I wonder sometimes why I began to write. And sometimes I wonder why I still do. I know my process well enough to know that I especially feel this way after a long bout of writing. The last year has been a rather fruitful one, thanks in part to a sabbatical. Just what kind of fruit the bout and the sabbatical have produced, I can’t tell yet. It all seems to me now like so much rotten cabbage. This says more about me than it does the work, of course. (I remember Septembers in my old house. The neighborhood was set on the edge of a cabbage field, and in those last hot days the heads stunk fiercely. Now the fields are gone.) One becomes fatigued by writing like this. And that fatigue comes and goes frequently. But there is a special fatigue, which comes infrequently. I feel that now. It suggests a need for reinvention. A need to revise.
The less substantial fatigue calls me to revise, too. Mostly, this call means revising a manuscript. Fiddling with poems. Seeing what I had been trying to say muddled by what I had been hoping to say. Or maybe that is backwards. And what I was hoping to say was muddled by what I was trying to say. (Maybe I had nothing to do with the enterprise at all!) Maybe this fatigue I’m feeling now means only this. I look over the manuscripts, and ask: What do I have here? Can this be saved? And if the answer is no, I set it aside. Nothing can be done. I’m not ready. Or maybe, there is a poem, a group of poems, a little bit of prose, something–and if I see it, I might begin the difficult task of revising. I cull through, looking for what ought to remain and discard the rest. I polish. I read. I choose.
But if the fatigue is a special kind. If I am really, truly sapped. If I have said, in that way, all that I might, and I want nothing more to do with saying–then, the revision I mean might mean something more. It may have to be more profound an activity. It may have to be stillness and waiting. It may mean that what I have to see again doesn’t lie on the page or between the covers of a book. It may mean that the thing which desires to be seen again is deeper still.
I’m starting to mistrust the more profound declarations of change, which some–and I have been one–claim. Somewhere in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, he talks about the phenomenon of conversion. It’s not that I don’t think people can alter their behavior. I know they can. I see it all the time. And I have done this, both for the good and the bad. And these changes have overwhelmed me sometimes. I have found myself struck, and the next morning the man I was and the man I am seem to be as distant as two feuding brothers. Even my wife might touch my cheek and say, Who? James suggests that these two feuding brothers, good and evil, prodigal and prudent, Cain and Able, are really two extremes of the same sphere. And I believe that now. How does a man know he has done wrong unless he knows what wrong’s opposite is? How could he conclude, I have been mistaken? And what is guilt or regret except one brother tapping the other on the shoulder? Usually, it takes great pain, extremes of suffering, for an individual to make a shift like the one James describes. And the revision of that man’s life, like the one Rilke appears to have at the end of his poem about the busted torso of Apollo, which seems to come suddenly–one day I am this, and this day I am that–has been ripening in him a long time.
My fear about changes like these is that they are superficial. The decisions made by such a changed man are linked, albeit darkly, to that other half he disclaimed. The danger, of course, is that in the end this new man, hoping to avoid the pain which caused the conversion in the first place, (though it might have been the best thing ever to happen to him,) ends up running headlong into the arms of that pain again or the circumstances that caused it. Processes lead to ends, and I would suggest that it doesn’t matter the process, if the ends are the same. This may be why the Greeks wisely point out that we should call no man happy until he is dead. It is for these reasons, then, that what I’m looking to find isn’t a new process, which would always be in relation to the old one, but a new end, which transcends both old and new. Or, perhaps better still, marries the two, so that the spheres I mention above embrace, and the feuding brothers are healed. Their work can begin in concert, then.
I use to think that poetry could affect the kind of change I mean. I doubt that now. It might facilitate revision, in the best of circumstances, Dante’s for instance, but it is just as likely to lead one astray. One might get lost a long time in that maze, and circle and circle, without respite. This one would become either convinced that change is impossible or believe that it is as easy as moving one’s attention from here to there. And so it may be that earnest longing brings us closest to our desired end, and so poetry may play a part but only a part. Or it may be luck, or grace, or love that heals us. Poetry contributes to some of this. Or it may be in serving others, human kind or, more likely, the people we claim to love, our spouses and our children, that we find the profoundest change. Poetry might help here. Or it may be that revision like this is impossible. Again, poetry might help. And if we find we can’t change, that we are exactly this and nothing more, then let’s surrender only when it’s necessary. Discarding a possibility before it has been thoroughly tested, before we have pried open our stubborn eyes or pressed our hot cheeks into the dust, seems to me to be about the most foolish thing we can do, short of concluding in our hearts what the fool concludes in the psalms.