When I recently received the good news that my uncle Deano, a poet, had undergone a successful heart transplant, I celebrated by re-reading some of his books. At the time, I hadn’t read any poetry for months; and, though I began writing, at sixteen, with the ambition of following my uncle, I hadn’t written a poem in six or seven years.
This experience-the joy (relief!) I felt for my uncle, coupled with my reading-initiated a new season for me.
Since then, I’ve devoured poems in the way, post-diagnosis, I’ve devoured medical information: with an obsessive, indiscriminate mania; as if in pursuit of some transformative antidote.
I began with Deano. Then I moved to his forbearers: Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara. John Ashbery. Stretching back, I read The French Surrealists. Rimbaud. Whitman. I punctuated my reading with my own preferences: Dilruba Ahmed, Ross White, Laura Van Prooyen, Matthew Olzmann, Alicia Jo Rabins, Gabrielle Calvocaressi, Iain Haley Pollock. C. Dale Young, Angela Narciso Torres, Dwayne Betts, Jenny Johnson, Rj Gibson.
Then, two weeks ago, after a lunatic evening out with some friends, I wrote a poem. Inspired, I wrote two poems.
“It’s on,” I said to my wife that day.
“What’s on?” she asked.
It was a good question. What was on?
Sweeping the Temple Steps
When I was twenty-one, my uncle wrote in a letter to me:
“Remember, Seth, you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”
I cannot imagine this-all this sweeping-and this is why I am not a poet. I sit and work for hours on my fiction, yet the thought of sitting to write a poem without the germ of a poem already in my head strikes me as ridiculous.
How do you do that?
In the same letter, my uncle wrote:
“There’s a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightning, so you want to make sure you’re holding a pen when it happens.”
So, for now, furiously inspired, I carry around a pen. This fury, I believe, is good for me, yet it’s a fickle fury.
Soon, I will lose my spark.
And yet, I wonder, in the absence of work ethic: is it possible to live in a manner that is favorable to writing poetry? If one were to at least attempt the project how might one actually go about sustaining inspiration?
Make Yourself as Shitty as You Can
“The idea,” Rimbaud writes, “is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.”
Is this how you do it?
Rimbaud wrote this line in 1871, at the age of sixteen, in the midst of a sequence of two brash letters that came to be known as the “The Seer Letters.” The first letter, to his teacher Georges Izambard, announced Rimbaud’s intentions to become a poet, and it included a poem, which begins with a choice line: “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.”
Izambard blasted the letter. It was vicious, detestable, he later said. Rimbaud seemed to want to fuck himself up, as much as possible-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Yes, Rimbaud was fucking himself up, but he was serving an inviolable master: Poetry.
“Right now, I’m making myself as shitty as I can,” he wrote. “Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer…The idea is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet.”
“The derangement of all the senses” is one of poetry’s most celebrated phrases. In the second “seer” letter, to Izambard’s friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud qualified the notion crucially with the adjective: “reasoned.”
Although Izambard and Demeny both dismissed his letters as utter inanity, practical jokes at best, utter filth at worst, Rimbaud, in proposing “a reasoned derangement of the senses,” was not joking at all. Rimbaud, it seems, meant to transform poetry into an act of living.
Within months he was carousing Paris, living on little else than absinthe, hashish, and the erotic adulation of Paul Verlaine, and conjuring his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. At sixteen he wrote, “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.” Two years later, he’d finished A Season in Hell.
From poop to poetry-the evolution of Rimbaud was furious. Two portraits taken around this time seem to prove this point.
In the first, Rimbaud, recently arrived in Paris, appears to be no more than a child, a puffy brat, poised for naughtiness-the type of child capable of writing a manifesto on poop.
In the second, Rimbaud has seemingly aged considerably; his face-chiseled, evocative, “angelic,” according to Jean Cocteau-is the face of a poet, a man.
What could’ve happened in the span of two short months to bring about this transformation?
Lunatic Evening with Friends
Among friends, I’m known as a somewhat fastidious person.
I eat the exact same dinner every night: chicken. With the chicken, I eat potatoes or sweet potatoes. I’ve done so, with unerring consistency, for six or seven years.
I rarely eat out. When I do, I thoroughly pre-inspect the menu. The place better have chicken. And, no matter what the menu says, I bring my own potatoes-boiled, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, smuggled in my wife’s purse.
Two weeks ago, my wife and I met some friends at Melograno in Philly: C and his girlfriend, H, as well as a new friend, M. My wife and I had met M a day before, at a poetry reading. The fact that we’d invited her to dinner struck C as somewhat impulsive.
We parked in a garage. $12.00 for the evening. It was one of those dangerous spring evenings when the intimations of summer are too much to bear, when, early in the evening, you worry that your fervor might lead you to forgo your smuggled potatoes in favor of the “roasted potatoes”, which M points out, have actually been fried; to the inevitable Malbec spill, H’s blouse swiftly more stain than not-stain; to the interlude in the garage, the attendant hiding behind the partition, M smoking on the street; to the embarrassing, glass-smashing incident at Ten Stone; to the suggestion that maybe you abandon C and H and go on to some other place; to the pointless walk up and down Walnut; to asking, “Can we go home”?; to M’s corn nuts and whiskey; to the delightful moment when M and your wife agree, “Yes, we can go home now”; to the goodbye on the street, M waving as she climbs into her car; to the parking garage, which is barricaded closed with your car in it; to the recognition that you’re stuck in Philly-stuck without your probiotics and Noni juice, your bed in Ambler, a forty-minute drive away; to running out to Sansom, hailing M’s car; to hopping in; to driving back to M’s place in Narberth, her pointing out Robin Black’s house on the right; to falling asleep in M’s son’s bed with your wife, the single the size of your childhood bed, the bed you first shared with your wife sixteen years ago, as M munches on a Klondike Bar outside the door; to waking up in an unfamiliar town, bereft of your routine, your insulin missing; to a long walk to Starbucks, but no food for you, because where’s your insulin?; to the discovery, back at M’s place, of a book case jammed with poetry; to picking up Skid, the one book by Deano that you’re not really familiar with because your first copy was stolen, your second copy left in that Starbucks in Encino; to reading “Whale Watch” and feeling, the exact coordinates of your soul struck, that perhaps you shouldn’t have borrowed $50,000 for that MFA in fiction, you could’ve probably made more money by now, and you just want to get home, back to your insulin, yet it was good to get away, you’re already writing your first poem in years.
“What happens when your head splits open/ and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?”
Poems, I’ve been reminded recently, are fucking awesome. I will not stop reading poems. I will probably stop writing poems. Still, my recent experience has me wondering: How do you become the type of person who writes poems? Sustaining inspiration aside, perhaps this is the question.
Is it wrong to assume that kick-ass poetry comes, not necessarily from the best writers, but from the most kick-ass humans?
One might live, of course, in any number of ways, just as one might write a poem in any number of ways. And anyone can, and should, I think, write poetry. But how does one acquire the ability to continue to write poems, after the inspiration vanishes?
Is it a practice of writing or living? A successful poet, of course, writes poetry, studiously, day after day. Yet, the source of poetry seems to issue from some seriously untidy place.
Is it wrong, to assume, as Rimbaud does, that a successful poet must also live in a certain reckless way?
On the one hand, millions of hopeful idiots like me have followed Rimbaud, misunderstanding him completely, fucking ourselves up into the night.
On the other hand, it has nothing to do with alcohol, but the poets I’ve met are usually drunk in some serious way.
Is it unreasonable to approach poetry, or life, with the expectation that it send you into the storm of your own being-that it transform you?
Transformation, obviously, can take many forms. Transformative two months in Paris. Transformative potatoes. Transformative poem. Transformative email. Transformative heart surgery.
Early on, Deano suffered a few setbacks. For months, we waited for news. He received his heart April 14, 2011. I read the news the next morning. 6:45 AM. I burst into joyous tears.
It’s on, I thought.
And then I asked myself: What we he will write now?