important to me but extraneous to the book I happened to be writing at the time. Journals also served this function. One might even consider my various poems written over those fifteen formative years as being fragments of an ongoing journal. (I’d like to talk about my journals proper in a later post.)
If poetry served such a significant function for me, why, then, did I stop writing it? Before I answer that, I’d like to consider something first. Was my poetry any good?
I’d like to think I wrote a few really good poems. The majority—well, I’ll leave that for someone else to decide. I think my longer poems, especially, have merit. Four short books mentioned in previous posts were all longer poems or shorter ones linked to a larger theme: Out of the Wilderness, I Am the Sea, Fog and Rain and Sitting in a Room in Oregon. All are reflections on Nature, with the latter three weaving Nature into the fabric of my mood. I won a poetry prize at UCLA with such a poem (written in ten parts), called “Journey Through Earth and Sky.” These Nature poems aren’t bad at all, it seems to me. The rest of them, like I said, I’ll let other people judge.
I stopped writing poems for a number of reasons—none of which I was conscious of at the time, except in the vaguest sense. First of all, I think I finally got a better idea of what life was all about. From the time I started writing until that time, I’d been trying to figure out some meaning to it all. Gradually and with a lot of effort and heartache, my sense of it was becoming clearer. When I was finally able to write Daytona Beach Reflections, which is subtitled, “Thoughts on a New Ethics for America,” I realized I’d reached a point in my development where I thought I could make reasonable sense of life and explicate a general outline of it, a process I’d started eight years earlier with Coming Up Clean, the book of fictional interviews asking Americans what had gone wrong. Those intervening years of work, travel and reflection, not to mention the rigors of a Ph.D. program, helped me to put things together into a unified vision (to my own satisfaction, though I don’t claim to yours).
Secondly, I think I stopped writing poems because I realized that poetry had been usurped by popular singers, and a tuneless poem had no chance of swaying the masses, so to speak. Millions of people could be moved by a song, but how many in the last several generations had been moved by a poem? Who are the great poets of our time (as opposed to famous singer-songwriters)? The futility of my being able to influence the direction of our culture by poetry seemed obvious to me.
Finally, I suppose I jumped ship because I came to see that most of my poems were lamentations—little cries about the difficulties and injustices of life, not just for me but for all of us. Writing Daytona Beach Reflections showed me that I might finally do something about it, not just forever record my disappointments and frustrations. Maybe at age 33 I’d finally grown up. I could wipe my tears and get on with the work at hand, work that I seemed meant to do.