In the wake of publishing my first book of poems, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979-1989, I find myself with 20 years’ worth of middle period poems on my hands and the question of what to do with them. (Not to mention late poems, from the time I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2011, and a considerable number of short stories.) Of course, I mean to publish these middle poems, but not now, not in the condition they are in.
Writing is one thing. Re-writing is another.
Seeing is one thing, and we all hope our first visions are keen and perceptive. But re-seeing, re-vising is another animal altogether.
Revision requires a certain humility, of course — an acknowledgement that what we once wrote, perhaps dashed off, is not the cat’s pajamas, or the mouse’s, or the lion’s. Time helps provide critical distance, and so does immersion in the discipline of criticism.
If you’ve made a formal study of language, that helps. You might have been a grammarian at one time, if only in grade school. Or a linguist or lexicographer, amateur or more. Or a poetry reader or editor. But wherever your critical practice and theory come from, they are gifts that will be employed in improving even if not perfecting the things you’ve written.
Revisiting my middle-period poems convinces me that many were splashed out as responses to specific events or feelings. The death of my father, for example, in 2008, who survived my mother some twelve years and remarried.
Some of these poems seem to me pretty pallid now, perhaps because they are too personal. I don’t mean personal in the sense of confessional poems, but personal meaning too restricted to one particular person’s point of view. Sure, we all experience love and loss. Our parents die. Other loved ones die. They drop like flies — make that drosophila — all around us. And there we are, left with our own sinking, leaden feelings. As we know, the modern world of today (as some of my freshmen English students would call it) does not allow much time for mourning. Buck up, buster. Get a hold of yourself. Put your shoulder to the wheel.
Nevertheless, we have put down the thoughts and feelings that may have put us down. We were in mourning. We brooded. We couldn’t get away from it. We were feeling positively saturnine.
Now that we have recovered what we like to call a presence of mind, we are removed from the immediate emotional effects of the event. Things may seem clearer. The only challenge, as if it’s only a small challenge, is to give a broader, more universal view of what has happened to us in particular.
If I charge into the task of revising, without relaxing enough or getting away from the pressure of the text, the weight of the words already committed to the page, I find I may be only trifling. The problem is not the words per se, but how the words evoke the strongest response.
Shall we step away?
It’s been more than twelve years since my father died. That certainly provides some distance.
But what was it essentially about our relation that I seek to explore, deplore, celebrate?
Dad was a lawyer, the son of a streetcar conductor, an old Polish bastard (literally), miser, and tyrant who left the farm at the age of twelve and came to the city to find his way. He broke away from a stepfather who didn’t love him, who spurned him in fact and abused him in one way or another. Dad spoke of his dad as from “the old school,” a junk collector in his personal life and private yard who demanded his three sons obey, learn to collect junk and repress emotions in their turn, and never to question authority.
This authority extended to the Catholic church, which had labeled Grandpa a bastard in the first place and made him weep guiltily about his bastardy to the end of his life. He wasn’t, probably couldn’t have been, a very warm, loving father to his three sons.
In my dad’s case, it was three sons, again, and four daughters. He knew how to love the girls and express his love for them, but not the boys. I was the middle boy of three, and my older brother Gerry was a rebel from an early age and my younger brother Bob a black sheep. It wasn’t easy to please Dad, and the way I chose was to excel academically even while nursing rebellious, anti-social thoughts. (Is parricide one?)
Yes, Dad was a lawyer, a stickler for the letter of the law. If he did not lay down the law, he certainly transmitted it from the Sinai of his medieval brand of Polish Catholicism. Thou shalt not was writ large on the door to his person.
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
So what could I do but become an English teacher and lay down the law of grammar & correctness? Which I did for a while, way back in the 1970s and then, intermittently, in the 1990s and 2000s, too.
When I flunked out of Academe (failed to get tenure), I began writing poetry as a reaction to this failure. I had not pleased the authorities at the college where I taught, and was on my own, and had to figure, wasn’t it about time, how finally to grow up?
Poetry was the principal way I learned to grow up, although when I wrote it, back in the 1980s, I could not have told you my aim. I knew only that I had a strong background in the formal disciplines of language and language arts; that I could apply them to the commercial writing which I took up as a means to make a living if not live; and that I had to get through this long, unsponsored period.
The poems of the 1980s were, willy nilly, coming-of-age poems. They recorded episodes of childhood and adolescence in an emotionally turbulent Catholic household. They enacted rites of passage: that is, the poems themselves were performances of the need to grow up and the growing up, at least in verse.
In “Physical,” for example,
“No signs of impurity,”
the family doctor said,
Doc Leiferman, scribbling
on his chart, when I was just
The kid in this poem gets a physical exam from the good (Catholic) doctor and suspects, with the doc’s initial utterance, that he’s told the priest about the kid’s masturbatory habits. It ends:
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,
sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.
With the middle poems, there is more urgency perhaps but less freshness. (You could only be fresh once, it could be. Your intellectual and artistic gifts diminish, it could be, as your body does. Which makes re-vision, the ability to see farther and more deeply, all the more imperative.)
Here, for example, is the untampered beginning of a poem written shortly after my father’s death:
The rain that’s swept all the winter’s
snow away, the fog in which we’re currently
enveloped, Pop — this is the talk
I always talk with you, never, apparently,
about anything important, the things that are
so hard to wrap ourselves around, the sort
of love between a father and a son that
is never concluded satisfactorily.
Well, okay, here’s an idea. But it’s awfully discursive, don’t you think, and prolix too? Looks more like an essay, could be, a wordy, windy essay.
So what to do?
As a first resort, and not recommended for the most part, I started tampering with the text. One example, from the beginning again:
The rain that’s swept all the snow away,
the fog in which we’re wrapped up, Pop —
these are the topics I always talked with you
on the phone. Here it was springtime
in Minnesota. There you were down
in the Ozarks battling tornadoes.
There was never anything earth-shaking
to talk about, including earthquakes,
which we don’t have here in these parts,
nope, except the things
we could not talk about like the love
between a father and a son.
Better perhaps, a bit more info in a shorter space. (Some of it was sprawled out in the later parts of the poem.) But still, something lacking. Why should you, the reader, care about my relation with my father?
Then I thought why not look at Sharon Olds again. She’s rightly famous for her book of poems called The Father, about the life and death of her dead. And she’s a personal poet, “whom the poet Billy Collins has called … a poet of sex and the psyche, adding that ‘Sharon Olds is infamous for her subject matter alone…but her closer readers know her as a poet of constant linguistic surprise.’” Which is not a bad deal, is it? Surprise. Constant surprise. Something always new, even in the old old relations we might think there’s nothing fresh left to say.
Judgment and self-pity seem from this perspective not very new or fresh. And yet they’re the way we tend to think and write, it could be, especially when we think life has dealt us a crappy hand. We sit there with our crappy cards and cry for ourselves. We hold a pity party. But who will attend?
Olds presents her father, living and dead, directly in front of us. In “The Glass,” for example, we get her usual physical assault:
I think of it with wonder now,
The glass of mucus that stood on the table
In front of my father all weekend. The tumor
is growing fast in his throat these days,
and as it grows it sends out pus,
like the sun sending out flares, those pouring
So you thought poetry was all lovey-dovey romance and romping in the flowers?
Romantic avoidance of that which is hard to say, impossible to speak?
We should hope not.
Avoid avoidance. See again. As with fresh, new eyes.
So let’s have at it once again, shall we? Thank you, Sharon Olds. We are not you, Sharon Olds. But your example is tonic.