“It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
― Robert Hass
― Robert Hass
That is so absolutely true, and it sort of woke me up, I think, to my poetry slump. Hass is a former US Poet Laureate and his work is amazing. I especially love it because he's the antithesis of a language poet. Anyone can read his work. It's not about language or craft or showing off or anything else I despise in some poetry. It's absolutely straight from the shared human heart. I teach one of his poems in my intro lit class every semester and that poem is singlehandedly responsible for convincing hundreds of students that poetry is not as horrific as they had assumed. Here it is:
A Story About the Body
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity—like music—withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl—she must have swept them from the corners of her studio—was full of dead bees.
-- Robert Hass, Human Wishes
This week my friend and writer Heather Lende and I have been talking online about writing and teaching too. We've been talking about the pressure of being a writing teacher and how that can make it hard to write. I realized I've been thinking about this, unconsciously, all wrong. I'm thinking too big. Maybe it's having a book come out this year, but I've been really focused on the huge plateaus--I'm thinking about book projects and tenure and all the giant stuff. What I need to be thinking about is a single poem.
One day Hass just got up and wrote "A Story about the Body." At least the early draft. Who knows what he was going through when he wrote it. But I bet it was "hell" before he wrote it. And probably while he was revising it too. But I bet the morning he sat down and wrote that poem, it was a euphoric moment. I like to think when he wrote that last line ("was full of dead bees") he got that little poetry rush--that oh yeah moment. And he's right--that's the only tolerable moment of writing.
I need to remember the rest of it is hell. And start putting my feet to the fire.