Sunday, January 3, 2010

It is difficult to get the news from poems

Inspired by Tadeusz Różewicz, when I woke up this morning, I got out of bed, placed a hardcover book flat on my head and walked in a straight line from the bedroom to the toilet without letting it fall off. Remembering his words, it's not about the book, it's about balance. The floor was cold and the plumbing shook, both mine and the house's. It was a fat book, The Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt, one that I always keep near at hand when I'm pondering the vagaries of fame and fashion, and whether or not there is an essential, intrinsic value to the books of the dead. This morning I sat and thought on it, stymied. Outside the nasty wind did its business in the backyard, scattering small branches about the blown snow. I thought, there is only the value the living accord them, which goes up and down as generations pass. Only a handful of works survive the centuries. You see the same names on all the lists.

I finally took the book off my head upon reaching the kitchen. I needed coffee. Yesterday I had acted like a Pole, feasting on pickled herring and grass vodka, whirling and dancing in front of the fireplace, in my sweat pants and baseball cap. Meaning I slept like a sack of potatoes afterwards but woke up with a crick in the neck. Hence the balancing routine. Perhaps the coffee would clear up the commotion in my brain. I remembered Quist tell me once, "You shouldn't read poetry late at night. It'll give you heartburn." I thought to myself, poetry ain't the only thing that'll give you heartburn.

I got the coffee in the filter without spilling any.
It's all about balance. While it was brewing I stared at the swaying trees and white sky. One must have the mind of winter to be an effective snowman. I turned back to the table, opened Schmidt's book to a random page and read:

"Charlotte Smith's poetry may have been delivered from the trammels of the eighteenth century by means of her fiction writing: the verse is wonderfully efficient, in its disclosure of scene and theme, evenly measured, rising to grandeur, scaling down to microscopic observation. Her fault in the longer poems is formal: extension rather than structure. Yet if we read her as we tend to read Cowper, Pope or Thomson, in extract, she is not out of place. Her work was once popular, but it was not absorbed into the critical culture of the day; its claims were not made. We can say that she was appreciated by Wordsworth, but his appreciation was not eloquent. We can say that her example empowered Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But Charlotte Smith is not a footnote to Romanticism. She deserves to be read today."

This made me sad. Thank god the coffee was ready. I got up, poured a cup, added a little half-and-half -- again without spilling a drop -- and wandered to the front room to watch my neighbor start his car. I haven't read Cowper, Pope or Thomson since I was a student. I was indifferent to Cowper, thought Pope clever, and found Thomson a prime example of just how dead certain writers can become. No one reads him any more, nor should they. It is hard to believe what a sterling reputation he once had, as well as fame and fortune. Poor Charlotte Smith. I rubbed my neck. My neighbor pulled out of his driveway carefully. I wished him well -- the roads would be hellish this morning with the blowing snow and patches of ice. I closed my eyes and saw libraries as mausoleums, books as tombstones. In another of his poems, Różewicz writes: "when will the past/finally end."

The coffee tasted delicious. Though my fingers and toes were still cold, my trunk was getting warm. I thought of books as props, as furniture, as conversation pieces. As a distraction, something heavy you could lob at a barking dog, tinder. It was time to get dressed, put on boots, and walk out into the world, bearing in mind Williams' asphodel on this coldest day of a barely three-day-old year.

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