an image diary

"And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be? ... You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream! If that there King was to wake you'd go out -- bang! -- just like a candle!"

"Hush! You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise."

"Well it's no use your talking about waking him when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

Monday, December 13, 2004

Yearning for the Word: Poetry and Suffering

Every so often I manage it. I am driving nine hundred miles through the northern Midwest, parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York to get to Ithaca where I am scheduled to give a poetry reading tomorrow. Fifteen hours, one way. I feel like hell. I had a plane ticket, but at the last minute decided to get in the car and drive. I dreaded flight delays and the lines at security, yes, but I dreaded most traveling this distance without a sense of flight. For I am fleeing, and I can’t really expect to escape while suspended in place: the lines, the gate, my seat, 21A.

I feel bored, overworked, uncreative, prone to despair, and especially alone—a colossal singing in my chains like the sea kind of isolation—which is my own doing and my own choice. It is my cliché, this solitude, my junk-mail pile by my unblinking message machine and my condiment stocked refrigerator and my one dish and spoon for days in the sink and my coffee cup line up where I sit alone at my desk and stare. But I protect my solitude fiercely and resort to calling it a necessary evil, time alone, which is time to write, and time which is to be endured, as Rilke counsels, rather than exchanged:
what…would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy….[1]
Right now I manage to be tired of Rilke. I am feeling trivial and cheap and I don’t have an unworthy soul to talk to. I put my suitcase into the car. I stand on my front porch and wonder at necessity. I wonder at my evil thoughts. If this is what it takes to be a writer of any caliber, I don’t wantmto be a writer. I hear the trains hailing through town and think of the tracks crossing, a tie at a time, the vast country between me and the hours ahead. To hell with Rilke. He just wants company.


I too dislike it: this pervasive belief that suffering is not only inherent to the writing life, but also, I am sorry to say, a valuable poetic commodity. This is how it is. Your most vulnerable poems can also become your most authoritative poems—your most powerful poems—but this power can be devastating, for it tells us that poets must have something to feel vulnerable about. Those of us who worry that we have not suffered enough to write exceedingly vulnerable poems are left to discover a wellspring of misery from which to write. Or to create one. Or to question the authority of suffering.

I don’t know how to question suffering. I don’t want to do it. I’ve been avoiding this moment for a long time because I don’t know how to climb out from under the self-fulfilling prophecy of the tortured artist. But I’ve reached a point in my life in which I no longer trust myself to know the difference between the suffering I sacrifice to my writing, and the sacrifice I suffer for my writing.

Last week, as I read through a student’s journal, I came across this passage:

This morning I remember why I hate getting drunk and forgetting. My roommate tells me that at the party I brought out the box-cutter and told people to pass it around as a reminder—remember you will die—all that—and talked about cutting myself as a way of feeling alive. —And this morning found the blade on the kitchen counter with beer bottles and ashes. Exposed, appalling, exonerated. Remember that cutting is numbing. Calming. You feel invisible but the body weeps red and makes the shit in your life clear. Cutting is expressive, like writing.[2]

I balked, got angry, and wanted to scrawl in the margin: “since when is self-mutilation like self-expression?” But the answer is too plain: when self-expression is self-mutilation. When art hurts. Writing is dangerous work, we are fond of saying, and fond of living, and we are so good at taking risks for the wrong reasons, or for the right reasons in the wrong directions, or in the right direction for the wrong duration—even the best of us—seeking, seeking, seeking, and to what end? Isn’t this the cry in Ginsberg’s Howl?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…[3]

To what end? Sky’s the limit, baby. But if you want to get connected to the starry dynamo, you need to tap into the Great Poem. I remember Li-Young Lee once saying that he would stay up all night, sleep only a few hours during the day, read four or five books a week, and pray that God would kiss him on the back of his head and give him a poem. For Li-Young, poetry and divinity go way back, hand-in-hand, into antiquity and beyond, where in the beginning the word was absolute, immortal, omniscient, omnipotent: perfect.


The train is suspended. It hurls the length of its spine beside me. It flushes birds from the grass and tongues the track. It is not lacking. A dust storm mutes the road ahead, I am driving, I am unmoved. The train is paralysis, a motion in an iron photograph even as it breaks free and glides ahead: I believe.


Contemporary poetry is tired of thinking about suffering as a poetic subject, but is equally vexed by the fact that suffering won’t be put down. I have no desire to indict the confessional poets, the Beat poets, the poets of witness, or the political poets, and I’m not really interested in rehearsing the arguments of language poetry, or poetry that looks to elide the self. These discussions about schools or movements, important as they are, are alive and well elsewhere. I’m talking about you and me, poets as people who are alive, but maybe not as well as we could be. I’m talking about friends and students who have said to me that they are knowingly afraid to heal because—let’s face it—we believe mental health may not be a great generator of remarkable poetry. And I’m talking about my own struggle to accept that writing has been therapeutic in my life, even as the old archetype of the suffering poet summons, seductively. I need to be honest. The world that sees writing as a way out of hell also eschews the lack it.

Besides this, writing is rarely good therapy against writing anxiety (though it is finally the best). How can you write anything once you know that the relationship between self and word is ultimately schizophrenic? You want to get the words down, after much work and love, precisely. You turn it out of the machine or tear it from the notebook, and filled with conviction or trepidation, you surrender yourself to a mentor, a workshop group, an editor, a friend—no matter. Some alienating force glides in and divides you from that which is written. For it is written: it goes into the world of dark and light, your genesis, your revelation, and is sacrificed to some impossible exegesis, a reading. The creative mind behind the word—your intention—drops out of the story, if not altogether, at least, infinitely reduced in significance. Which is to say that what you say is no longer yours once you’ve said it.

I’m only retelling the oldest story on written earth—old as tongues and the tree of knowledge, I imagine, since the serpent certainly had something to say to Eve on that fateful day when paradise fell. Which makes me think that the loss of Eden had less to do with apples than with words. One thing seems clear: Eve could have known little about the serpent’s intentions from what we are told he said:

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[4]

I might be splicing words, but it strikes me that what Eve says God said, and what the serpent says God knows, are not mutually exclusive. The problem is that while Eve is a literalist, the serpent seems to have a handle on God’s good sense of figurative language. Death is inevitable however you look at it. I doubt that Eve knows what “death” means, literally or figuratively, but I also think she fails to interpret that knowing good and evil, quite possibly, is the same as knowing the pitfalls of language. Death and the word—and words are knowledge after all—collide. How was Eve, cast into literal perfect innocence, to interpret the signs of her omniscient creator? How was she to know evil serpents from holy cows? No, it’s not fair. But I don’t blame God; ultimately, the purest paradise and everything in it would have to be wholly untainted by ambiguity, and that’s not how words work. If even the serpents could talk in paradise, then all was always already lost.

I’m not trying to talk about everything lost to the word in the world. I’m trying to say something about the self that’s lost to the world in the word: the writer, the poet, always already disqualified from her intention, her poem. It is understandably necessary that the poet and her poem can only coexist at odds in parallel universes. We can’t go around thinking that the poet is her poem. Such collisions only result in a terrifying self-perpetuating self-division, in madness by fragmentation—in a bloody mess as readers tear the poem line by line, limb from limb. So it is: I am happy enough not to live up to my poems.

But we’ve fallen into an ambiguous world. We find no pure way of extricating the poet-self from the poem-self. In fact, to compensate for the New Critics’ insistence on dropping authorial intent from our reading of poems, and to atone for the Post-Structuralists’ claim that the author, like Nietzsche’s God, is dead, we’ve become enamored with biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and interviews with the author. The author is not dead to the world or to this poem, we say. Well, we can’t help it. We love our fathers, but we were always destined to find creative ways of disobeying. More: we’ve come to tell ourselves that the writer—and I think the poet in particular—is an exceptional creature, a deviant creature filled with hubris and bizarre sensitivities. And we want to know what makes him, her, tick. The Poet, we tell ourselves, is a mystery. And we have never dealt well with the unknown. Ambiguity creates in us a state of unmanageable want, a desire to identify, distinguish, tell.

There it begins, this cult of personality: the poet between words: yours and mine. How else to deal with unrequited desire but to generate a mythology, to name? Oh bard, oh elegist, oh genius, oh philosopher, prophet, revolutionist, visionary! Oh Byron! Oh Shakespeare!

Shakespeare says “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance / From heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” Plato says poets are heaven-mad and dangerous. Aristotle says they are mad and muse-inspired. Milton would wake in the morning feeling heaven-inspired and ask to be “milked” of his great poem, Paradise Lost. Samuel Johnson says of Milton that “the characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great”[5] Wordsworth wrote a fourteen-book autobiographical epic poem subtitled “On the Growth of a Poet’s Mind” which is all about the greatness of his own true mind. Blake accuses Milton of being a “true poet,” one “on the Devil’s side without knowing it.” Emerson says, “poetry is not ‘Devil’s wine,’ but God’s wine.”[6] Percy Shelley liked to quote Tasso as saying that none deserve the name of creator but God and the poet. But Mathew Arnold turns Shelley upside down when he claims: “The Shelley of actual life is a vision of beauty and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing. And in poetry, no less than in life, he is a ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.’”[7]
This is the poet’s inheritance. Somehow, from the beginning, the poet has been linked unhappily to both gods and devils with access to neither a lasting resuscitation nor a final fall from grace. Somebody is always attempting to resurrect the dead or bury the dead when it comes to poetry, but the effort, if noble in itself, revises the old metaphors only to replace them with a language that reflects the bewildered skepticism of our time. If poets were once compared to angels, demons, intermediaries between heaven and earth, demigods, or lunatics, they are now too romantic, too political, too difficult, too spiritual, too egotistical, or too confessional. In a technological culture that holds “the soul” suspect, we resort to “the mind”; over “spirit” we choose “energy” and over “imagination” we prefer “belief,” as if our language is more sobering than that of the past. Yet, as so often happens in history, nothing much has changed. Such shifts in language usage reflect a shift in ideologies, yes; but we still doubt the utility of poetry, the value of poetry—and certainly the necessity of poetry. We tend to see poetry as an embarrassing luxury, and the poet as a decadent talent.


In an essay on the education of the poet, Louise Gluck admits, “I use the word ‘writer’ deliberately. ‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for passport.”[8] I have to agree, knowing that in conversation I am more likely to use the circumlocution “I write poetry,” than to say, somewhat ridiculously, “I am a poet.” No actual vocation or pastime is signified by the word “poet.” It is a strange kind of irony: just as the poet-self is exiled from the poem-self, so the writer of poetry is exiled from the identity of the poet. Paradoxically, because the poet represents, as Gluck notes, an “aspiration,” a desire for essentially unattainable recognition or distinction, the term has attained the cultic status of a notoriously suffering figure informed by the trauma of wanting to become a poet but never quite becoming one.

The privilege of crossing over, the “passport” to poetic eminence, too often comes at a devastating price. There are familiar stories qua stories retold. In 1966—three years after Plath’s death—Robert Lowell writes in his introduction to Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection of poems, Ariel:

In these poems, written in the last months of her life and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another “poetess,” but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines. This character is feminine rather than female, though almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head. The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea, who can laugh at herself as “cow-heavy and floral in my Victorian nightgown.”

As it goes, Sylvia Plath taped up the gaps between the doors of her apartment rooms and kitchen, stuck her head into a gas oven and suffocated, willingly, after her husband, poet Ted Hughes, left her for another woman. We know this. Behind the “feminine” figure of the poems, the Medea, the vampire, the “imaginary something”—“hardly a person at all, or a woman”—was a woman, nevertheless, a Sylvia, a me, who I once thought should have been saved by her poems, but wasn’t.

I am alarmed, I confess, by what I now believe is true. Plath’s relationship to her poetry, as well as to her poet husband, eventually contributed to her breakdown and suicide. Her journals are overwhelming fraught with a frantic thirst for publication and a novelistic ambition bigger than both herself and Hughes. Listen:

All holds fire: my poems at Art News & The Atlantic (editor’s gone gallivanting to Europe), Ted’s two good stories at The Atlantic. Woke as usual, feeling sick and half-dead, eyes stuck together, a taste of winding sheets on my tongue after a horrible dream involving, among other things, Warren being blown to death by a rocket. Ted, my saviour, emerging out of the neant with a tall mug of hot coffee which sip, by sip, rallied me to the day as he sat at the foot of the bed dressed for teaching, about to drive off—I blink every time I see him afresh. This is the man the unsatisfied ladies scan the stories in the Ladies Home Journal for, the man women read romantic women’s novels for: oh he is unbelievable & the more so because he is my husband…. How to make it sound special? Other than sentimental, in my novel: a gross problem.[9]

All her world she articulates in terms of writing as if life itself is not good enough—is “sentimental,” nightmarish, “horrible,” uncertain, “a gross problem.” Yet her writing romanticizes her work and her marriage to Hughes in unsustainable fantasies, “unbelievable & the more so” as we read them through the lens of her ruin and wonder whether the dream of becoming a poet in her own right, as well as in proximity to Hughes’ growing celebrity, wasn’t already a form of death in life. And if we cannot bring ourselves to condemn Plath’s illusions, and if we believe her creative life was necessary and inevitable, her death endangers the way we write our lives.

In an article that appeared recently in The Atlantic Monthly, Christina Nehring argues: “In the end [Plath] lost, but her art did not. If ‘dying is an art,’ as she says in ‘Lady Lazarus,’ and she ‘does it exceptionally well,’ so is living, and she did that exceptionally well too. Not wisely, as Othello said, but well—artistically, dramatically, aesthetically.”[10] If living well—“artistically, dramatically, aesthetically”—equates to dying tragically, we are doomed, friends. I want to insist: there must have been a way for Plath to live without the hopeless fetishizing of words and Ted. As circumstances would have it, her suicide will ever narrate her fame and bring us back to her letters and journals where we hope to discover the woman behind Lowell’s “classical heroine,” our most confessional of poets.


Sun in fog. The blind are showing up red-eyed everywhere on the shoulder, far off and hanging ahead. I cross the floor of the sea this morning and watch for shadows. They loom and freeze. A bridge, a ravine below. No: a valley opens towards a city, unbelievable. My dreams come from God.


It’s true that those of us who write poetry might feel repulsed by the stigma Plath’s story creates. We can avoid romantic elegizing of her suffering and be thankful for an end of it. Yet isn’t part of her legacy the nihilistic replication of the poet’s inherent misery? That her traumas forge in us the conviction of who we are? That trauma, if compulsively repeated, make us stronger, wiser people? Suppose this is the life of the poet? We hear it all the time: through great suffering comes great art. In Nietzsche’s view, great suffering sorts the sheep from the cud. It “distinguishes.” It makes those of us who have suffered feel impatient and uneasy among those who have not suffered as much.

The spiritual haughtiness and nausea of every man who has suffered profoundly—it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer—his shuddering certainty, which permeates and colors him through and through, that by virtue of his suffering he knows more than the cleverest and wisest could possibly know, and that he knows his way and has once been “at home” in many distant, terrifying worlds of which “you know nothing”—this spiritual and silent haughtiness of the sufferer, this pride of the elect of knowledge, of the “initiated,” of the almost sacrificed, finds all kinds of disguises necessary to protect itself against contact with obtrusive and pitying hands and altogether against everything that is not its equal in suffering. Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.[11]

Nietzsche’s main point—that those who have suffered deeply tend to uncover “all kinds of disguises necessary” to safeguard against shame or pity—suggests that the poet-figure is itself a protective cloak to be worn or shed as is convenient or necessary. His last point—that suffering “makes noble,” “separates”—makes plain his esteem for social hierarchies and argues that suffering creates a noble race of people who are ultimately separated from the rest of humankind, as well as, let me add, from each other and from themselves. Especially if, supposing Nietzsche is right, our suffering creates a viable foothold in power.

Oh, we don’t trust it, any of it, especially when we witness it in ourselves, but it is secretly enthralling, the stuff that composes the life of the poet, even as “The Life of the Poet” assumes its place among the crafty oxymoronic titles on our shelves. For we anticipate that to arrive on the shelf in the first place is to know that life indeed imitates art. If there is a life for the poet beyond her privacy and solitude, it swiftly becomes an art form. As Oscar Wilde says with his usual flair for tragic wit: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” Or again: “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.” And again: “It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man’s deeper nature is soon found out.” And again: “Dullness is the coming of the age of seriousness.”[12]

We repeat, and repeat. “What I need to write is boredom,” says Billy Collins. “I need stretches of inactivity, of doing nothing in order for the poem to get generated. I think boredom is like the mother of creativity.” The interviewer asks: “More so than pain or suffering?” And Collins replies: “More so than psychic trauma and suffering and pain. Boredom is my muse. So my being poet laureate and being a popular poet has cut into my boredom. I want my boredom back.”[13] Of course, Collins is being slightly disingenuous. Boredom is just painful enough for most people to avoid enduring, and it doesn’t make poet laureates of most of us. It drives some of us to drink. It drives some of us to drink a lot before adding heroine or cocaine to the equation.

Let me add John Berryman’s Dream Song # 14 to this list:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes,
the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my
mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude I have no
resources, because I am heavy bored.[14]

A friend of mine, a poet, used to quote Berryman at parties when he got very drunk and a little surly. “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. I am heavy bored.” Sometimes the night would end with my friend playing chicken in the street against the on-coming traffic, sometimes with a bonfire in which one of his poetry manuscripts rose up in dim sparks. Once he stole a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary from the front of a Catholic church and spent some days bargaining with her before she insisted that he take her back. I don’t know if drugs, God, or boredom had that effect, but I suspect it’s deeper than that.
When I finally arrive in Ithaca, I see my friend again. He is sober. When I ask how he is, he gives a dramatic performance of Satan’s lines from Paradise Lost: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”[15] Poet to poet, it’s funny. Only a poet could carry it off. Only a poet could appreciate it. Satanic power is part pathos, part passion, and part nowhere to go. I realize, 900 miles from where I began, just how driven I am


to end: only a poet. I’m thinking of Deleuze and his commentary on masochism. There is pleasure in suffering because there is also power in renunciation, denial, “a disavowal.” The creator is not dead. Not so long as he is framed and held whole—alpha and omega, alpha in place of omega—in credible metonymical regressive possibility. But such framing is figuration, is fantasy. It borders on the imaginative power of worship, on the idol beyond the symbol, on fetish. Need it?

The fetish is […] not a symbol at all, but as it were a frozen, arrested, two dimensional image, a photograph to which one returns repeatedly to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement, the harmful discoveries that result from exploration; it represents the last point at which it was still possible to believe….[16]

One hundred and twenty trains on a given day pass through the town I live in. At the railroad crossing a block from home, I wait my turn in the line of vehicles. I look at my face in the rearview mirror. Stasis. Boredom. I am driving home. I wonder at how I suspend what I believe, and yearn. It is poet’s work, though not exclusive. It is poetry, though not the work of a poet. There is nowhere to go, but it is a manageable consequence. Did God say you shall die? I don’t know, but I am not alone. There are gods, and there are creators. Gods and creators. I believe they are not the same.

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Stephen Mitchell, trans., 53-54.
[2] Used with permission
[3] Allen Ginsberg, Howl, opening lines.
[4] Genesis 3:2-6
[5] Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets I, 104.
[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Essays, “The Poet,” 281.
[7] Matthew Arnold, Prose and Poetry, 225.
[8] Louise Gluck, Proofs and Theories, “Education of the Poet,” 3.
[9] Sylvia Plath’s Journals, 376
[10] Christina Nehring, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2004, 122.
[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 220.
[12] The Portable Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” 739-40
[13] Billy Collins,
[14] John Berryman, The Dream Songs, Song 14.
[15] John Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.73-75.
[16] Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (New York: Zone Books, 1991) 31.

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