Friday, September 4, 2009
Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He received his BA from Middlebury College, and his MA from Syracuse University. He has received the Bess Hokin prize from Poetry magazine, a Junior Fellowship from the University of Michigan Society of Fellows, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. His collection of poems, What We Don’t Know About Each Other, won the National Poetry Series and was a Finalist for the 1993 National Book Award. His sixth volume of poetry, Visible Signs: New & Selected Poems, was published in 2003, and a seventh collection, The History of Forgetting, is just out from Penguin. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
WHAT GOD MUST HAVE KNOWN
Pandora was one of many
fallible women set up for a fall,
another Eve who couldn’t
keep her hands to herself. Of course
the gods knew she’d open that box.
They were always having fun,
showing off and screwing around.
Curiosity was the only motivation
they gave her, so she did
what she had to—let the troubles loose.
Hard to imagine Zeus wasn’t pleased
with this little machine of a play.
Or that God hadn’t known
from the beginning that Eve
would eat that apple. Did he really
hope she’d surprise him?—
he who couldn’t help but see
the end of the future.
If only he’d had a few friends
to confide in, joke around with.
But God was always so serious.
No pranks in this story—
just disappointment, then anger.
Of course we would hurt him.
Like every father, he’d shown us how.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
An early version was written at Yaddo in June of 2004. It started—as almost all of my poems start—with the desire to write a poem. The subject follows. When I look back at my notebook I find the line “Can of Worms.” Beneath it: “Pandora’s Box.” And beneath that: a rough handwritten version of the beginning of the poem. I’d been trying to think, in a number of poems, about God. Whether some force or power that might go by that name exists, I don’t know. I neither believe nor disbelieve. I feel not knowing is the appropriate condition.
But I’m very interested in how God is represented, and the stories—particularly the ones I grew up with—in which he appears. How, I’d been wondering, can God be all-knowing and all-powerful, yet still be surprised by the actions of the people he’d created? Wouldn’t he have known that Eve had to eat the apple? Wasn’t that the point of the story? Therefore, his disappointment and fury, and all those punishments by flood and fire, seem more like performance and showing off than genuine outrage. Finally God, especially the Old Testament God, is most interesting when he’s like us, when the story reveals what we made him out of—our own fears and weaknesses, our frustrations and desires.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It went through scores of revisions over the course of five years. I thought it would be done, then I’d look at it again and know it wasn’t. The first version was called “Why God Is Always Alone,” and it ended: “All the words he made were grim / and thoughtful. No wonder he was alone. / No wonder we couldn’t make him happy.” I don’t know why I held onto “grim and thoughtful” for more than a draft or two. I remember my friend Stephen Dunn, who was at Yaddo at the same time, and to whom I show all of my work, often at very early stages, pointing out that that phrase was weak, but I held to it for far too long. At some point I had to forbid myself doubling last lines, like these. I’d turn to it all the time to get a poem to end, the way when I first started writing I’d often bring the wind in to end a poem.
Some years later the poem became “What God Must Have Known,” which points more accurately to its subject. I had all kinds of troubles with the ending. Even the one it has now I don’t think Stephen wholly approves of. He didn’t want me to say “like every father.” But my idea was that all fathers unconsciously show their children their weaknesses—how they can be hurt. (I didn’t mean that all fathers abuse their children, though I can see that “shown us how” could suggest physical violence.) And all children, at some point, hurt their fathers. Well, of course we hurt each other. That’s no revelation. That’s what we do because we’re human. The idea was to turn this back on God, who must have known, or should have known better.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration, but I believe it usually comes to us during the process of making a poem. That is, we generate it through our attentiveness to the act of writing. Sweat and tears create what can be “received.” Hard work creates the possibility of the unforeseen gift. Inspiration is earned, I think, rather than bestowed. If one morning it seems to come to us out of nowhere, then I believe we earned it the day before.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
It quickly found its way into stanzas, then later into five-line stanzas. Beyond that it was all a matter of phrasing. But isn’t that just about everything? Aren’t structures like rhyme and meter ways of supporting the tones of voices that are the poem? During the process of composition, I try to become aware of the various patterns that are functioning in a poem. Most of my lines are roughly iambic, because American speech is roughly iambic. There are lots of rhymes, but rarely at the ends of lines. Even the most rigorously formal poet cannot plan all of a poem’s effects, but he must be aware of as many patterns as possible. A form tells you where you should look. Free verse means you have to keep looking at everything as you revise.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It just appeared in a magazine in 2009, so that’s five years after the first version. A lot of my poems hang around for a long time. A lot keep hanging around, until they’re dismantled and the useful parts recycled. This one fits nicely into my latest book, The History of Forgetting, where there’s a thread of poems that worry about God.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
No rules. The poem needs to stand on its own to go out into the world. But the pleasure of finishing a poem—or seemingly finishing one—also results in a certain kind of blindness to its faults. That is, the relationship between writer and poem is too close for a while. You’re in love, you’re in the moment. That’s why we all need to set things aside and come back to them with a colder eye.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem assumes God is a fiction which is what we’d now all assume of Zeus and Pandora. Things are sometimes mean-spirited among the Greek and Roman gods, but it’s also a bit like a fraternity—lots of parties and pranks, jokes that go wrong, cruelties that really hurt, but still a lot of camaraderie. On the other hand, our god is always alone—no friends, nobody to talk to or commiserate with. He’s the loneliest version of ourselves. Nor does having a son help.
Is this a narrative poem?
I wouldn’t find it useful to call it that, though of course it depends on narratives and plays off of them.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t remember who I was reading then. I always bring a lot of books with me to Yaddo, and I always begin any period that I hope will result in writing just by reading some poems. Throughout my life there have been a variety of poets I’ve counted on to get me started (not so much as influences, though surely many were influential, sometimes too obviously), but just—just!—to move me toward thinking in the kinds of sentences that become those sentences that might become a poem. Certain phrases and gestures and tones will make me think: I’d like to do that. Or: I can do that. Sometimes even: I can do better than that.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I believe it was Gertrude Stein who said, “I write for myself, and strangers.” I’ve always liked that. It also nicely suggests a certain division in the process of composition. When you begin you just need to accept things because they occur to you. You trust that what’s bad will be revised out later. But you can’t afford to stop to make value judgments. You need to let any piece of language generate the next piece. Something mediocre, or dull, or stupid, or embarrassing, may lead to something good. But if you stop to edit it out you can get stuck there. If you reject the thought, your imagination may not give you the next, better thought. Beginning is for me a process of accumulation, out of which shapes and structures, tones and voices, emerge.
Later, once the poem has an architecture that makes it feel like a poem, rather than a series of notes, I have to start to consider the reader. And the closer the poem moves toward completion, the more useful it becomes to imagine a reader, so that I can wonder if any moment makes sense, if it does what it has to do, if it works. The pleasure of beginning belongs to the writer. The more finished the poem becomes, the more the fact of the reader—and the reader’s pleasure, and understanding—have to be the poet’s primary concern.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I have a couple of close poet-friends, most notably Stephen Dunn and Jonathan Aaron, to whom I show my work in progress. In both cases—as well as in the case of my wife, Judy, who is also an excellent reader of my work—our relationships are of such long standing, and our impulses and tastes are so much known to each other, that it’s possible to show work that’s in very early stages. Then I’m not only asking for suggestions about revision, which supposes that there’s something there substantial enough to revise. I’m inviting, indeed welcoming, much larger possibilities that might re-envision the material, press it in some entirely different direction. It’s risky, but it works, at least much more often than not.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I suppose it’s like a lot of my recent poems in taking up as its generating subject something the reader knows—here Pandora, Eve, Zeus, and God, in other poems a movie, a painting, a fairy tale, a certain kind of daily encounter, or sharable feeling—and trying to think interestingly about it.
What is American about this poem?
I’d like to believe that its skepticism might be, but I couldn’t prove it. In terms of language, the colloquial gestures in the poem—“set up for a fall,” “showing off and screwing around,” “couldn’t keep her hands to herself”—are set against, maybe even give me the permission for, a more serious, “eloquent” tone, like “he who couldn’t help but see / the end of the future.” I don’t know if either kind of phrasing is particularly American, but I want the poem to sound like somebody talking—somebody like me—and not a poetical contrivance. I’d like the reader to think: Yes, I’ve heard that, I know how that goes.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
At some point in the process of composition, every poem declares its limitations. This is most often the same point at which the poem establishes its structure, since by allowing for content, structure necessarily begins to display the range of the poem’s thinking. At the beginning, anything was possible. That was the illusion. Once the poem’s necessary limitations become visible, the poet has three choices: to accept them, finishing the poem in the best way possible; to throw the poem away; or to dismantle it and begin again. By publishing “What God Must Have Known” I’ve declared that it’s sufficiently finished to go out into the world without my intervention. At the same time, I’m keenly aware that the poem could have been better, or different—larger, more expansive, riskier, more compelling. Those are my hopes for everything I haven’t yet written, and for a while each new poem will seem to take me there.