Saturday, August 25, 2012
In the July / August issue of American Poetry Review there's a wonderful article by C.K. Williams, "On Being Old." While I enjoyed the entire article, the following paragraph really grabbed my attention:
I used to believe what I thought was a metaphor about writing poetry: that it's addictive, like a drug. But I understand now that composing verse is actually, not metaphorically, addictive: there really is a kind of rush, to use the addicts' term, when you're generating or revising a poem. Busy the mind is, scurrying this way and that, spinning and soaring, and, as is apparently the case with stimulants, there's an altered experience of time and of the self as it moves through time—I'm sure other poets know what I mean by this. And they must know, too, that when one isn't working on a poem, doesn't have any poetry work to do, there are real withdrawal symptoms. In my case, I fall into something like depression, and as in other depressions, I begin to doubt, to ask questions I shouldn't, about my work, my life—all I grumbled about just now. Goethe put it succinctly: "The poet's requisite trance is the most fragile element in his armory."
I think that I kept returning to this paragraph because I do indeed know what Williams means when he says that writing is more than a metaphorical addiction. I've felt the rush he mentions, the one that occurs during generating or revising, when the work is going well, when I'm onto something. This rush does not happen on those days when the work won't work for me, when nothing comes or only garbage comes or when I'm stalled thinking about something that's bugging me. But when that rush comes, it's wonderful. And it lasts all day. I feel more than happy—I feel exhilarated for the rest of the day. I seem to be on hyper-alert. I pay better attention to what people are saying. My word radar is on. But I also daydream more. The poem buzzes in my head. I'm working on lines, images, figures. When I wake up during the night or can't sleep, the poem is there like a sweet dream.
The depression that Williams mentions, that down feeling that comes when we can't work, when we go through one of those awful periods when we fear we're all washed up, that we've got nothing left to say, yes, I've felt that too, though I'm pretty good at talking myself out of it. I know that it won't last and that I need to get into poetry circuitously by going to a reading, by digging into someone else's poetry, by listening to poetry tapes, by allowing myself to write poorly. Eventually, something clicks and I'm back in love again.
Poetry is a curative drug. On any given day when I'm feeling less than good, maybe bummed out by a headache or fatigue or a cranky stomach, if I can drag myself to my writing table and get some writing started, something physical happens. Once I get into the writing, I forget about my woes. I get over the ailment. I feel better! But show up at the table I must. This thought reminds me of what sportswriter Red Smith said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein."
See that typewriter up above? There's the knife to open the vein. A metaphorical blood-letting can also be curative. First, show up at the desk.