This blog site has its genesis in a weird feeling that I might ascribe to mid-life crisis, except, to my surprise when I think about it, I’m well past mid-life, and anyway I’ve felt it for as long as I can remember. It’s a sense that there’s something I ought to be communicating, except I don’t know what it is. Something I’m meant to say, but I’ve never said it. A vain, erroneous belief that I have in me something that’s worthy of attention, if only I can express it. Potential that’s never been realized. Thoughts that have never been articulated, yet might be, if only I could catch lightning in a bottle like I’m supposed to. Almost like a mission I was supposed to complete, but never began. Trying to quell the uneasiness that results leads me to write and write, rather as those who are afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder might feel an unquenchable urge to wash their hands 30 times an hour. As if maybe if I write enough, often enough, it will pop out on its own.
It never does, though.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t want to write about all the empty, uninhabitable brownfields that sprawl across my scarred psychic landscape, but I became particularly introspective today, upon revisiting a poem that I first discovered almost four decades ago.
When I was very young, about eighteen, I used to go beyond the curriculum and read poetry contained in my handy edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature, bought in connection with a university English class. I was green and emotional, with time on my hands, and found that I quite liked the stuff, the up so floating, many bells down, the quiet, meaningless voices like wind through tall grass, or rat’s feet over broken glass in our dry cellars – that stuff. It struck a chord with University Me. Some of the poems, not connected to any current assignment, were familiar from High School, where I was part of an advanced English class in which the same small group of students stuck together, under the direction of the same teacher, through multiple grades – a wonderful time, thinking back, in which I shared ideas, and quite a few laughs, with people I haven’t seen for over 40 years, but still think about all the time.
It was then that I fell under the thrall of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a hackneyed choice perhaps, like loving Beethoven’s Fifth, but still my favourite, then and now. When we first read it, it was like coming home. I already knew all about the sea girls wreathed in seaweed, and the human voices that wake us to drown. I’m a born romantic. It was just occurring to me then that I adored females and everything about them, right down to the timbre of their voices, the way they thought before they spoke, and the way they were so good at listening, plus, admittedly, a number of other key attributes, which you can’t blame a teenaged guy for appreciating – a general tendency that drew me, perhaps inevitably, to have very specific feelings for a very special clear-eyed, whip-smart, painfully pretty brown-haired girl who sat a couple of tables away in class, whose daily proximity was the purest torture. I was also a real dweeb of a guy who was, sad to say, quite spectacularly incompetent and unpopular with the opposite sex, and already used to the idea of unrequited affection. So I understood Prufrock immediately. I already had it inside, in a way, having myself heard many times the snicker of my own footman, who was not yet so eternal, but certainly found me amusing, and having also repeatedly been too afraid to force the moment to its crisis, knowing it would simply end in dismayed rejection. That pair of twisted claws, I knew in my bones, should have been me, too. I was right up to speed on the merits of having been those claws.
Other poems that I tripped over later, as I thumbed through Norton’s anthology, were new to me, but seemed equally to have been nestled within my own subconscious from the day I was born. There was one called Keeping Things Whole, by Mark Strand, in which the author noted, in a tone more matter-of-fact than sad, that when he tried to define himself, the only things he could come up with were all the things he wasn’t; in a field, he was the absence of field, and wherever he went, he was what was missing. Yup.
Some were just delightful. There was Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, by Cummings: Jesus he was a handsome man. I adored one called To Satch, by Samuel Allen, a tribute to the legendary Satchel Paige, who might have been the greatest pitcher who ever took to the mound, but never got his full due because when he played, black men weren’t allowed into the major leagues, as impossible as that is to wrap your head around today:
Sometimes I feel like I will never stop
Just go on forever
Till one fine mornin’
I’m gonna reach up and grab me a handfulla stars
Swing out my long lean leg
And whip three hot strikes burnin down the heavens
And look over at God and say
How about that!!!!
I just loved that one. Another that struck me most powerfully, and set me down this road today, was a lesser-known little gem of a sonnet by Keats (I can’t help but be reminded of that scene in Bridget Jones, Hugh Grant in a rowboat with Renee Zellweger exclaiming “Fuck me, I love Keats”). Back then, I didn’t know that he died very young, at only 25, of tuberculosis, something that far less worthy slobs like me never had to worry about; we were vaccinated against it, and thus benefitted from a miraculous thing that wasn’t available back when this young man, who might have left us many more volumes of profoundly moving verse, was struck down when he was still too young to have yet done his best work. All I knew was that this 19th century Romantic had felt something that I recognized, expressed in a short poem called When I Have Fears. After just a couple of reads, I’d memorized it, as readily as if I’d learned it long ago and was only refreshing my recall. I can still recite most of it today.
It was as if he saw it coming. He was afraid of dying before he’d expressed himself fully the way he knew he could: When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.
That’s just how I feel, how I’ve felt for decades, even though it makes no sense. Keats really did have things to say, insights and beautiful perceptions that he was born to render into words fit to make hard men weep. His early death in 1821 was a tragic blow to everybody alive, and everybody yet to be born. When I vanish, not young at all, it’ll be a sad thing for me and mine, but of no consequence beyond my small circle. Nobody I don’t know will be deprived of anything I didn’t have time to produce, of course, and obviously I have no reason at all to feel the way Keats did. It’s ridiculous that I do.
I know it.
Or maybe I don’t feel quite the same thing the young poet did. Maybe what I really fear is that I will cease to be, and have no opportunity to glean anything much from my also teeming but decidedly mediocre brain before I do, no matter how long it takes.
Oh, it teems all right, but the gleaning’s been pretty thin.
Sometimes I think the most awful thing is to be able to recognize and appreciate genius, and have none yourself; to revel in the brilliance of others and never have it in yourself to do anything brilliant. I guess what I feel most keenly is a craving to produce what I never will, something lasting, something that matters and will keep mattering when I’m gone. I get that it’s no particular injustice that I can’t. Almost nobody can, and there aren’t a lot of people who feel shortchanged because they can’t be Keats, or Beethoven, or write a book like The Great Gatsby, or a song like Eleanor Rigby, or anything that people will appreciate as long as there are minds that thrive on great art. Who thinks they should have been able to do such things, and have little purpose if they can’t? It’s just silly. It should be more than enough to have gone through the years having harmed no one, and having maybe been helpful to a few. Jesus, kid, what did you expect?
Yet I write and write, like I’m hand-washing 30 times an hour, as if that special thing worth remembering might some day spew out at random. I’m like a key-stroker within that proverbial myriad of chimps, who keep pounding away on their typewriters on the off chance that A Tale of Two Cities will emerge (now I’m remembering The Simpsons, and Montgomery Burns maintaining his own great room of furiously tippy-tapping primates, castigating one of the chimps, as he reads his copy: “It was the best of times, it was the blorst of times? Stupid monkey!”).
Perhaps somebody out there will bear with me as I keep typing. After all, you never know.
Ah, but it’s already tomorrow. A few hours stacking Zs and this bout of introspective angst will have run its course, and I can get back to enjoying everything I have, which is a whole hell of a lot, really. Soon I’ll be back in form, ranting about Trump. You’ll see.
Anyway, it’s a Hell of poem: