Making Love To A Room Of People
“When teaching well I’m making love to a room of people. Is that the same energy that goes into a poem?” I wish I could claim that statement. It belongs to the late Richard Hugo—poet, essayist, creative writing teacher at the University of Montana, and one of the two best readers of poetry I have ever heard. I invited Hugo to read his poetry at Hardin-Simmons way back when students would sometimes mistake me for a fellow student, and Dr. Lindell O. Harris, Chair of the Division of Religion, would stop me on campus to tell me to remove my baseball cap. Once he said, “Oh, you’re the one!” I still hear that.
Every semester I require Richard Hugo’s 1979, still in print, still a best seller (at least with poets), The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it,” Hugo declares, then goes on to say, “If you feel pressure to say what you know others want to hear and don’t have enough devil in you to surprise them, shut up” (5). The students loved him. Most of the faculty loved him. Not so much Ms. Alice Specht, dean of the Richardson Library. It wasn’t Hugo she didn’t love; it was me. She was right to be upset, but there was no way I was going to leap up from my folding chair in the Duffy Auditorium (gone now) in the foyer of the Richardson Library at Richard Hugo’s evening poetry reading when he paused between poems to deftly (some adverbs are permissible) smack from its pack, thumb the wheel on his lighter, and ignite the unfiltered cigarette Alice had made me swear I would not let Hugo smoke inside the library.
Dr. Lindell O. Harris wasn’t crazy about Hugo either, not when this large (as in middle guard on a professional football team), loud man burst into the faculty dining area on the second floor of Moody Center, yelling, “Where the hell is Bob Fink!” Unfortunately, Dr. Harris suddenly recalled having heard this name before, and was pretty sure he didn’t like it. My creative writing students loved Hugo. Following his afternoon Q&A session, Hugo slipped behind the shrubbery (I’ve loved that word ever since Monty Python and the Holy Grail), lit up a cigarette, and when Tim Cleveland (one of my students) came out of the library, yelled (from deep in the shrubbery), “Pssst, hey, Tim!” One of my other creative writing students, Greg Glazner, went to the U. of Montana to study poetry with Hugo. I should mention, I suppose, that Hugo was recovering from cancer at the time. He never let on. After the reading, driving back to our 100-year-old house (I still grieve for it), we stopped at a convenience store so Hugo could buy a six-pack to sit in front of our 12-inch, black and white t.v. and watch March-Madness basketball (I don’t think it was called March Madness back then). A year later Richard Hugo was dead. Leukemia. A bruise of blood appeared on his thigh, and that was it. When my friend John Peslak asked me in the HSU locker room about the same type of smear on his leg, I thought of Hugo and was afraid and said, “It’s probably nothing.”
Enough of that! I started out to talk about poetry. “April is the cruelest month.” You know T. S. Eliot’s opening line from The Waste Land. I would have preferred Eliot say, “April is the crueller (French, that is) month.” Then we could celebrate April (Poetry Month) by going to AM Donuts for . . . what else! I’m especially excited about April and poetry because, as you know, as everyone knows, poet Christian Wiman will be on campus next Monday, April 14, to talk poetry and read from his books, and maybe from his new poetry manuscript. The other reason I’m thinking April and poetry is because Greg Jaklewicz asked if I would write something for the Abilene Reporter-News about poets and poetry. I told Greg (he was one of those HSU students back when Hugo came) maybe, possibly, if I could come up with anything. I’m pretty sure it won’t be this. This is your fault. I am driven to finish out this semester with a Light Standard issue each remaining Friday. Yes, I KNOW you aren’t going to send me your feature articles. So this is what you get. Oh, it’s 7:38 p.m., Thursday, April 3, 2014. It’s early yet; I often don’t get home until after 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays. Five Years Of Thursdays! And you know I’m going blind! This is called Argumentum ad Misericordiam. The most useful course I took as an undergraduate was Logic. I specialized in Logical Fallacies. The professor thought he was teaching me that logical fallacies are fallacious.
Back to this is what you get. This morning (Thursday), Trina ruined my day by asking if I had laid out this week’s Light Standard. With trepidation (melodramatic, trite phrase), I asked, “Why?” Trina began to suggest some interesting, informative historical item she had uncovered about Marston Gym and some anniversary of a 1914 Simmons faculty vs. trustees baseball game. Baseball: Done that! I said, “I thought I had already sent out this week’s LS?” Didn’t she see it? “Yes, of course I saw it,” Trina replied; it was the one with Johnny Cash.” What! All she remembered was that small picture of Johnny Cash! She didn’t get it???? It was The April Fool’s issue. “Oh. I didn’t know that.” I’m losing control at this point, and Lucy is sitting very politely anticipating a treat, waiting for my fit to pass, so I yell, “Go to your mat, Lucy!” Then, a little calmer, I ask my wife, “So, you thought the faculty really received Honorable Mention at a karaoke competition, and Dr. Hall won a Betty Crocker bake-off contest!!!!” Trina turned, gave Lucy a hug, said it would be okay, Bob was a little upset, and answered, “I just thought you were being silly.”
Now it’s 8:03 p.m., and I haven’t even gotten to poet Donald Hall’s story about Robert Frost. Now it’s your fault AND Trina’s. And I’m nowhere close to having a rough draft of something I can send Greg. So here’s the story Don emailed me this week. THIS is a great story. This is what I should send Jaklewicz. Remember the photocopy of Robert Frost’s draft card from 1918? Tiffany sent it to me, and I included it in last week’s email with The Light Standard #110. Well, I sent that issue to Don Hall, and he asked if he had emailed me the letter he received from Frost when Don was a sixteen-year-old poet at Middlebury, Vermont’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Frost was there, seventy, and playing softball with Don and other young poets?
“Didn’t you get the letter Frost wrote me, with that great signature again. When I played softball with him at Breadloaf, I was sixteen and he was seventy! When I last saw him, maybe six months before he died, as I left him behind, in the rear view mirror I saw him running (maybe jogging is the word) after my car, to tell me one more thing.”
That’s it. That’s what I wanted to say. There’s always “one more thing.” That’s why we write, paint and sculpt, compose, sing, fill blackboards with hieroglyphic sines and cosines, the language all disciplines speak, “making love” to a classroom of students, that long, melodic line, poetry.
“. . . before the evil days when fun ceases”
from a Robert Frost letter to Donald Hall
And Frost knew evil days. The stereotype of Robert Frost as the happy New England agrarian is, like all stereotypes, complex as humans, especially poets, behind their mask. And yet . . . Frost did have “a lover’s quarrel with the world” (“The Lesson For Today” 355), so we mustn’t discount the love. Nature, however, in Frost’s poems is seldom ameliorative toward a New England poet out “walking in the frozen swamp one gray day” (“The Wood-Pile” 101-02), growing “weary of considerations” in a life “too much like a pathless wood” where a twig has “lashed across” one eye (“Birches” 121-22), in a woods “dark, and deep” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 224-25), a field “covered smooth in snow,” all animals “smothered in their lairs” (“Desert Places” 296). Nature, so often for Frost, “subsides” leaf to leaf, like “Eden sank to grief. . . . Nothing gold can stay” (“Nothing Gold Can Stay” 222-23). I wrote Donald Hall to ask if he minded my sharing Don’s Robert Frost letter, the letter Don received the summer he was a sixteen-year-old poet at Middlebury, Vermont’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Don wrote back to say yes, I could share Frost’s letter: “It’s fine to show my Frost letter to friends. I mailed it to Harvard University Press, for the editors of the four volumes of Frost letters. Only the first has come out.”
“a lover’s quarrel with the world”
Lover’s quarrel. Love. This is what I don’t want to forget, discount, what I prefer to emphasize, what I need today, most days. You, too? And a few laughs, some otter craziness. In addition to seeing the darker side, Frost also saw Nature the way I did summers on my grandparents’ East Texas farm roaming the pastures and woods—green and golden, keeping my balance climbing a sapling to the top, cinching my hands around the thin trunk, then throwing what little weight I had toward the ground, touching earth and pushing off. Wading the creeks. Running with Bruno my part collie best friend and bodyguard ripping from the tall grass water moccasins, copperheads. Sitting still at the woods’ edge, waiting for the family of wolves to slip along the shadows far side of the pasture. Frost did know this Nature, the mystical locale of his poem “Directive” (377-79), a place you can’t reach unless “you’re lost enough to find yourself”—“a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm / And in a town that is no more a town.” Here is the children’s playhouse, their playthings. Our destination is a brook, its source a cold spring, “Too lofty and original to rage.” “Here,” Frost says, “are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Next Monday, Christian Wiman will probably read from his most recent poetry collection Every Riven Thing and from his new collection of essays My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Chris certainly knows “the evil days when fun ceases”—seven years of a rare blood/bone cancer, pain so rapacious, Chris writes, “It islands you. . . . It is a dull, devouring pain, as if the earth were already—but slowly—eating me. And then, with a wrong move or simply a shift in breath, it is a lightning strike of absolute feeling and absolute oblivion fused in one flash” (My Bright Abyss, “Mortify Our Wolves” 148). It is this pain to which Chris prays—“That it ease up ever so little, that it let me breathe. That it not—but I know it will—get worse” (“Mortify Our Wolves” 149). At the edge of death, he “felt human destitution to its absolute degree,” like Jesus “drinking the very dregs of human bitterness” on the cross and crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (“Mortify Our Wolves” 155). The point, Chris says, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering” (“Mortify Our Wolves” 155):
“I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.” (“Mortify Out Wolves” 155)
In “A Million Little Oblivions,” the final essay in My Bright Abyss, Chris writes, “It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love” (163-64). For Chris, this human love is the love he and his wife Danielle have for each other and their twin daughters. Theirs is the “freedom of ultimate love, which scours the ego and urges one toward the spark of divinity within another person” (My Bright Abyss, “Sorrow’s Flower” 22). For Chris and Danielle, “it was human love that reawakened divine love” (“Sorrow’s Flower” 22). The final poem in Every Riven Thing, “Gone For The Day, She Is The Day” (89-90) is a love poem. I could argue that all of the poems in the collection are love poems—for family, place, people, self, God in Christ, and always for Chris’s wife and their daughters. I love this poem. It counters Frost’s statement. Here is the third stanza of Christian Wiman’s poem “Gone For The Day, She Is The Day”—
Gone for the day, she is the day
opening in and around me
like flowers she planted in our yard.
Christ. Not flowers.
Gone for the day, she is the day
razoring in with the Serbian roofers,
and ten o’clock tapped exactly
by the one bad wheel of the tortilla cart,
and the newborn’s noonday anguish
ceased. And the om the mind
makes of traffic and the bite
of reality that brings it back.
And the late afternoon afterlight
in which a much-loved dog lies
like a piece of precocious darkness
lifting his ears at threats, treats, comings, goings . . . (90)
Poetry, then, must demand more of poets than saying things memorably, speaking with “the tongues of men and of angels” (First Corinthians 13:1). Without love, the words may ring only as “sounding brass,” a “tinkling cymbal” (First Corinthians 13:1). Teaching well, writing well, living well are intimate acts—making love to a room of people. Though prophecies and knowledge “pass away,” though tongues and fun cease (First Corinthians 13: 8), love endures against evil, “sufficient unto the day” (Matthew 6:34).
Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Print.
Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.
Wiman, Christian. Every Riven Thing. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010. Print.
—. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013. Print.