poetry, Uncategorized

Of Robert, Emily, and Thoughts of Legacy

Emily1
Emily Dickinson’s portrait in the Dickinson/Frost collection of Jones Library, Amherst, Mass.

Recently, I attended the Juniper Writing Institute at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For the unaware, Amherst is the hometown of one of the canon’s most memorable and memorized poets, Emily Dickinson. Also nearby, one can find the farm of another great American poet, Robert Frost, considered by many to be the landmark poet of the 20th century. Both of these poets have meant a great deal to me as a writer throughout my career, and being in their part of the world was an unforgettable experience.

But my own independent studies of both Frost and Dickinson raised a new question for me — one that awoke me at 3:30 a.m. the first night of the conference. So distracted was I from this recurring question that I arose from my semi-peaceful travel slumber to write by hand in my journal. Here, in its unedited version, is the transcript of my late-night, early-morning writing:

 

6/21/15, 3:30 a.m.

I am awake because Emily Dickinson will not leave my mind. Having visited her house yesterday, I keep seeing her small corner bedroom over and over: its little sleigh bed, its dresser, its white-knobbed doors.

The Dickinson House in downtown Amherst.
The Dickinson House in downtown Amherst.

Most of all, though, I think of all its windows. The tour guide kept using phrases like “extraordinary fenestration,” and she did not exaggerate. The natural light in Emily’s room was almost church-like. White and spiritual, it seemed to give life to the broad, thick beams of hardwood flooring there. As old as everything was, the light carried no dust. The air in her quarters was as pristine as the white housecoat she sewed for herself. On that air was the scent of history, a rare mixture of old wood, natural fibers, and unstirred earth.

I glimpsed the Amherst world from her window. Her tiny desk was positioned before it, and for a second, I could visualize her sitting, penning lines of legacy. Some of these lines also awoke me today, mostly her first lines:

Hope is the thing with feathers

I dwell in possibility

My teacher-mind sets to work on these, and I envision exercises for my students:

(Abstraction) is the thing with (concrete object)

What idea or notion do you “dwell in,” and why?

EmilyCollection
A collection of Emily’s things at the Jones Library in Amherst.

 The second of these questions applies to me as well, for once again I find myself too fixated on the idea of leaving my mark as an artist. I dream of a time when others tour my family’s farm or my smaller lake-view house in the city to see where and why and how I worked. Even at this mature age, my boyish whims of literary celebrity return, thanks in part to Emily Dickinson. My pragmatism intervenes, though, and tells me I need to sleep before daylight arrives. [End Journal Entry]

So, I was at my most honest in the middle of the night. But my thoughts of leaving a literary trail for others to follow would not stop with Emily. No, not when the home and writing space of one of my all-time literary heroes was nearby.

Upon my visit to the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, I was privileged to see his barn, his house (both floors!) and the land surrounding. I stood where the great man stood, walked where he walked, and even trod the staircase his wife descended, prompting the poem “Home Burial.” All these experiences once again raised the concern of posthumous impact.

Would people want to similarly experience the spaces where I have created? Will my own work ever merit that kind of attention, before or after my death? The literary marketplace is full of Frost-wannabes and Dickinson-aspirants, and who am I to even ponder such weighty matters? How does proving oneself a “fanboy” of literature make one any more likely to succeed at literary and scholarly endeavors? And thusly, I tortured myself further.

I visited the Robert Frost Library. I spent hours perusing the Frost-Dickinson collection in the Jones Library of Amherst. I allowed my imagination to run wild with scenarios concocted only from the notion of greatnesses recognized. And once again, I found myself twisting my brain into the same enigma that it has puzzled over like a Rubik’s Cube countless times before: Will I matter? Will my work matter? How do I ensure both? What steps must I next take to be certain that I’m not forgotten, like so many writers of the past?

EmilySign
A sign on the grounds of the Dickinson House in Amherst. This passage is directly from Emily’s poetry.
FrostBust
A bust of the great man himself inside the Dickinson/Frost collection at Jones Library.

I had hoped by now, at my nearly 40 years of age, that such concerns would really be a thing of the past. After all, I continue to write, and I’m sure that one day I’ll see some wider recognition than my meager efforts have so far produced. Like all writers, I’d like a Pulitzer and maybe some other big awards (see prior posts), but honestly, at the end of the day, what I’m really aiming to do is preserve people, times, and places that have mattered to me the most. If my poetry results in just a few people gaining a broader appreciation of the heritage, values, and experiences I’ve received in this life, then I’ve won. And I don’t mean that all of my poems are totally autobiographical — certainly many are not. But all of them lend themselves toward ideas, visions, and perspectives that, however universal, have arisen somehow from the life I’ve lived.

Will people care about that life? Why should they? Will students sit through laborious documentaries about the different periods in my writing timeline? Will my work be anthologized in textbooks of the future? Such inquiries can drive one mad, if left unchecked. Spending countless hours in the homes of the greats might not make me a better writer, but it did accomplish one thing — it allowed me to see a shared humanity, a common thread of inspiration, motivation, and dedication.

Persistence, diligence, and  enormous creativity are shared traits among those we celebrate today, so long after their earthly departures. And perhaps it is these traits that we should take away from memorials and museums commemorating their contributions. More than the vanity of asking, “How can I attain their level of distinction?”, perhaps we (I) should be asking, “What can I do continuously and creatively well to positively affect my world?” Such a question surpasses the superficial desire for remembrance, and enters us into a more philosophical, even theological, realm. May our answers lead us not to fame, not to fortune, and not to solipsism. Rather, may they lead us to be better human beings, produce finer work, and seize the opportunities of the everyday.

Frost's Desk
Robert Frost’s writing space at Frost Farm in Derry, N.H.
FrostStatue
A statue of Frost just outside the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

 

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poetry, Uncategorized

Things of Lasting Value

notebook2redMy grandfather’s oldest brother was quite the fastidious businessman in his day. I inherited his desk, books, and office supplies, and I’ve found there’s so much to discover about people from the objects that filled their lives.

For example, my great-uncle was a Master Mason and a Shriner, an avid hunter, gardener and golfer, and he was a careful record-keeper. He believed in refilling complimentary ballpoint pens rather than simply tossing them out, keeping matchbooks from places he visited, and holding on to extra nails, screws, hooks, and tacks “just in case.”

When he purchased something, he made sure it was going to last. This new old desk I have received is a testament to his insistence upon quality. A dark, heavy hardwood, its fixtures are real brass. Most of them are still shiny, despite decades of use. He topped the desk with a larger piece of lacquered wood, and he attached felt pads to the topper’s underside to assure that the original desk would remain unscratched.

The lamp that accompanies the desk was made sometime, I would venture to say, in the 1960s. It is a heavy brown metal drafting lamp with fluorescent bulbs, and it can be pivoted and adjusted for different perspectives on projects. Turning the lamp on is like taking a trip back in time, as the satisfying click of the red “on” button bespeaks another era — one that was marked by products made for near-permanence.

Even the electric pencil sharpener that came with these items is remarkable. I know the brand — it is one that has frequented my classroom for many years. The difference is, this one was made nearly 50 years ago, and its motor has yet to burn out. Yes, the unit is heavier and bulkier than today’s model, but the machinery that comprises it has yet to fail. I go through electric pencil sharpeners in my classroom at an alarming rate. I’m lucky if a modern sharpener made by this same company lasts a full school year. And yet, here is this dinosaur, still grinding down wood and graphite with precision and speed. Granted, this model hasn’t undergone the abuses and rigors of a secondary classroom, but nonetheless, its continued functionality is commendable.

I bring up these examples not as a maudlin longing for simpler times, but instead, to launch into another point: what we produce as writers can be quick and slick like dollar-a-pack stick pens, or we can endeavor to create something a bit more like the aforementioned desk, lamp, and pencil sharpener — something that endures. One of my goals as a poet has always been to create work that will be read in classrooms and checked out from libraries 100 years from now. Some would say that such an ambition is unrealistic and naive. I prefer to think that considering legacy when writing is much like investing in quality items of a more tangible nature. It ensures that when the people we care about look back over our lives, they can safely say we, too, insisted on quality.

Among the books I’ve received from this great uncle are several Bibles and dictionaries. All of them have been used with frequency, but also with a sort of care that shows reverence and admiration. My hope is, in using and appreciating these everyday items, I might somehow pass on that great tradition of surrounding oneself with matter that matters. May our writing be done in such a way that, when others hold it like a leather-bound inheritance, they treasure it equally every time.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

A Writer-Teacher’s Birthday

typewriter-cakeIn looking back over my site here, I noticed that last year I also posted on my birthday. I thought that by doing so again this year, it might make a nice little tradition of sorts. I promise, however, not to wax eloquent about my resolutions or grand goals for the year ahead. That’s what New Year’s posts are for, after all.

What I do know is this: Having made it through well more than a third of a century now, I feel an increasing compulsion to strengthen my legacy. An awful lot of my writing heroes were far better known and more respected than I before they were my current age. But with that said, an equally great number of authors I look up to weren’t even map dots on the literary landscape until they were much older. I’m increasingly thankful for those men and women who “bloomed late.” Their stories are consolations and reassurances when I, like another poet, find myself “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

In my twenties, I still didn’t possess the maturity and experience necessary to produce respectable literary work. Plenty of great writers have produced meaningful literature in their twenties, but I hadn’t even begun figuring out life. Even if I had attempted a graduate-level program or “the great American novel,” I probably would have done the bare minimum to get by, and spent most of my time dwelling in pseudo-angst that I associated with “the writer type.”

In other words, I would have adopted the persona of a writer — some weird hybrid of Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, no doubt — and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad habits and dramatic life choices. I would have been concerned with acting out a tragic and memorable biography rather than the actual writing of excellent work. In some ways, I did exactly that: During my post-college years as a journalist, I sought out dangerous assignments, got shot at, had broken bottles hurled at my head, drove through a wall of fire, and gained my fair share of other brushes with mortality. I felt like I had something to prove. My lifestyle made for great coffeehouse stories, but I wasn’t making any real difference. Police scanner on my hip, the only thing I sought was juicy headlines and personal adventure. My time in journalism was devoted almost exclusively to my own selfish desires. Employers were merely means to the end of front-page byline glory.

There is a distinct benefit in having more life behind me: Having evolved into a husband, father, educator, and community member, I’m able to see my place in the universe with a little greater clarity. Selfish concerns over identity and others’ perceptions are subordinate to the demands of family, work, school, and faith. Living through most of my thirties has allowed me to gain richer exposure to the world, and to better understand what it means to earnestly make a lasting impact. Maybe my writing won’t be the major part of my legacy; it could be that the students I’ve engaged are a bigger part of my future memoirs than my experiences in the literary realm. And I’m okay with that. In fact, more than okay. I’d like one day to say that I’ve measured my life, not in coffee spoons like Eliot, but in student successes (excuse the cliche). And if my poetry and my other words happen to find a place in the public consciousness while I’m at it, then so much the better.

Sure, I’m going to keep pushing my writing. Absolutely, I’m going to continue to submit and publish (hopefully) with regularity. Whether my printed words or my classroom creativity will become my greater contribution, I don’t know. And for right now, that’s perfectly fine. The next chapter is still waiting to be written.

poetry, Uncategorized

Literary Wingmen

ImageT.E. Hulme wrote six poems in his life, with the best known piece being a short little near-pastoral titled “Autumn.” But this Englishman, who fought in World War I, is known better for his attachment to other greats. The company he kept included big names in the world of poetry, including Eliot, H.D., and a number of well-known imagists. He joined poetry clubs and took part in literary events where better-known authors read and were celebrated, and in 1917, he was shot and killed in wartime. He was only 34. His legacy today is largely attached to the reputation of better-known names from literature like those mentioned above. Scholars today refer to him more as a “critic” than a poet.

The lesson of Hulme’s life is one all writers, and especially poets, should take to heart: While being around “names” might be exhilirating, and doing so may have its own benefits, it is imperative that we not forget who we’re really in this business for — ourselves. Oh sure, I could go on some great philanthropic rant about how writing is “all for the readers,” or “to make society and culture better,” but at the end of the day, let’s get real: The reason writers write is to be read and recognized by others. No matter how charitable or noble our other motives may be, the one driving force behind writing is the thought that someone else will take in and appreciate our words.

So, if one is constantly “hanging around” others who are already established, that might be fun and even rewarding, but honestly, when the fat lady sings, who wants to be remembered as “that guy who hung around (famous name here)?” Making a literary contribution demands more than being the bookish equivalent of a Kardashian. Staking out one’s own path and territory is as necessary in the writing world as it is in business. Warren Buffett didn’t get where he is by riding the coattails of Rockefellers, and today’s writer can’t expect to be remembered by sitting on Grisham’s front porch, either.

Certainly this isn’t to say that receiving mentorship from “names” isn’t helpful; it definitely is. But at some point, it’s time to leave the nest and spread one’s own wings. My aspiration is that, when my time comes, I’m not put into the history books like Hulme; by then, I will hopefully have made a significant impact that is beyond “knowing and imitating good poets.” No doubt my writer friends desire something similar. Let’s begin forging that path today. Our literary legacies depend upon it.