Problems of Poetry

Image of Short Story


His choices are stark: between a greater degree of fragmentation and incoherence – a further breaking down of the prospects for insight and understanding as commonly accepted – or a return to simpler mannerisms, a reinvigoration of formal polish and clear connections. Each solution is equally inadequate to the demands of the moment, but it is not clear that there can be an honest and useful third way, though in fact there are many possible ways – as various and constrained as fingerprints, lips, and feet: the tactile, the succulent, the measured. He chooses the one easy way out: to sit down and watch the sky, knowing that elsewhere and perhaps even here new broadcast media and the control of scarce energy supplies matter far more than what wheels by above his head. He doesn’t care. The one small thing he can do is wait. The horizon will change little, and its changing matters less to him than the knowledge that it should still be there when he looks in another direction. He grows speechless and unafraid.


He likes the ritual practices of these events, the fawning introductions, the water bottle at the podium, the anxious first words and shuffling of manuscripts, the feigned reticence about work in progress, the Athenian declamation of unmetered verses, the deliberately unstylish clothes of the modestly distinguished speakers. He is inauthentic in his post-modernity, meaning he is most authentic, the real thing, a man of feints and doubts. And yet something remains unsullied by these performances. Imaginary gardens, toads: nothing so nakedly metaphorical. What he loves, what he feels enlivened by, is akin to the barely perceptible hum of fluorescent lights, a subliminal frequency shunting signals across wide reaches of private space. Beneath all the nonsense, it goes on. Fingers move, eyes open, the hinge between the body and the mind grows visible for a minute and those who’ve come together are not indifferent to its work. The blemished syllables vibrate through the air, molecules buzzing against papery membranes, turning shadows to nerve and bone, the way a man thinks of his wife and suddenly realizes it is not her beauty that comforts him but her sadness and his need.


His desk is white as paper, two stories up above a street that’s never busy enough to distract him, though he hides from his thoughts by gazing out at the teenagers walking to school, envying in them their blithe oblivion. He thinks of Larkin’s lines about the strength and pain of being young, finds himself befuddled by his own age, troubled by the distance from what he’s dreamed to what he’s known. The problem of human happiness is larger than any means he has to address it, and there are moral claims on his attention, nastiness and brutality undertaken abroad often in the name of his own country. He wishes words might provide a reprieve from social burdens, the irrational derivatives of power and money. But: that word interrupts his ease again and again until it seems his major task is to wrestle with disjunctions. Not a bad job but – but never a comfortable one. His heart feels teased apart through the process and what he loves grows less obvious. Though this is an age of ubiquitous devices for transcribing thought into data streams that move soundlessly across continents, he sticks with his pen as a daily exercise in resistance – for the pleasure of its small weight in his hand dragging its script behind, a bread crumb trail, evidence that in this retreat there remains something devices can’t contain, a grain of trouble that is in itself a fresh begetting, He thinks of sex, of the long difficult intimacies of his marriage, the bliss of that friction and the way the mind lights with its pleasures. He presses the ink lightly onto the page and hangs himself again from a rope of words.