On Poetry and Childlessness

Rilke speaks in his letters about the loneliness of childhood, and I think this Romantic notion of that state is generally accepted by most artists.  And there is something to be said about the long stretches of boredom–at least, it was still like this when I was a kid–where one was forced out of the house and into the woods, and told not to come home until dinner.  What filled those afternoons?  Obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it was the imagination that filled them.

When I ask my students what the imagination is they often have an answer ready.  It creates, they say.  And they are right.  But from what?  From nothing, like God?  Not exactly.  The writers of imaginative literature, like poets, don’t conjure for us the new and novel from what has never been.  They possess only the things of this world from which to create their patterns.  So.  How does the imagination create? is probably the better and more useful question.  If the intellect, like Aristotle, separates the world into its categories, the imagination associates, puts together.  This is why its muscle is consciousness, and its tool the metaphor.

I don’t think I’m saying anything that every thinking person hasn’t already concluded, accepted and, if she is a poet, practiced.  Even if her formula differs in its details, its sum is the same.  When I read Woolf’s musings on what it takes to be a writer, that is, time and a room of one’s own, I see it in these terms.  That to write well what is most essential is the time and the room for the imagination to do its work.  It would be a good topic of discussion and research to discover why it is that the intellect–at least in some people–rushes in first to do its work before the imagination has time to do its.  I suppose there is an evolutionary reason.  Only a starving saint, when given the choice between food and poetry, would choose poetry.  And yet the cliché of the starving poet, high in his garret, musing and composing, is at least as old as modern poetry.  The uneasiness between the middle class, the actual middle class, and the poet is an example of a paradox.  The poet needs, for his daily bread, a literate and cultured class, otherwise his time and his room couldn’t be paid for, and yet the poet must walk a fine line between the freedom he seeks and the imprisonment the middle class life is.

The above musings stem, I think, from a conversation I had last night with SKG.  On the way home from the reading, we touched on a  familiar subject, that is, the relationship between art and life or, more specifically, how childlessness, and therefore the absence of what is the center of most life for most of humanity, might be auspicious for the poet.  Jesus called for his followers to leave their families, their children and their wives, so that they might literally give everything they have to God.  A saint is someone who, despite the enticements of an ordinary life, chooses to give hers up for a divine one.  Often this choice isn’t really a choice but a set of circumstances cast upon the individual mixed with a temperament or an uneasy spirit, all of which combined makes any other life impossible.  And there are many examples of poets and artists who, even when they had children, a family, chose to live a divine life, if we can use the word “divine” as loosely and as un-denomination-ally as possible.

The advantage of being childless is this.  Room and time.  Yesterday, while I was walking in my field, the presence of my being was so close I might have dissolved right then and there.  It was like the experience I used to have in childhood, where everything felt overwhelming and even the slightest breeze caused a welling up, not of tears necessarily, but of something large and more than me.  I want to call this the soul, but not the soul which is immortal and not the soul Keats means when he talks about this life being a vale of soul-making.  It is, for me, a tertiary part of the self that, when added to the natural world causes much trouble for the individual.  It knows almost nothing of limitations, when it is strong.  And when it is weak and tired, it seeks oblivion.  In the night, sometimes, it enlarges the senses and makes a room seem like a universe.  Our human eyes aren’t enough to contain all it touches, all it sees.

The question becomes, then, is this enough?  Of the hours I spent awake yesterday, this experience, which might be the cause of or seed of or impetus for poetry, lasted a second or two.  In my better moments, I might be able to sustain this feeling for an hour, or maybe it flees and returns several times on a particular afternoon.  But it never stays.  It isn’t a state of being, but a confluence of states.  A happy accident of circumstance, of attention, of weather.  And it reminds me of childhood.  Definitely.  Of the pain of childhood, of the loneliness of childhood, of the frustration of childhood.  It is, as Rilke suggests in his way, the best part of being confused by a world, a body and a mind that you can neither command nor be commanded by.

But what about the rest of life, the hours we spend both awake and asleep?  Where do we put our libidinous energies?  Into whom?  The artist, depicted often as selfish and prone to tantrums, when he is childless lacks the thing, the civilizing thing, which causes other lives to be, even with all their stresses and craziness, purposeful and steady.  The idea that the poet’s work is like his child to him underscores only how ridiculous a notion it is to think along these lines.  What does the work of art require from us really?  Does it need to be fed?  Does it want a bed to sleep in, arms to be held in, happiness to be his?  Materially, the answer is no because the poem flees from us, and the words, in lines or paragraphs, which follow are merely a trail, a record of a happening.  Our poems are the ghosts of children, not children.  We might spend our lives following their footsteps into the wild.  A mature, seasoned hunter may even emerge from that wilderness, but how changed he is.  How different.  How strange.

The greatest advantage to being a childless poet is that he has to rely on poetry differently from those who have that other half, that civilizing half, of life.  Poetry is not a refuge from life for him, but his life indeed.  It has to be.  This is true whether he is writing a poem or not.  There is room and time in his consciousness for poetry always or almost always.  So when she returns, from whatever hemisphere or continent it is she flies to, a limb, a nest, a warm, good place waits for her in him to light and sing.  It isn’t enough to have ideas for poems, under these circumstances.  Instead, a poet must have an idea about poetry.  If the poems which result from that shift in understanding are better than the ones that come from some other understanding, it hardly matters.  What the childless poet needs from poetry is wholly other and therefore success must be measured by some other definition.

I wish I can say I’m not concerned about how this sounds.  But I am.  It seems as if I might be saying something I don’t mean.  And yet there is, now, no other way to say it.  Any poet, who cares, might flower at any time, family, children or no.  And some, as Wordsworth points out, bloom unseen, unnoticed.  This may be said of most lives, poetic or not, religious or not, saintly or not.  But it is essential, I think, that each poet, each person must find a formula that leads him to that flowering.  The fruits of the endeavor, whatever they might be, poem or child, are beyond his conception.

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2 Responses to On Poetry and Childlessness

  1. Craig Shay says:

    Hey Man, how are you? I enjoyed reading your post. It was very thought provoking. Many artists do feel that their art is like their children, or maybe a better description could be a mistress. The mistress often takes the artist’s attention away from their worldly duties to sneak into abandoned buildings or to follow those dangerous paths in the woods.
    I’m a currently taking a class on English Romanticism, and we’re reading Wordsworth. Wordsworth talks about the enduring adjustment one faces when left with “the shadow” of childhood bliss in his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” He mentions how things once appeared in “celestial light,” a light which he “can see no more.” Wordsworth wrestles with this loss of light throughout the poem and comes to the conclusion that life still has a lot to offer him, and he still has the “kingdom of Heaven” within him (his poetic ability) to get him through “business, love, or strife.”

    • Editor says:

      It’s good to hear from you, Craig. I visited your site the other day and see you have been publishing quite a lot. Congratulations. Your thoughts on the immortality ode have caused me to think again about Wordsworth and that poem. But more about that some other time. Glad to know you’re well and studying poems closely. You could do worse than reading the Romantics.

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