by Jae Newman
I had an American Literature Professor in college who could simultaneously smoke two cigarettes and handle my advisement duties while reading through Moby Dick as part of his seasonal reading. He used to grumble a little bit while he searched his drawer for a paper clip or perhaps another cigarette. He told me this story once when I came to him with a folder full of bad love poems—my first collection of poetry. Well, once Henry David Thoreau was jailed for protesting the Mexican-American War. It was late-nineteenth century or thereabouts. He waited in the cell and he was smoking. When his distinguished friend Ralph Waldo bailed him out, Emerson said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau’s response: “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”
I have loved this story for nearly ten years now. Although it readily has more to do with what it means to be an engaged American capable of civilized dissension when politics force us into ethical and social dilemmas, I have always thought of this story in connection to my first terrible set of love poems. What exactly was my advisor insinuating here?
Rilke’s sage advice from Letters to a Young Poet
is for the neophyte poet to wait to try to write love poems. Write instead about your childhood. That is sound advice from a technical point of view. Sometimes we aren’t ready to write the poems we most want to create.
We are, like all artists, bound to the level of our talents and work habits. That means nothing when you’re in love.
I’ve been thinking about those sweeping, cliché deranged love poems I wrote for my fiancé when I was all of eighteen. They were bad. Lots of –tion words. Lots of broken music and syntax. What was happening as I wrote one bad poem after another? I was learning to listen.
Something in us convinces us we can soar with Plath and Rimbaud and write polished poems right out of the shoot. Rimbaud quit poetry before twenty. I don’t question that decision. I think about quitting poetry (and make bold threats to do so) almost every year. If you don’t question the distillation of what you have to say then what you say is likely going to be lost in the chatter.
What are we doing when we try our hand at love poems? Hasn’t it all been said? Emphatically, I say no.
There are many opinions on why love poems don’t usually go as planned and why most Americans will let someone else who works at Hallmark craft what they say to the most significant person in their life. There is nothing wrong, as I realize, with giving someone a card for Valentine’s Day because most people expect this. That is part of the pleasure—receiving a gift for which something can be reciprocated. A card for a card. A box of chocolates for a new ball cap. Most love poems fail, however, because we are not accustomed to unveiling our innermost thoughts for someone else. Love poems are conversations without small talk.
We often fail because the same unnerving spotlight which shines on someone who sits with pen in hand preparing to write a love poem is the same spotlight which terrifies most away from prayer.
Prayer, intentional language that is elevated in its affective power, isn’t something you can just scribble down. It takes consideration. It takes miles of running to discern an idea. It takes years of questioning to ask the right question. In short, a life of prayer reorients us towards listening and to believing that we are being listened to as well. That’s why every decent love poem I’ve ever read, written or heard aloud begins in that reflective consciousness whereby the poem isn’t a start of a conversation, a banner to behold, but a reply.
It is an image carrying an old conversation back and forth between lovers.
Maybe Rilke would have done better to tell the novice poet who wrote to him not to just avoid writing love poems, but to in fact learn to pray. He might have said as much—in typical artistic fashion—without wanting to dim his reputation as a learned poet and mystic.
I want to be clear. If you are a poet of faith, you need to pray more. Pray because it is that belief that there is a golden thread, a phone wire that connects us to others and even God that will enliven the richness of what you say, of what you no longer need to say. Pray first and watch your poetry manifest.
It doesn’t work, in my experience, very well the other way around.
Ralph and Henry might appear unequivocally different—politically, socially, and most obviously economically. Poor Ralph probably had to bail Thoreau out more than once. Instead of seeing the story as one of how dissimilar they are to one another, I choose to see two friends laughing as they leave the cell, both united in their certainty that a reflective life offers more chances to tap into the silent power of our inner resolve and say and mean what we say and do. When that kind of rich inner life occurs, good writing can’t help but spring forth.
---------Jae Newman, author of Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books 2015), lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and daughters. He teaches writing courses at Monroe Community College and Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry has been published in many national journals including: The Bellingham Review, Redivider, Karamu, Saranac Review, and Rock & Sling. In 2008, his poem “Honeymoons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Newman has recently completed a MA in Theological Studies at Northeastern Seminary.
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