Full Disclosure (A Poet’s Regret)

In my mind’s eye, this is the scene that plays before me:

You are observing, from some celestial height, a large room (perhaps in a church, maybe it’s a large meeting room or a small gymnasium). The facility is near empty, sparse in furnishings, metal chairs are arranged in a semi circle, a small table in the corner bears a drip filter and copious amounts of smoldering coffee. Fluorescent lights flutter, their beam and buzz refracting off empty walls. The people assembled are finishing the last of their pleasantries as they move haphazardly to take their seats for the program. A stillness and silence settles. All eyes slowly drift to me, the apprehensive newcomer. Of those sitting in half-mooned circle, none are more nervous than I.

Mustering my courage, I clear my throat, rise, and speak:

Hi. My name is Bobby Lehew and … I am a poet.

End scene.

“I was ashamed of being a poet, as if, undressed, I would display in public my physical defects. I envied people who do not write poems and whom for that reason I ranged among the normal. And in this I was wrong: few of them deserve to be called that.” - Czeslaw Milosz

I’ve mused that this confession of mine, portrayed in my imagination but published here, will test the bonds of all my friendships. The truth is, there are many poets among us and a few poetry aficionados even among my friends, but they by no means represent a majority.

Some, (perhaps those who have not considered poetry since their school days), rarely regard poetry beyond the spectacle of sentimentalism or worse, literature’s lunacy of bards besotted. There is an element of circus seekers in our culture who know only sensationalism, they see poets swinging in rapt despair, only remembering writers’ lives famous for full stops mid-sentence: Sylvia Plath, brains fully baked, Bukowski, (poetry’s gonzo) devoured by fear and loathing, or Hart Crane’s small step off the starboard bow.

Many fail to notice the provincial lives that produce poetry, the unimaginative monotony that often serves as catalyst for the craft that Octavio Paz calls “the supreme form of language”. As T. S. Eliot scribbled about cats, hyacinths and clairvoyants, he also labored daily in a dreary bank basement over foreign balance sheets even as Wallace Stevens, (enigmatic genius toiling above multiple visions of blackbirds), spent the bulk of his days as an executive in the colorless world of life insurance (as did former U.S. Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser). The list of ordinariness is long: William Carlos Williams, pediatrician by day, “setter of words” by night, Robert Frost, failed farmer transformed to alphabet cultivator; even Ferlenghetti’s beginnings were tame, bookstore proprietor turned ruffian rebel. Neither exclusively crackpot nor crank, the poet is quite common, sometimes sage and divining rod but more often than not, simply life’s sightseer scribe. [1]

“The poet says, here, let me show you something. That is, let me help you to see something as you have not seen it before.” - N. Scott Momaday

Others assume poetry is, perforce, emotional catharsis seeped in unrequited passions. Jim Harrison corrects us, “It was Paul Valery, the great French poet, who held that the state of inspiration is not the most advantageous one for writing poetry…the inspired state is a state of self-withdrawal, and not of creative dynamism…I cannot believe that any great artist works in a fever.” [2] Lest we think poetry remains the exclusive domain of only the inspired, Ezra Pound cited frequently a motto of the Univ of PA, “any damn fool can be spontaneous”. [3]

Also poetry, though plentiful in abstraction, is not entirely abstruse and dark (a common opinion based on conjecture). Edgar Allen Poe certainly qualifies as morose but hardly recondite. The whimsical lyric of Ogden Nash, uproarious poetry such as Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”, and poems such as Billy Collin’s humorously poignant poem “The Lanyard”, join countless others that prove the elasticity of the genre (there are even significant literary awards for humor in poetry).

“It was in the style of the last century for poets to be tormented melancholiacs. But there can be poets who know life, who know its problems, and who survive by crossing through the currents. And who pass through sadness to plenitude.” - Pablo Neruda

Often, it is the poet-artist (not the politician) who has the ability to disarm and incline opinions. An almost imperceptible shift in perspective happens as we read poetry, in many poems we become the protagonist. This shift in viewpoint forces us to regard an opinion we would normally never consider, at times side-swiping our deepest held convictions. It is also why we feel strongly when reading poetry and why particular poems evoke responses ranging from boring to revolting to the sublime.

Many who return to poetry in adulthood might have simply discovered that along life’s way they had taken the road most traveled. Who buried with childhood any semblance of imagination and with it, fog and cat’s feet, tyger’s burning bright, jabberwockies, walruses, and carpenters.

“Poetry is the sliver of a moon lost in the belly of a golden frog.” - Carl Sandburg

Junior high, nineteen eighty-three: Our teacher, Mrs. Ray, introduces a pack of heedless schoolboys to the poet Robert Frost. After the groans and protests faded under her reproving gaze, she began to read, “Whose woods these are I think I know,” and in moments, I was afflicted, moonstruck by the mad sound, obliged to carry versification with me in private as if seeking solace for a wound embarrassed by. Frost took my hand, showed me how words illuminate birches and walls, apple-picking and blueberries, transforming the english language, rearranging locution like furniture, “Back out of all this now too much for us” was his Directive and it became mine as well.

Covertly, I continued to discover thrushes eggs as little low heavens, flander’s fields, midnight rides, stately ravens and light brigades. I even began to be tormented by a nervous habit, that of counting syllables when others talked. It was possibly a direct result of too much poetry plus an early manifestation of my nervous personality. Sometimes, when called upon to answer a question, the teacher and I would share a momentary awkward silence as I finished counting the bounces in her words.

“Bobby, which planets revolve around the sun?" she would ask. “Eleven,” I’d reply.

I would be well into adulthood before I would move beyond this tourette-like tic, I’d later discover it was ideal field training for a poet, necessary for distinguishing iambs from trochees, pentameter from tetrameter and hexameter.

In high school, my speech and drama director, Mrs. Green, recruited and trained me for poetry interpretation, a scholastic contest comprised of students elucidating a poems meaning by recitation, using only inflection, enjambment and precise punctual pauses. Like Mrs. Ray, Mrs. Green was passionate about well-written, beautifully told stories. The only difference between poetry interpretation and theatre was the lack of stage blocking and the small ring binders we held while reading our (mostly) recited poems. Much like football, the poetry contest had a hierarchy consisting of district, regional, and state levels of competition (inconspicuously missing were the pep rallies and marching bands). We read selections from Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales as well as pieces from many modern poets. It is now a small measure of pride that out of all the schools we competed with in Texas, I would win a third place state medal, but at the time I was so embarrassed I would scarcely let anyone know (the results are, surprisingly, online now as a matter of public record).

The last living teacher I had was the venerable and dowdy elder statesman of my high school alma mater, Mr. William Thorne (senior English). One day, in a fit of rage and in between popping his nitroglycerin pills, he booted me and my best friend Stevie out of his class (a perilous punishment: I attended a school where excommunication was seriously frowned upon). His frustration? We were “squandering immense talent and he couldn’t bear to watch it”. It was a tiny moment of validation, albeit delivered by a well-deserved reprimand, someone had noticed my proficiency in english, in writing. Mr. Thorne arrested my attention with his own love of lyricism, quoting Shakespeare liberally, careful to include phrases such as “buxom lasses” so as to ensure he gained an audience (a successful ploy at an all-boys school). In Bill’s class, I vowed to someday visit Great Britain (a dream I still harbor), namely Stratford on the Avon. At the time, I assumed there was something in England contagious I could catch, praying her Wordsworths, Shelleys, Brownings and Tennysons would rub off on a common Texas schoolboy.

Beyond high school, I successfully quit three colleges and continued my poetry obsession in private. Voraciously maintaining my education solo, I hurled myself down the rabbit-hole of reading, the chain link of poets-influenced-by-poets as my only curriculum. Haunting bookstores, I stumbled upon Rilke, Dylan Thomas, the wider work of Carl Sandburg, Yeats, Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Walt Whitman and James Merrill. I also gravitated toward the poetic in prose: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner, Isak Dinesen, Willa Cather, Per Pettersen, W. Somerset Maugham and many more.

It wasn’t until February of 2003 that I sat down to write my first serious poem. My wife and I were a month away from celebrating our eleventh anniversary and we were broke. Motivated by poverty, plus a genuine desire to gift my wife something special, I penned an obviously freshman work, unrefined, but nonetheless genuine. Upon completion, I felt as though I had not only created a gift but I had discovered a gift no money could buy, not because it was brilliant (it wasn’t, the poem bordered on doggerel) but because I composed, chiseled, and word-painted my way, line upon line, toward an expression richer than I could ever audibly convey. This simple poem had taken hours of exacting work but I realized this act of creative communication was for me, that the shape of my life might soon constitute not merely reading poetry but writing poetry.

“Poets are mostly the pulse of the wound that probes to the other side”. - Federico García Lorca

In the summer of 2003, the first of two of our five children were afflicted with cancer, a turbulent time, “darkness visible”. [4] It was the 17th century doctor, John Donne, that aided my shattered soul, abetted by Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell and Milton (a certain succor being derived from Milton’s blindness). I turned to these sages, once again in secret. I frequented only the ancient poets, a sophomoric mistake, assuming no one in modernity (or post-modernity) had much to say on the subject of pain and suffering (I was obviously wrong). I thought I knew these poets, had even read some of their work before but during this time, where everything was touched by the tumult of tragedy, I unearthed their richer troves. “Stars have their storms”, girded Herbert, “Nondum” cried Hopkins (and I with him) while I stood and waited in blackness deep as Milton’s footman. But it was Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions that provided solace. This rarely discussed work, written by the great doctor in sickness, (presumably upon his death bed), was a prose work penned with a poet’s heart. Walking bleak corridors of children’s hospitals, where “any man’s death diminished me”, Donne’s words braced me for difficult blows, frequent as they were to come. Andrew Motion, writing in the updated forward, remarked that when Donne “felt most gravely threatened he also felt compelled to produce his most defiantly lively writing” and centuries later, a staggering father was thankful for it.

“Everything in a culture mitigates against the fruition of the individual artist who has been foolhardy enough to set himself aside to answer what he thinks of as a calling.” - Jim Harrison

Fast forward to the present (back to the confessional): I now surmise with Donne that I’m no island and cannot endure this isolation anymore. Given the option of enduring the scorn of my friends or living with an untold passion, I’d sooner face ridicule. This poet’s regret is only one of remorse for lost time, for not granting myself permission to write and publish sooner. On one hand, I’m glad for the intervening unpublished years and agree with Frost’s maxim: ten years takes a poem; being one who has often bloomed late, perhaps my freshman entry into the world of poetry decades ago would have been inchoate, benign, or worse, pitiable. But now, with all the vulnerability inherent in the artistic temperament, I’ll write. I don’t know that I’m capable of producing anything near the immense and wonderous work that has supported my life, and many attempts of mine might be vain, but in the words of James Fenton, “they will be vain because they must be ambitious”.[5]

Now is my personal volta, an indeterminate period of time where I must work before facing my own particular envoi.[6] May those who are familiar to me through the world of business come with the understanding that poetry has always been a part of the shape of my life but I’m no longer content to hide in its shadow, time to bring it to light.

“Holding back is so close to stealing.” - Neil Young

Failing better*, Bobby Lehew

(My published poems can be found here).

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© Bobby Lehew 2013

[1] Setter of words, a phrase used by Czeslaw Milosz in his book Road-Side Dog

[2] Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison

[3] Ezra Pound, The Art of Poetry No. 5, The Paris Review

[4] A term taken from the title of William Styron’s book by the same name.

[5] An Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton

[6] Volta: a literature term, often used in reference to a sonnet, as the “turn, shift, or point of dramatic change”. Envoi: a short stanza at the end of a poem.

* from Samuel Beckett