Thursday, July 31, 2008

John Hodgen on "Poem to Be Read at 30,000 Feet"

The genesis for “Poem to Be Read at 30,000 Feet” came as I was quite literally aboard a plane approaching Logan Airport over the water at night. I write a lot of poems during flights. There’s something about being loosed and lifted like that that frees up the capacity to drift and dream a poem into being. I was literally reading a poetry journal (let’s say the Beloit Poetry Journal) in the dim light of a late night flight, and suddenly had one of those anxious moments wondering, if perhaps something might go wrong and the plane might crash. We all go there. We all find ways to manage that fear. Sometimes as writers though, it’s worthwhile to let the fear play out into the imagination, to receive even the gift of fear that way. I found myself looking around at the passengers, drawing mini-portraits of any and all of us in those unguarded moments that could be our last, all of us trusting our virtual horizons, all of us headed for our permanent fatal error. We all seemed so innocent, so trusting, so vulnerable in that moment. And so rich in the luxury of our lives. I wanted some sense of mythology, the Golden Fleece, to show that, and to evoke the myth we all live by, that we will somehow live forever.

I originally found rhymes very present, tried to build the poem that way, that “Argo” and “ergo,” “light” and “night,” but then again the poem seemed to argue for a randomness, a fragmented internal rhyme, as if to show the interior lives and the fragile exterior. So there is rhyme hidden within, the rhyme and reason of our lives, perhaps, but a poem about sudden impact seemed to speak against any neatness, so the end rhymes slipped away. The poem took over. And that’s when I realized it was my moment, my poem too, and that I had to include myself in that scene. I realized it wouldn’t have been an entirely bad thing to go like that, holding a poem up in the light close to my face.

And then came the real gift. The act of holding up a poem in a journal is not unlike the way you hold with both hands the face of the one you love, the way you read into that face, that bright page of the story of your life. I thought suddenly of the traditional Dear Reader, the tenderness of that, and realized our imagined reader is pretty much someone we could love as well. And I thought of the ones we love, how we don’t always get to tell them we were thinking of them right at the very end. But poems can do that. That’s what poems are for. Finally, I wanted the reader to end up in that same moment, holding a poem in their hands and seeing the life in the poem, the face of what a poem tries to be. Love, what else? That gift.


  1. Hello John,

    I recognize much in your poem -- syntactical repetition ("the one"), for example -- that I adore.

    Other than the rhymes (which you neatly discuss in your reflection), what else did your ear do for you as you revised the poem -- and was there any conscious reasoning behind choosing long lines as opposed to short lines?

    I hope this question doesn't come off as putting you on the spot . . .

  2. Good to hear from you, Paul. I liked discovering your work in the last issue, though I don’t think I can ever do what you do, all those leaps, those insights, the way you capture how it is that we are all endlessly in that place, that middle of things beginning, where you only have to find the door and you’re home, you only have one more river, one more angle of incidence to prove there’s a reflection.
    I don’t know if I ever can explain how sound gets into a poem, how the ear plays into all our choices in a poem. It’s not unlike the bully kid who decides to join all the other kids on a crowded bench on the playground, in the process knocking the sensitive kid onto the ground. The ear does what it wants to do, the ear the entry wound, the receiver of the gift.

    I can speak to the long lines, however. All four of the poems in the last issue were experiments along that line, and I’d like to speak to those poems too, if anyone wishes, each a kind of impassioned response to a heightened moment, a new encounter, a reading, even a word. One might argue that a tightly controlled response can be perfectly justifiable, even earned, as the ultimate way to respond to a poetic stimulus. I was in an expansive mode, running the table with a series of associations, for example, in “Watson,” making all the connections that I could, letting that impulse drive the poem to wherever it wanted to go. I truly didn’t know it was going to be a father/son poem until I let all those associative leaps play out.

    In a poem about the anxiety of anticipating a plane crash, however, I kept thinking of how to say what we would all try to say if we only had a moment left, and contrasting that with all that we would wish to have said, all that we would have wanted to say that would have gone unsaid. There’s no way to say all that. Maybe Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never, never.” Or Beckett’s “Let’s go.” (They do not move.) I knew I wanted to portray a series of images of passengers in their potential last moments. And I knew somehow that that moment was so universal that it called for allusions to mythology. The long lines seemed to grow out of a sense of urgency, how to convey the importance of saying the next word, trying to get it right. I have a dear friend who gently urges me to believe that words always diminish the thing that is said. Stephen King speaks of the secret heart and all the things we want to say if we can believe there is an understanding ear. This poem got long lined trying to convey that urgency, and trying to portray, metaphorically and realistically, the moment when we would be pursuing that next word, looking into a book of poems, or into the face of a loved one, to find, even at the moment of impact, that right word.

  3. There is a strong sense of urgency in this poem that stirs up the anxieties about final moments. If each breath is a permanent fatal error then each word could be the same. You explained imagining what we would try to say or wish we had said. I wonder how many of us would find ourselves in those final moments thinking of all that we wish we hadn't said.
    There were so many stories shared from 9/11 of passengers calling to leave messages or reach out one last time. We heard about the ones who felt some urgency to simply say "I love you" to someone. I wonder about the people who didn't make any calls. Maybe they were bloody ignorant or maybe they felt the truth of words diminishing the most important things.
    In the Catholic mass they reference Matthew 8:8 saying "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, only say the word and I shall be healed."
    What is the word? How many words have to be said before we find the one that heals? What if always pursuing the right word costs us dearly when they continue to diminish the secret heart?
    When someone doesn't leave a suicide note I have to wonder if they had tried...if they wrote several drafts or stared at blank paper for several nights....if they found more truth in silence.

  4. You are right to see the anxieties that can occur when confronting the importance of words, especially words when they really matter. Each word can be a permanent fatal error. Each word can also be the one that finally heals. It’s part of the human condition, that urge to speak, to communicate what is in our hearts constantly being offset by the awareness of how often words fail us or fall short of conveying what we intend. We know so often that for the most meaningful emotions they do fail and fall short. We know as well that we sometimes come to those moments when there simply are no words. We go silent or cry or scream or weep uncontrollably. And in those times when words are so very hard to say we hold someone tightly, wordlessly, to somehow convey in that way all the words we cannot bring ourselves to say. And sometimes we close down because we believe that no words can ever say what we have known. But we can never choose silence as a solution. We are here to say how it is to be in this world, in its pain and its wonder. We are called to give voice each day.

    And there are those moments that come just often enough when we know someone can say the right word. We know that it happens, that someone can say that word capable of moving us, even saving our lives when we need to believe. We search for that word in poems and songs and prayers. And sometimes we grow weary. We lose faith. But we see it often enough to know that that word is in us as well, or at least the capability to say that word. Sometimes it is enough to know that we aren’t always called to say the right word ourselves, that we need only to receive it, even if it is inarticulately uttered, to recognize the word behind the word, the heart inside the heart.

    Matthew speaks of God saying the word and that word being the agent of healing. And John 1:1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If the Word is God Himself then the word must be what we come to know as we search for God, each word taking us closer to understanding and healing. The Bible begins with the breath of God forming the heavens and the earth, that breath itself being a word, the word of life and love and creation. Yet in all our desperation and endless sadness we so constantly fail at finding the right word. But we must never give up. We can’t slip into tortured silence. For the next word might be the right word. B. H. Fairchild in a poem called “The Problem,” says “in the cathedral of the world/ we hold communion/ the bread of language/ placed delicately upon our tongues….”

    You ask what is the word? And how many words must be said before we find the one that really heals? I believe there is only the one word. Love. And it must be said again and again, in all its forms, encompassing all our sorrows and fears and angers and hurts and all our need for forgiveness. And we have to say it with each breath, over and over to everyone we meet, and each time we say it the world itself will begin to heal.

  5. Hello,

    One thing that really struck me about the poem is the transition from third person to first person ("none of them knowing how remarkable you are") found near the poem's conclusion. What drove you to identify the reader fully at that point? Are we to understand it as a singular "you" or plural?

    I thoroughly enjoyed that transition--I'd love to hear how it came about.

    -Bernadette Smith

  6. Good question. Writers are forever grappling with the use of “you” and all the problems that usage presents. So often we’re taught to avoid it, and for good reason, and yet so often poems are directed toward a particular person, or, as in this case, to that traditional Dear Reader. All the usual cautions apply, especially at the beginning of a poem when the reader isn’t ready to place the “you” into any context. Sometimes, of course, that’s intentional and effective. I recall everyone trying to find out who it was that Carly Simon was talking about in “You’re So Vain,” and who Mr. Jones really was in Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Sometimes it doesn’t work, however, throwing the reader off track, or leaving the reader unsettled.

    In this case it surprised me showing up where it did. This poem didn’t start out trying to be a “you” poem at all. I’m a real believer in every poem having its mystery, its gift, even for the author. In the good poems sometimes that surprise exists especially for the author. Sometimes we are literally the last ones to know what the poem is about at first. I was simply letting the anxiety unravel and letting it take me into some direction. I was thinking of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s plane crash, in which the FAA analysts determined that he probably confronted that vertical horizon phenomenon in which he needed to trust his instruments instead of his instincts. Then it seemed a natural leap to simply look around at all the humanity aboard the plane and do what we all do. Observe and record. Select and distinguish. Heighten. Envision.

    But I was aboard too. And it was my possible last moment as well. Once I decided that I had to be included in the poem, I was led to consider my own potential last act. And it was literally true that I was reading a journal, holding it up close to my face in that dim light. That’s how I would have died. And that’s when the surprise happened. One of the best truths about writing for me has always been simply to trust the image. In holding the journal, in that image, I found myself thinking it was not unlike the way we hold with two hands the face of the one we love, the “you” we would say our last words to if we could. And it seemed right to leap from that to the ideal Dear Reader we all write to, maybe someone on a plane reading our poem, holding her face close to the page, searching for meaning, for the right words. The “you” became the one we love and the one we write for, the poem like a human face we look into to fight our loneliness and confusion in our own flight through this world.

    Lastly, the poem is written for the other, for the “you.” I wanted the anxiety of a possible last moment to include the reader too, to recreate the image, almost as in a painting, to leave the reader as a viewer in a parallel position. I wanted to pull the reader in, to make him or her a kind of surrogate passenger on that plane as well, to place the reader in the same position (assuming the poem got published, of course), holding a poem, searching into its face, finding its worth. Ultimately, I hoped for the reader, the loved one, to be free to consider one’s own last moment, and to whom one would wish to speak.

  7. Hello John,

    How do you decide a poem will include long lines vs. short lines? The poems in this issue have especially long lines. 'High Tide' is one that really looks different on the page. Do you experiment with line breaks? How did the long lines (or line breaks) evolve in your revisions of these poems?

  8. Thanks for the question, Tom. I’ve read and admired your work, most recently in the latest Worcester Review. You write well. Good brave poems. I had hoped someone might ask about the other poems and, specifically, how the long lines came into play. This might take a series of replies, so please hold on.

    One of the good things about a forum such as this is the chance to explore such questions, partly for the reader, of course, but maybe even more for the poet. I’ve often maintained that the writer is sometimes so involved in the making of the poem that he or she can’t step back far enough to really see what is at work in the dynamic concerning line lengths, for example. In looking at “High Tide” I’m struck by something I didn’t even notice at the time; the fact that that poem and “Watson” were each generated from a single word, in each case a name, even a similar sounding name. “Watson” appealed to me because it had me hearing the variations of other words and expressions, such as “What son” and “What, son” and “What’s on,” each sounding like the beginning of a question, and each seemingly being possible inclusions into making the poem. Then there were variations such as “white sun” and “Whitsuntide” and I started thinking maybe I could get a poem that might have that word or a variation of that word in each line. The long line was born in that way. It ultimately didn’t quite hold together. I couldn’t get the word Watson in each line, the lines generating their own directional integrity, moving their own way, but by then the long line was in place.
    “High Tide” was a little different. I know I was initially just reacting to the seeming coincidence that a person named Waters was a Vietnam riverboat commander now teaching about submarines. Coincidence, or seeming coincidence, may be what we so often see first as writers. I like the idea that nothing is mere coincidence, and that things connect for a reason, that the murder of crows you saw in your backyard at 5:30 in the morning just because your eye was drawn to some new blur in the semi-darkness, and the iridescent single feather you find on your way across campus at the end of the day were meant to be seen by you, maybe only you. I think if a poet is paying attention things connect all day long, and that, aesthetically, poets should constantly see one of their roles as being just that, connectors. If we’re going to be using similes for a living we have to do that. It’s, like, a law.

    The long lines began then from one word, the professor’s name, Waters, and from the coincidence of a life lived in connection to waters, both of war and peace. But then there was more. After I sat in on a memorable class of his and complimented him on it, especially on the fact that he had indicated to students that he taught peace studies now as a way to expiate (not that kids knew what expiate meant exactly) I noticed a tear in his eye. And there it was. The gift. I was lucky to be paying attention, not just to the waters that seemed to dominate his life’s work, but also to the depth of his compassion, his caring for his students. And when I began to know him further and found out about his love for kayaking, I knew there were enough gifts to make a poem, each item, his name, his history, his teaching, his tear, his redemption, and his genuine love for the water.

    When I began the poem it was the way his life had evolved, from warrior to peace advocate, that was the predominant ingredient, but then there was the image of turning over in a kayak, like turning over one’s life. And I free associated again, thinking about Onitsura’s famous haiku about the trout leaping from the water, and in that moment, mid-air, seeing his reflection in the water, and also seeing the reflection of the sky above him, the two worlds transposed for a moment, turned completely over, and somehow made one all at once.

    At that point I realized I was trying to write about an entire life, one that had begun in a diametrically opposite place and transformed entirely into another over time. That task seemed to call for a long line too. Maybe it was the image of the sea itself, the vast horizon of a life. There were catalogues in the poem too, lists of all the acronyms for what he was teaching. And there were the names of the class of submarines, Ohio, and that opened to the places where he had been, to Alaska and the Aleutians, and then to the idea of how Ohio had once been covered by glaciers and how Inuits had hunted for whales the size of submarines in the Ice Age, and the ideas and landscapes of history seemed to continue to open wider and wider, and the poem and the line lengths began to stretch again just to get all that horizon in. Does that make any sense? That a poem about that expanse of time would call for expansive lines as well?

    Thanks for the question. You’ve made me realize some things. Let me know if this is confusing or opens up other questions. And again I admire your work a great deal.