AGE OF WONDERS
January 2011Old decade done, the morning throws off its shawl
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
of frost and the hedges drip with thaw water.
Like some postmodern Narcissus I stare at the pool
in my bathroom sink and pat my cheeks with lather
to scrape the aging face brisk, smooth, and pale;
beyond my window a persistent clamor
of horns and engines—as early commuters rush
toward the shrines of commerce—drowns out Hardy’s thrush
with the hope of goods and fortunes. Past forty now,
I lace my shoes and hit the Nordic track,
munch spoonfuls of bran and diced fruit, watch the Dow
streak past a flat screen rich with bric-a-brac
and sleek, tanned prophets who proclaim the Tao
of global markets, who’s in, who’s out, who’s back
from jail, rehab or chemo, while the snows
recede on Everest and the deficit grows.
What good is my pessimism? The soul completes
its journey in the dark and out of sight
or sulks the days in its tent of sinew, greets
the last hour happier than the first; but night
finds poor body cold on the chartered streets—
no point refusing him some warmth and light.
In T-shirt and shorts I sniff the heated air;
my Reeboks shuffle down a winding stair.
Still, something in me bristles. Is it age
merely, a dunderheaded sense the past
was better somehow—that glimmering mirage
glimpsed from a rearview mirror as the mist
ahead parts to reveal the yawning ledge
where the road should be, all distance closing fast?
Is it like that grumble before the gray
dandruff of history smothered out Pompeii?
Behind the bleach white sepulchers and smiles,
the lifted tits, twelve second abs, celebs
and pop stars tricked out in outlandish styles,
it flashes like a model’s picket ribs
showing beneath her nightie where the aisles
crowd toward the check out and the bounty ebbs:
the sublime is out of joint, the ship has wrecked,
huge mounds of kitsch bury the intellect.
Not that one has much time to notice it,
fixed in some grimace of acceleration
(texting, say, on a highway late at night)
or savoring the popular elation
of Living in the Now—while skill and wit
go the old way of income, jobs, vacation,
savings accounts or the environment;
and nobody thinks to wonder where they went.
The shower steams up while the kettle shrieks.
When did the promise sour? I think of all
that didn’t happen: the poems, books, and bucks,
freedom from the tyranny of dull
offices, projects, and bosses, and whole weeks
in cerebrotonic thought of the Ideal.
The present’s proof (as has been said already)
that the future isn’t what it used to be.
Mid-journey, though one of history’s darlings still,
I pour my tea dregs down the drain and tie
the silk around my neck, mustering the will
to head for work. Trawling the squares of sky
trapped in my window frame, inevitable
for all their seeming randomness, clouds go by
like traffic, brushed and freaked with pewter flaws,
obeying—as all things do—time’s hidden laws.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started it in the middle of January, 2011, as the epigraph suggests. I have always wanted to write an “occasional” poem, and this one was inspired in many ways by Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” a New Year’s poem and a pessimistic meditation on the turn of the previous century. I was closing in on the end of my third book, The Sleep of Reason, and the last several poems of that collection came to me more or less in a white heat—I wrote two other, shorter poems and began this one all in the same week. As soon as I sat down, the first stanza tumbled out.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Like most of my poems, the first draft came rather quickly—I wrote all but the final stanza in a single sitting. But the final stanza was exceptionally difficult for some reason. It took me over a week to get that right. Once I got the final stanza nailed down, the poem probably went through twenty or thirty drafts—mostly small changes in phrasing. Generally speaking, my drafts appear pretty close to final form, and the revision process is more a tinkering with words and rhythms than a series of major overhauls.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, definitely. For me, poems are a complicated pas de deux between surrender and will. Poems generally arise out of surrender—I stare off into space and try not to “think” too hard, until an image or a phrase surfaces—and then I consciously push it forward in an effort to contextualize it, to discover its narrative or meditative trajectory. But then at some point I get stuck, and I have to surrender to the poem again, submit to what it wants to do: so I just stare off into space until something reveals itself. I refer to those moments when I get stuck as the “seams” of the poem; when I re-read this piece, I can spot the junctures or seams where I hesitated and had to surrender my will in order to advance to the next line. Hopefully the seams are invisible to other readers, though.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I am a formal poet, and in this piece I employ ottava rima, an Italian stanza used by Byron in the nineteenth century as a vehicle for narration and wit, and then used by Yeats in the twentieth for the purposes of “serious” meditation. Though I have usually explored the form in the Yeatsian sense—I’ve been playing with ottava rima since my first book—here I’m decidedly more Byronic. The stanza is composed of eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc. I don’t know how I decided to use it for this poem—it just sort of happened that way. It’s a go-to stanza form, one that I enjoy due to both the difficulty of the triple-rhyming and the delight of the resolving couplet. It seemed to suit the witty pessimism I was striving for.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
When I completed the penultimate stanza, the poem just stalled. For several days I entertained the possibility that the poem didn’t need an additional stanza at all, but for some reason I just didn’t feel satisfied. I tried tacking on another eight lines, but when I shared it with a friend it became clear that the lines were terrible. I was pretty perplexed, but nothing spurs me on like discouragement and adversity. I rewrote and rewrote until things clicked into place. Now, the final stanza may be my favorite part of the poem.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It was published later in 2011, by The Southwest Review. So it was a matter of several months.
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?
I tend to jump the gun on submitting. Though I should definitely be more principled about things, I have a childish need for instant gratification. Sometimes it leads to embarrassment, of course, but in this case things turned out all right. I think I let the poem sit around for about three weeks before sending it out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
For me, poetry is a fictive art, and there’s definitely a distance between the speaker and the poet here: for example, I don’t have a Nordic track and I don’t wear neckties. Having said that, the poem explores the difficulties and disappointments of middle age, and the spirit of that is true despite the questionable veracity of the details.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s a meditative poem framed around a narrative, but there is definitely an element of story. It begins with breakfast and exercise and ends with the speaker leaving for work. It covers narrative ground.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading Lord Byron, James Merrill, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Claude McKay at the time. They’re all in there somewhere, quarreling with each other and calling me out, at times, on my comparative incompetence.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I try to please a handful of dead writers I admire, who cannot read my poems and would likely disapprove if they could. For this reason, my poetry career is a kind of ongoing existential disappointment.
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?
My wife, the novelist Sarah Creech, looks at everything I do, usually at the precise moment I am finished with the first draft. A smile or a wrinkle of the lip tells me most of what I need to know initially. I have two additional readers who are unsparing in their appraisals, but also generous in telling me when things are working. One is a former student, a friend, and a fellow poet; he looks at all my early drafts. Sometimes he tells me to put things away, and other times he encourages me to keep going, offering thoughtful suggestions and tactful objections. The other friend—also a fellow poet—reads things once they’re more polished and “finished.” If I didn’t have these three critics, my poems would be much worse.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
There’s a grim, even bitter, sense of humor to it that I think sets it apart.
What is American about this poem?
Everything. It’s a critique of contemporary American culture—its obsession with appearance and material success, its pop-culture narcissism, its nihilism and decadence. There’s nothing more American than complaining bitterly in the midst of staggering abundance.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Old poems always strike me as alien and unfamiliar when I reread them. I finished this one years ago, but it has since abandoned me.