Monday, July 2, 2012

Benjamin S. Grossberg on "A Thought"


I’m most comfortable writing in a narrative mode, but when I started “A Thought,” I was clear that I didn’t want to describe the event that brought me to the page—or even to discuss how I was changed as a result of that event. I wanted only to meditate on the process of change, and the moment of recognizing it.

Why didn’t I want to tell this particular story? Probably because it injured my pride—or at least my vanity. But also because there wasn’t much to it, certainly not enough to build a poem around. And why didn’t I wish to talk explicitly about the change that the narrative occasioned in me, what I learned? Because it felt too personal, even self-indulgent. What material do we put into our poems, what material do we leave out—what limits do we place on ourselves? Just once in “A Thought,” do I glance at the event that gave rise to the poem: “A word, a look / from a man that wasn’t— / you realized a moment too late— / directed at you.” In some ways, these lines are the poem’s center, gesturing toward a quiet but productive embarrassment.

The work of Carl Phillips helped me through all this reticence. I didn’t sit down to write with Phillips’ poems in mind, but early in the composition process, I recalled “Native” from his collection Riding Westward, and it offered me a way forward. “Native” is a challenging text. I have read it dozens of times, and although I can speak with some confidence about the poem’s occasion and emotion, it contains more than one passage that remains opaque to me. And yet, despite this difficulty, “Native” is vibrant, moving sinuously from image to image. The music is beautiful, even if the meaning can be hard to pin down. As far as narrative goes, “Native” references its “story” only elliptically—giving a hint or two about a beloved and a troubled relationship. The poem modeled for me how a single motion, a continuous arc of mind, can carry a reader through a chain of images—and offer satisfaction, a full experience, even if the meaning isn’t fully clear. Also from Phillips I took the stance of “A Thought”: a speaker addressing himself in a knowing, intimate manner.

I suspect my poem is, finally, more accessible than “Native,” and I don’t think my similes range with the freedom and surprise that Phillips’ do. I also wonder if others, reading the two poems side-by-side, would feel as much kinship as I suggest here. But in any case, I feel indebted to Phillips for helping me say what I needed to, despite the barriers I had put up to my own utterance. As poets, we sometimes build mazes around ourselves—great hedge walls of inhibition or propriety, or of our own estimation of our skills. But occasionally we get lucky and another poet comes along to take us by the hand, lead us out. 

14 comments:

  1. I've watched this spot for days, as I suspect you probably have too -- and you're so honest and unassuming in what you say about writing the poem, you must wonder -- "Did I say something wrong?"

    Or is it perhaps like the humiliating event that you say is buried in the poem -- "Am I not interesting enough? Are readers just not interested in what I write, is that it? Are they put off by my attempt to say a little something about my poem or, even worse, by the poem itself?"

    Not so long ago I went to a restaurant here in Chiang Mai that is owned by a very beautiful and well-known Thai folk-singer -- an Asian Joan Baez. She made her name singing political songs during the dangerous Communist period in the 70s and 80s, so she's not so young anymore, but still very beautiful. And I confess that I, her same age, or even a little bit older, caught her eye -- or at least I thought I did, for a moment, arrogantly -- dared to think I had 'interested' her but which, just a moment later, I realized was entirely my own vanity.

    And that's what you say, isn't it -- "A word, a look/from a man that wasn’t—/you realized a moment too late—/directed at you?"

    Well, I've been mortified ever since by the feeling of having been caught out by my own self-absorption because, as you say in your commentary, "it injured my pride."

    Which is what the poem is about, isn't it, which is why it's so hard to write, and so hidden? Yes, and hard to respond to in any other words, perhaps, unless you're really old like me.

    I think we always put up barriers when we write -- indeed, I suspect there wouldn't be any Art at all in the world without such restrictions. Because you have to feel alone and utterly useless before you have any real reason to try to express anything, at least about yourself.

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christopher,

      Thank you for your careful reading of the poem. I appreciate the attention and thought.

      Ben

      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mr. Grossberg,

    I came to your poem (and the wonderful, accompanying blog entry) through its posting on Poetry Daily. I love the way the poem moves (accessibly, as you point out, with an overlay of mystery too) and proceeded to look up all of your other poems I could find on the web. I've also ordered your books as I find so few poets these days willing to engage faith, love, sexuality and the confounding movements of the mind in a single breath (or the few breaths of a single poem). So, thank you for this breathtaking piece.

    This is quickly turning into a fan letter, but I want also to say that I pulled out my copy of Carl Phillips' Riding Westward (a book I return to, over and over, never quite getting it but loving it). I read "Native" alongside your poem and I can see many of the similarities. What you do in "Thought" is what Phillips often does in his poetry: He captures the attempt and the failure to grasp, understand, hold onto a thought or feeling, the moment of change.

    I'll echo Christopher and say that your poem made me think of a moment from my own life too, on a flight from San Francisco to Portland when I was feeling most disconnected from my life, when "a look from a man" wakened something in me. There was no shame; the man kept trying to catch my eye, was in fact looking my way, even stared at me after the flight once we'd reached the baggage claim. I almost approached him there, but found I didn't want to ruin the anonymity of his attention and the "creaking sweep/the rusted iron gate" of my own will opening outward to the world. I didn't want to sully the moment of connection with a desire for anything beyond those faraway looks.

    I suspect many other readers will have connected with this work as we all have moments like these. Thank you so much for putting it out there; I look forward to reading more like it.

    James Crews

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. James,

      This is an incredibly generous letter. Thank you.

      I appreciate your story about the flight from San Francisco to Portland. It makes me think you are a romantic--enjoying the chemistry of that brief moment of connection, not wanting to compromise it.

      I also really like what you say about Phillips' work. I first came upon his poem while writing a book review, but I wish I had read them in graduate school. Your thoughts make me realize that I'd have benefitted a lot from discussing the work with a group of poets.

      And thanks for your interested in some of my other stuff. I very much hope you like some of it.

      Ben

      Delete
  4. Thanks so much for that, James -- I was beginning to think I was the only one!

    Your experience is a very powerful one, and particularly the way you connect what you felt with the image of the rusty gate in the poem, the refusal of an "opening outward to the world," you call it. On the other hand, I suspect the experience in the poem was more a refusal to open inwardly, that it was rather a turning inward out of fear or guilt, or perhaps just not yet being willing, or able, to be surprised by such joy. On the other hand, the poem says "A word, a look/from a man that wasn’t—/you realized a moment too late—/directed at you." Which might indicate the experience was a bit more like mine -- a misunderstanding occasioned by one's own self-absorption.

    What I didn't say was that the singer in my story was singing at the time, as she does almost every evening at her restaurant if you're ever in Chiang Mai (ask anybody!) -- up on a stool with her beautiful long black hair down her back and two young guitarists beside her. So for me to have intruded on that was also to have projected myself into an all too obviously self-promoting fantasy -- and, as I said, I’m still mortified.

    Obviously all three experiences, yours, mine and that described in the poem, have elements of the same, but what is important is how they linger at the back of the mind through whole seasons, the memory coloring our subsequent experience of everything in the external world. Yet so small, so ephemeral -- that's why the feather is so important, and indeed provides the poem with its whole structure, slowly turning this way and that as it does, balancing like the pole of a tight-rope walker with such a long way to fall down below.

    Benjamin S. Grossman gives us lots to think about when a describes the process of writing the poem, and we have to thank him for that, a lot, but the measure of the success of the poem is the fact that it doesn't actually need the help. Which is a tremendous compliment to any poem, I'd say, particularly when a poem tries so hard not to say what it means!

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's a beautiful poem. D. E. Steward

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Mr. Steward,

      Thank you for the note. I've read a number of your poems, as well--I remember them pretty clearly--and I have very much enjoyed them.

      Take care,

      Ben

      Delete
    2. And thank you, Ben. Salud, Dave Steward

      Delete
  6. It’s a wonderful poem, I think we all agree – even Ben! And I believe in that too – I think it’s any honest poet who can tell you the true value of his or her own poem better than anybody else. Which indeed could be seen to be part of the background of this poem as well, Ben struggling to find out how he can say it, going to another poet whom he greatly admires and has lived with for a long time – getting not just reassurance from that poet’s style but, I suspect as well, from his person, and of course concrete pointers about techniques, imagery, for example, and what can be said how, and what’s better hidden.

    So to try to add to the value of this Forum, which is such a great pleasure but at the same time not quite yet as generous and free-spirited as Blog Harriet was before it got shutdown -- when Annie Finch and Martin Earl and Joel Brouwer where kicking up an enormous, irrepressible storm that threatened to bury the whole of The Poetry Foundation in angel dust, I’d like to venture not a criticism but a new angle of exploration toward “A Thought,” indeed toward any poem that has the good fortune to be put up here on the BJB Forum for our enjoyment, inspiration and thought.

    And here’s my question for this one, Ben. Why is the poem so much more compelling when you read it out loud? What can you do, or any poet, I mean, to find an accommodation on the page that can bring over more of the rhythm and nuance and feeling of a poem that you can hear yourself when you read it out loud, but is very hard to place on the page?

    Because I confess that I find this poem a great deal more successful in the BJB Forum context, including the recording and the presence of the author, than I think I might if I came across it in an anonymous pile of poems in a magazine somewhere I’d never heard of. And I mean form-wise -- it seems to me to rely too much on the delicacy of the sentiment and not enough on the form, for want of a better word.

    We used to have all the help we needed in this area by tradition – now we have to create our own skins to incarnate as poets.

    Or is this just me, an old man who hasn’t yet made it down to the now?

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Christopher,

    I don't know whether the fault you note is in your ear (that you haven't "made it down to the now") or the poem. I hear the music in it, of course, but I would, as I wrote it. I can only guess that at least a few others have, too, since the poem ended up here and on PD without the support of my voice.

    Take care,

    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  8. I certainly do hear the music in the poem, Ben, which is indeed one of its very special features, but I confess I didn't hear it as strongly when I first read the poem on the page. I was always interested in the poem, for sure, and of course that was also because it was a BPJ selection -- I don't know what PD refers to but that would undoubtedly have helped me to trust the poem even more. And trust is so often where it's at in all modern art.

    What I got right from the start was the quiet mystery of the poem as embodied in the feather that turns this way and that like a celestial paintbrush creating an inner world of great beauty, reserve and finesse. But damned if I could find any of that in the FORM of the poem, the actual disposition of the words on the page. I couldn't see how the disposition of the words on the page assisted the rhythm of the words in my ear, for example, or the images in my mind's eye for that matter either. Which seems a waste to me, as one of the most valuable tools we have as modern poets is the freedom to put words anywhere we want to arouse more delight and, of course, to clarify what we mean or feel we want to teach. Because the poem teaches a lot. Both James and myself have expressed our gratitude for that -- indeed, that's where we went first, the thought!

    There's my devil's advocate, everybody -- I could go into the poem and talk about the parts I do find graphically helpful, and then give some examples of the parts where I don't, but if I'm the only one who is questioning the forms of wonderful poems like this, then obviously I’m the odd man out.

    And just to say that I'm not talking about what acting teachers call "indicating" either, and understand very well that by NOT showing something we may be able to reveal it even more powerfully on stage. I'm not talking about making pictures with words either, which is so rarely effective, or talking about the new formalism which is hardly suited to what Ben is doing muttering his thoughts. I'm talking about the intolerable wrestle with words, and my feeling is that this wonderful poem is not yet memorable forever.

    Yes, in a nutshell I'd like to know what we poets can do today to write like this even better, or even the best. I want to know how to work!

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
  9. I started this, and I guess I probably have to accept the responsibility to carry it on. Otherwise I look just a troublemaker.

    ~

    I think it’s exhausting to have so many possibilities as modern poets, but so we do. We’re saddled with that.

    And I think as well a lot of it goes back to W.C.Williams who was not, by his own admission and much to his own dismay, a natural poet at all, that he felt other people had so many more and richer gifts than he did, and that he just had to get on with what he did have, which was not much more than most of us do.

    I think W.C.W. worked extremely hard because he always knew that even his best poems were hardly poems at all. And then he had to work to get over the strain which would otherwise have made all his poems embarrassing, and to work and work until it finally looked easy and life-like on the page. And we end up with “So Much Depends Upon,” our icon and touchstone, but also our cross. We have to struggle to make it look as easy and natural as that, as if poetry were a gift and not a penance!

    Which is what I mean about the element of HARD WORK that I think goes into most successful poems like “A Thought,” and I hoped maybe Ben could tell us a bit about what happened AFTER the struggle to say what he meant that he describes in his introduction above. What happened after he went to Carl Phillips for guidance and courage, after the words did finally come, and they did manage to say what he meant – which for me, in any case, is almost always just the start because I’ve still got to get to the page. Indeed, I think that’s when most poets start the intolerable wrestling stuff, don’t they? Working it out on the page, pinning it down to win it?

    Can you imagine how many opponents and trainers and fans and kibitzers and reporters and the popping of flash bulbs and the thumping Carl Phillips had to live with alone at his desk while finishing a masterpiece like “Leda, After the Swan? ” Or even a tiny little shudder like “Porcelain,” what is more a major work of art like “A Kind of Meadow?”

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
  10. It’s silence again, isn't it?

    Just as this thread started off -- 8 full days without a comment, July 2nd to July 10th. And I went to it every day too, just hoping.

    So why doesn't someone challenge me when I suggest "A Thought," though a wonderfully nuanced BPJ poem, isn't yet "memorable forever?" Because maybe it is, and I'm just slow to get it. Or maybe the question is irrelevant, or disrespectful, or not what one talks about when one talks about the poetry we actually write ourselves?

    And to tell you the truth, I’m beginning to doubt what I said now too, because I’ve been reading this poem everyday for over 2 weeks, and the more I read it the more it settles down in my mind to be just like it is. And yet I said I wanted it to be even better!

    That’s why I cited those particular Carl Phillips poems, to remind myself of how perfect even what we ordinary poets attempt to do in the same vein can get. And that that’s not easy even if it looks completely effortless!

    And of course I chose three examples that are also high art, lest we forget that that’s possible as well, even for us!

    Or is high art not what we do, as if it were kitsch?

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete