I wrote “A Praise of Weeds” on December 30, 2008, but the poem proved to be immensely daunting and went through multiple revisions before taking on its current form. Among the sonnets that make up Restoring the Narrative, this poem, especially in terms of the last line’s word choices, never felt like I was going to finish it. In fact, at one point I was so frustrated that I seriously considered pulling the poem from the final copy edits. Some poems really are abandoned rather than finished, as the saying goes, and some days I feel like I abandoned this poem, and other days I think I finished it (or at least took it as far as I was able to accompany it).
A PRAISE OF WEEDS
Each of us makes his own anthology
the critics don’t decide, with countless poems
nobody else may know exist but which
have hallowed what it means to be alive.
Subversives, me included, carry books
with turned-down pages, starred lines, margin notes,
each poem a wholeness clarified by years
of living forth its held-close subtleties.
By nature, quiet truths do not engage
to argue for their worth, especially
to those made deaf haranguing some agenda.
Some readers make an audience more lasting
than official, reciting lines that faint
the air with sense,
resolved, prayer-full, content.
The title of the poem playfully and perhaps not so playfully strikes at the idea behind the word “anthology,” which entered our language from a Greek word that means “a collection of flowers.” I was forty when I wrote the poem almost a decade ago, but I had long ago noticed that so many poems I admire never find their way into anthologies. There are many factors that influence anthology selections, and in truth there are too many poems for any one person to keep up; nonetheless, so many “weeds” matter more to me personally than some of the “flowers” others have collected for me to admire.
Furthermore, despite teaching at a college and introducing anthologies to students—i.e. the poems that are supposed to matter, the poems critics have decided are valued, favored, exceptional, accomplished, etc.—I’ve often thought that each of us creates a different anthology of poems that matter more to us than do the ones that have become the “official” selections. I have often strayed from these official poems and have taught other poems I think are just as good if not better. In doing so, I have felt like a “subversive,” challenging the dominant narrative of which poems matter. In some small way, my own choices—whether memorized, copied into notebooks, or taught to my classes—offer a push-back to or a restoration of the narrative I am supposed to be following. I keep creating, through these other choices, a syllabus other than the one I have been handed and told to follow.
Because I believe we see part but never the whole, I’m encouraged by how the fullness of time’s unfolding will likely reveal a different narrative than the one we believe we hold. I’m encouraged to believe that a wider and more lasting audience may emerge for some of these so-called “weeds.” I like to think that “turned-down pages, starred lines, [and] margin notes” have an effect that goes undetected, especially in how so many readers live forth a poem’s “held-close subtleties,” thereby radically changing the nature of our common existence.
Quiet truths have always appealed to me. I imagine them fainting the air with a different kind of “sense”—one that is ultimately “resolved, prayer-full, content.” We live in a world of competing narratives, competing “agendas,” all of them attempting to gain power over the others. Meanwhile, truth knows what it knows and feels no need to “argue for [its] worth.” It just is.
It doesn’t need to be noticed, or “decided,” or deemed worthy. It is content to be itself in a way that few of us seem able to hear, imagine, or be.
Unlike the self or the soul, it is a narrative that doesn’t need to be restored.
“Wondering Aloud” was written in early 2006 while sitting in Buckhead Coffeehouse in Columbia, TN. In the background, Patty Griffin, whose catalogue of music is among my favorites, was singing. The tone, if not the lyric content, of songs like “Don’t Come Easy,” “Rain,” “Mary,” “Kite,” and “Forgiveness” has lingered in the back of my mind for going on two decades now. The importance of her songs in the world I am still coming to understand, though I doubt I will ever know fully why her voice is so resonate and meaningful to me. Her work makes more than one appearance in No Other Kind of World with a poem whose title ("Holding on Underneath This Shroud") is actually a lyric from her song "Rain."
So many conversations in the coffee house
revise the chronicles of History, usurp the headlines,
and chart a course toward mercy
our country seldom hears.
If you have a soul, some smoldering left inside, maybe
the time has come to bring it words like “and.” Its health
may be determined
by the poverties it adds unto itself.
So many years now I’ve rested on clover beds
but never once forgot myself
and buried face and arms
to breathe the earth deep down and carry it away.
The loveliness of form has brought me back
from who I was, a man itinerant, lulled by memory,
thinking what I’ve lived
has been the only path.
A woman singing of her restlessness makes room for me
to search that self-same road.
The moment bears us forth.
We’re holding hands against a coming Inquisition.
The original title was a bit longer: “Wondering Aloud in a Time of War.” In fact, the poem went through seven revisions/tweaks before settling into its current iteration. By the third draft I had dropped the reference to war, believing that the poem might sound too politicized, too much of a comment upon the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” which, at that time, was in the collective mind. What I had in mind, though, was more along the lines of Ephesians 6:2: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Each stanza, hopefully, can be read as its own small room of meaning. As I’ve said before, I’ve written a lot of poems that proceed through five three-line stanzas, letting the interplay of the stanzas, though distinct, create an intuitive logic. Originally, the second stanza in “Wondering Aloud” was entirely different. It read as follows:
What will become of us who worry over words,
their shades and implications, when the outer
trumps the inner and every soul’s a billboard sign?
The poem was sent around for many years but never could find a home with a literary journal. In 2013, when my collection Notes for a Praise Book came out, I lifted this stanza and used it in the book’s title poem because I thought the stanza connected with the themes in that poem. Also, since almost eight years had passed since my first book Fall Sanctuary was published, I was beginning to think that a lot of my work might wander around forever without finding an audience.
The audience of a coffeehouse, in some ways, serves as an alternate reality, one that works against the day’s headlines and revises History by entering into “conversation,” a prospect which, to some degree, might actually be a form of “conversion.” I like to think so at least. To “chart a course toward mercy” still seems like a necessary and important strategy even if an Inquisition is almost upon us.
Even so, some of us will still be reaching toward each other. A lot of things “don’t come easy,” as Patty Griffin says, but we’re made of “something light as nothing, made of joy that matters, too.” Nothing we call “History” will survive time. The outer always seems on the verge of trumping the inner. It's easy to forget that love exists. We're always wondering, though rarely aloud, if "we'll ever get home."
The soul knows better.
“Prosopagnosia” was written in 2010 after hearing about the condition where people are unable to recognize familiar faces, sometimes even their own. I had reservations about trespassing on what is a very real condition for some people, but I was struck by the metaphorical implications of such a condition. Do we ever truly recognize the faces of others? Do we even know the faces we present to the world? What if—given my own fallibility—I assume that I appear one way to friends, family, and neighbors only to find out that I am viewed completely differently? What about our country and its claim to Christianity? What if we are not David, “ready to leap toward the fight,” but instead, utterly without recognition, have turned into Goliath?
I know, in America, we think ourselves David
holding a stone,
ready to leap toward the fight,
but what if it turns out, instead, we’re the giant.
Too few people have decided to fail, to step
to the side so another can stretch toward the finish line.
From the swallows we learn
how to swap who will lead.
You and I have spent centuries telling our stories,
one to another, face to face, in this smallest of rooms.
Even Frost, in his sestets,
didn’t reach clear conclusions.
I want the original version, Magritte’s Still Life
or those pair of initials, hidden by Leonardo
in Mona Lisa’s eyes,
he thought would never be found.
In you, in me, one has to wonder what God
—a weeping for piano notes entwined
or for the moment the goose far behind catches up.
I suppose I have always questioned, in myself and in others, the desire to be first, to win, to conquer. As stanza two says, “Too few people have decided to fail, to step/to the side so another can stretch toward the finish line.” What if we cultivated in ourselves a sense of generosity toward others, allowing them successes that might normally go to ourselves? What if, like the swallows, we swapped who takes the lead? Might we learn from others if we weren’t always trying to assert our own dominance? After all, like Frost’s sonnets, perhaps we don’t reach the kinds of certainties, the kinds of “conclusions,” that we think we do. There might be a fuller version to find—“the original version”—not only in Magritte or in da Vinci, but within ourselves; and maybe this fuller version is hidden from us because we don’t know how to let go of our prepared faces.
The description for my first book, Fall Sanctuary, included the following question: “Is there, in fact, a ‘genuine’ face behind the faces we prepare to meet the faces others have prepared for us to meet?” The question, of course, echoes Eliot’s poem “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the context of my book, though, the question arises out of a poem titled “Theodicy”:
See, this magnolia bloom,
its petals thick and rubbery,
tenacious, not easily cast aside,
so much fragrance
I get a little giddy
just breathing in its presence--
this is the manner of world
we wake to every day:
small revelations, curling and intricate;
and what should we become then,
how speak to one another,
how move beyond these faces
we prepare, if such a world exists?
Yes, in this "manner of world/we wake to every day," a world of “small revelations” (leading to "small revolutions") how should we present ourselves to one another? How should we speak? These questions, in essence, arise out of the book’s epigraph, taken from Luke’s gospel, on the road to Emmaus. The verse states,
And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went
with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner
of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?
So much we do not know about what we do not know, about what we do not see in our midst within this only world we inhabit. Perhaps, like piano notes, our lives are “entwined” in ways we do not recognize even as we walk along in the presence of divinity. Maybe someone we know—a friend, a stranger—just like “the goose far behind,” is on the verge of catching up with us, having been left behind long ago.
I like to think such a moment might be a glad reunion, a foretaste of the kind of tenderness our deepest selves know we have been marked by.
“Meet the Author” was one of five poems I wrote on February 2, 2008. I got the idea for the title from my reading of an issue of The Missouri Review, noting that the words “Meet the Author” were at the top of particular pages, introducing individual author bios. I thought those words sounded like a promising title. I didn’t set out to write a sonnet, but when I wrote the title in my notebook, I quickly followed it with the word “but” in the first line as if to offer a counter to what might happen if one actually “met” the author. Soon I found myself within a comfortable iambic meter and had the first inklings that a sonnet could offer a shape to my thoughts.
MEET THE AUTHOR
but not to ask a question or receive
an answer. Unreliable he is,
notoriously ill-informed about
his work, which he believes has come about
as some improvement in the world. Oh sure.
Of course. As can be evidenced by how
the poor are still the poor and seldom fed.
How Shelley’s children lived to middle age.
The author speaks hyperbole saying
even his name, which has become just one
more myth nobody has the heart to tell
him isn’t true. His smile’s a simile
for self-delusion, trite and long-winded.
Steer clear. Do something else. Think your own thoughts.
I’ve met many authors in the past three decades, and as one might imagine, there can often be a difference between the persona on the page and the actual person. Is it possible actually to “meet” the author, or is one simply encountering a persona, a version, a fiction? Critics sometimes refer to an “unreliable narrator,” so I extended that description to the author himself, especially the idea of credibility being compromised. An author has an ego—that’s understandable to some degree—but what if ego entices the author into overvaluing his work’s contribution to society? Some authors—in interviews, in commentaries—have discussed interpretations of their work, but how much should readers believe an author’s view or interpretation? Once the work exists in the world, doesn’t it belong to readers? Can an author even be trusted?
U2’s Bono once said that he wanted “a song so good that it makes people want to do something about the subject.” Emerson said that thought needs action in order to ripen into truth. The Bible teaches that faith without works is dead. Rilke’s famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” often used to stress the value of art within the individual’s life, ends by stating, “You must change your life.” Perhaps people experience art in all its forms and decide to be different selves, choose to live more humbly, more empathetically, or less fearfully, less assured of their answers. Perhaps they imagine the lives of others as equally miraculous as their own.
A study of authors’ lives, though, can sometimes be depressing. Some aren’t always the most admirable people. Some cheat, lie, steal, have affairs, abandon children, or worse. Nonetheless, we go to them with questions, expecting to receive answers, believing we might even encounter the truth. Perhaps we live in a world too prone to self-delusion. Authors, like readers, are often insecure, given to hyperbole, creators of myths about themselves and their work.
Maybe, as the poem states, we should “[s]teer clear.” Maybe we should not give our questions and answers over to authors but should, instead, think our “own thoughts.” Part of the larger argument of Restoring the Narrative has to do with reliability—of competing narratives that exist in both the public and private spheres, of what it means to be a self, a citizen, a soul. Time, too, whether past, present, or future, contains competing versions of events and what these once meant, now mean, or one day will come to mean. None of us has the full picture.
Meanwhile, time goes “headlong telling itself.”
One day we will meet the Author.
“Ontology” was written in February 2009 but under a different title. Sometimes, if I have a few minutes before class, I try to write as many titles as I can—I don’t have time to commit to anything, so none of them needs to matter. I’m just playing, doodling, going off script. I find that doing such writing exercises—calisthenics, I call them—frees up my mind and occasionally leads to surprises.
At the time, I had been noticing the growing use of emoticons within what my students kept referring to as “texting.” (“Text,” I told them, means the whole as opposed to the portion or part thereof, so how could a parenthesis followed by a colon be considered “text”? That was a part, not a whole.) I could tell by their faces that I was losing the battle and that our culture was moving past me. For whatever reason—malice, spite, fatigue—I began writing poems with titles using emoticons: (:, ((( ))), :-0, B-), :-’, and others. My first title for “Ontology” was in fact “*-),” which apparently means “thinking.”
After I hear a man on television
claim to be a stone-cold man,
a rock-solid man,
I wonder about the others
who haven’t come forward yet,
the daylily man, the katydid man,
men who define themselves
by what they have
a tenderness toward,
the morning dew man
who goes too quickly away.
And what about
the flowers-on-a-grave man,
off to the side, as usual,
though everyone eventually
knows him? Not to mention
the falling leaves man
who sometimes gets together
with the milkweed man,
the two of them
swapping long stories
about the rose-trellis man
down the road years back--
what a kook,
trying to act like
a moon-on-the-water man,
which clearly he wasn’t.
Probably for good reason my emoticon title idea was a colossal flop, as was my series of poems with titles like “LOL” and various abbreviations. Southern Poetry Review accepted “*-)” three years after I wrote it but suggested that I consider a different title. (Eventually I abandoned all of my emoticon titles.) I suppose I went from one extreme to another when finally choosing a title: ontology is a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being. A title like that ought to ratchet up the poem’s importance!
As for its opening line, I really did hear someone refer to himself as “a stone-cold man, a rock-hard man,” as if such descriptions should be met with applause or approval. Are those even valid descriptions, I thought. His bravado and arrogance annoyed me a bit too much, I’ll admit. Wouldn’t it make as much sense to say that I’m a hummingbird-wing man or a straw next to a fire man? Why “stone-cold” and not “leaf-strewn”? Why “rock-hard” and not “moss-soft”? I started making a list of other kinds of men: the daylily man, the katydid man. I thought the absurdity of such “men” might rival the absurdity of a “rock-hard man.”
I guess I’ve always pushed back against men defining themselves by aggression, toughness, speed, power, or any such attributes that seemingly never leave our consciousness. What would it be like to live in a world with “men who define themselves/by what they have/a tenderness toward”? What if men understood themselves as fleeting (morning dew), or what if men approached the world through the lens of grief (flowers-on-a-grave)? Can’t we have a different nature of being? Shouldn’t we?
Well, I tried to be both lighthearted and serious in this poem, a sort of “lightweight” in the manner of the first poem within Small Revolution. After all, we live “in these hostile times” where there is “a great deal more/we’ll need to know/before making/a final summation.”
Yes, the nature of being—understanding what it is, what it means, what it feels like, why it matters. Definitely worth “thinking” about.
I mean, wouldn’t we hate to find out one day that we chose part but not the whole? Wouldn’t we be embarrassed to have built a conception of self upon an abbreviated way of thinking?
“A Simple Point” was written in early 2008 at a time when I began to have the sense that I was failing a lot of people’s purity tests. By “a lot of people” I mean those closest to me, religious people—friends, family, church. Throughout the 2000s, I couldn’t quite muster the enthusiasm for the Bush administration that most of my religious friends and family expressed. Almost everyone I knew spoke of Bush in glowing terms—he was “taking a stand” for family values, that sort of thing—and while he did some things I admire, I often thought, sadly, that Christians had become nothing more than a reliable voting block, easily moved to vote in ways that sometimes reflected (but just as often negated) the Bible’s teachings. Neither party, to my mind, fully represents Christianity—a crescent is not the whole of the moon--but living in Tennessee has taught me (mostly) to keep this viewpoint to myself. Otherwise, my "spiritual condition" comes under review and my faith is questioned.
A SIMPLE POINT
Once talk became a way of sizing up
another’s spiritual condition; once
a word or phrase had countless implications,
too many, really, to decide how best
to make a simple point; once nothing said
could find a sympathetic ear; I walked
outside into the leaf-anointed air
to wander calmly in my dereliction,
pardoned by moonlight glinting off barbed wire
along the back fencerow, where cattle lowing
reminded me how Papaw calling out
could bring the herd toward him. I grabbed
the fence, familiar leg-kick up and over.
Mute, drawn back, I walked old paths,
Is it possible to “siz[e] up/another’s spiritual condition”? I suppose we all make the attempt from time to time, me included. I believe in the fallibility of the human mind, so I prefer to think I am more likely to be wrong than to be right. Said another way, I lean toward the benefit of the doubt rather than toward certainty. Sometimes certainty takes us far off the path; leaves us lost; reveals our deeper, self-serving motives. I love those instances in the Bible where Jesus discerns the motives of people’s hearts as they ask him questions intended to gain the upper hand or to ignore a central truth. The
Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, is Jesus’ response to an earlier question (“Who is my neighbor?”), which is asked because "the expert in the law" is seeking to "justify himself." Jesus' answer seems to be that our neighbor is anyone we would purposefully avoid, anyone we would go out of our way not to help.
More than one person, because I raised a question about something he or she had already decided upon—especially where politics and religion mingle—has questioned the state of my soul, i.e. whether or not I am a Christian. I’ve been told, “I am praying for you.” I could just as easily have said the same thing to him, to her, but what would I first have to assume/presume about him, about her, about what qualifies as a speck, about what qualifies as a log? How blind are we really? Mostly, I would say, and then on other days almost entirely. Apparently, politics (at least narrowed to something manageable) has now become a measurement of faith (likewise narrowed to something manageable). Usually, in such situations, I cannot fail such a purity test fast enough. I have no interest in defending myself—I concede, I turn the other cheek, I give my cloak too.
In an earlier age, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” stated, “Look around you—all you see are sympathetic eyes.” I’ve never known whether to take that lyric as true or not. I’d like for there to be sympathy, but I’m not so sure it exists in sufficient degree anymore. A sense of common feeling seems absent in our conversations and particularly absent in our politics and sometimes even in our faith. Gaining the upper hand, what is sometimes referred to as “owning the narrative,” pollutes civility, friendships, pews. My collection is titled Restoring the Narrative for this reason, and the last section, “Morning Porch,” aims to listen toward a voice not my own, not anyone else's either, to see what I might have overlooked, to discern whether life’s passage is merely entertainment or instruction. Deep down I have this suspicion that if my interpretation confirms what I already believe, then I’m probably not believing the right thing to begin with. “Did I watch attentively,” I ask, “as one is wont to do who seeks an answer/believing it will be revealed?” Maybe that’s what’s wrong with certainty: too often it arises out of self-serving motives instead of out of revelation.
Thus the need to get away, to go off alone, to walk “outside into the leaf-anointed air.” Jesus was always going off alone to pray, to get away from the crowd. Against the “talk” of the poem’s first line, I choose the “mute” of the last line. Walking old paths, revisiting my roots, I am “born again,” renewed, given a new mind, refreshed, anointed. I’m also reminded—despite anyone else’s opinion on the matter—that I am “born again,” having been brought up out of a horrible pit, my feet placed upon a rock, a new song in my mouth.
With no desire to prove anything to anyone, I’m never happier than when I am wandering “in my dereliction,” waiting patiently on the Lord. Like my Papaw’s cattle moving toward his voice, I know the voice calling me.
And I go.
“Manifesto” was written in early 2004. I suppose I’ve always loved the idea of a manifesto, a public expression of one’s views, intentions, etc. In many ways, though, given examples like the Unabomber and others, the idea of a manifesto, at least when I wrote this poem, seemed to me to veer too close to diatribe. In other words, someone had “a bone to pick,” a complaint, an issue to raise. Jadedness, discontentment, rebuke—these were givens. I wanted to explore an opposite mindset. I wanted to begin by saying something I probably shouldn’t dare say out loud, something that, if I were in a poetry workshop, someone would dismiss immediately. Surely no one can say he is “enthralled” these days—I mean, get real. Yes, I thought, get real. What is my statement of intent? I am “unencumbered and enthralled,” and I have “no idea what might occur.” Wisdom, I had learned from Thoreau, “beholds,” and I wanted to establish that I was standing ready, awaiting revelation. Can’t such a mindset be fertile ground for writing poems, for living one’s life?
Let me say I’m unencumbered and enthralled
to stand beneath this starry sweep of night.
Contentedly, I’ve no idea what might occur.
Or even if, for once, I’ll usher out this proclamation
and not be thumped, harangued, snickered at,
not be caught off guard by some heckler always
present, even in myself. Unlikely, to say the least,
but, hey, it’s a new century, and what if everyone
decided to be generous, upbeat, to praise a little,
to hurl the most preposterous claims at the face
of a cynical world? Like: I hear you, owl,
and the answer is me. Like: each of us
was made for joy and can’t be extricated.
Like: the sum of all we wander through
can lead us, lead us, lead us past the self
into the flawed but hopeful cares of others.
Well, it was a new century after all, full of possibilities, hopes, optimism, a praise book I was already writing but not fully aware of yet, a narrative I would one day attempt to restore, a small revolution I would try to begin. Around the same time, I had also written a poem titled “To Fellow Poets,” my attempt to move my generation beyond its cynicism and irony, beyond poems beginning in despair, loss, darkness, uncertainty, indeterminacy, as if these were the sole provinces of wisdom. Years later I would write a lecture, "Gallant with Delight: Joy as Wisdom in Literature." The book description I wrote for my first collection Fall Sanctuary would hit upon these ideas as well, stating in part:
These poems demand to know whether joy, reverence, gratitude, and empathy can exist with fullness
in an age that privileges irony, suspicion, cynicism, and ridicule. Is there, in fact, a “genuine” face behind
the faces we prepare to meet the faces others have prepared for us to meet? For the reader tired of being
told the world is nothing more than constructs and fictions, Hardin asks, “Oh why don’t we admit
we’re exhausted?/It takes great effort not to shout for joy when we see each other.”
There was more to the description, but this first half announces the ideas I was exploring at the time. Whether I was aware or not, writing poems was becoming my way of creating a “sanctuary,” one “with hymns and prayers voiced unabashedly.”
I’d hate to describe my persona, but others have told me that I am very serious and philosophical while also being very funny and whimsical, sometimes even a goofball. I would probably have a hard time refuting such descriptions. My goofiness comes into this poem with words like “but, hey," a kind of lightheartedness despite the prospect of being “thumped, harangued, snickered at.” I’ll admit that I laughed out loud when I wrote, “I hear you owl,/and the answer is me.” Will that sound arrogant, I wondered, or will a reader be simply amused? I was hoping for amused.
This poem went through eight different overhauls before settling on this particular version. Sometimes the line breaks were radically different. Of particular note is how the repetition of “Like” in the last few lines was left-justified through almost all versions until the last two versions. Also, the first version began with the word “Anyway,” an attempt at deflation and humor (a manifesto beginning so nonchalantly, I thought, was funny), and the first line contained the word “stupendously” in front of “enthralled.” Stupendously enthralled? I figured I’d be lucky to get away with “enthralled,” so I dropped the overwrought adjective. I still like it, though. If one is going to be enthralled, one might as well be stupendously enthralled.
The most work, it seems, went into the last line. The first version, in a different tense, read: “leads us past the self into each other’s braided care.” I liked “braided,” especially since the idea can be traced throughout my work. Version two: “leads us past the self into the faulty care of others, others, others.” The repetition of “others” was intended to play off the repetition of “lead us,” but “braided” was now replaced by “faulty,” acknowledging our fallibility. By version four, though, the last line had morphed into the “exceptionally flawed but hopeful cares of others.” How could something be “exceptionally flawed”? Yes, we are fallible, but we are wonderfully made, and in many ways part of the manifesto of my writing proclaims the inexplicable intertwining of our lives, the way that U2’s “One” says, “We get to carry each other.” By version five the idea was changed to “flawed-exceptionally hopeful cares of others” while in the last versions the idea became “flawed but hopeful cares of others.”
By its nature, a manifesto is a statement of self, but what if the self is really crying out to trust itself to others? What if the self is trying to find a way to “be naïve enough/to be naïve again,” as the poem “To Fellow Poets” suggests. Part of the sanctuary of the fall—alluding to my first book—is admitting to being “burnt out…on being burnt out” and thus willing to speak “without irony about the dew.” Part of the praise song of my second book is to step more fully into the sense, the radical and endlessly explicable sense, of being “enthralled.” One way to restore the narrative of the my third book is to own up to the myth one makes of the self in a world of competing versions all trying to own the narrative, while part of the small revolution of my fourth book is to “overthrow the language” of cynicism, irony, and suspicion. I mean, as "Naysayers" states,
we're long past words
like fulfillment, revelation,
but we could always revisit them
to see what we overlooked.
After all, we are fallible, but we could "decide to be generous" toward each other and the care we give to one another. Looking forward to my fifth book, there really is No Other Kind of World than the one in which each of us is a miracle of existence, “a mystery we cannot read alone.” There is no other kind of world than the one in which "we talk of a need to witness miracles,/each of us flying so close at each other/until the last possible moment, then veering..."
“The Poet Who Never Achieved,” written in early 2002, came along as a consequence of researching poet E. A. Robinson, whose fascinating poems I have taught for years. Sitting in the Vanderbilt University library with a stack of books and articles on Robinson (I am an unrepentant criticism junky), I was struck by the fact that this poet I admire so much was essentially unknown until President Roosevelt catapulted him into fame and fortune. As chance would have it (or destiny? or circumstance?), Robinson taught Roosevelt’s son; thus, Robinson’s poems found their way to the President, and he persuaded a major publisher to publish Robinson’s collection The Children of the Night. The President even wrote a review of the collection. He also secured a job for Robinson that allowed him to develop his art even further.
A story like Robinson’s made me think about how close any poet is to falling into obscurity, of going unnoticed, unread. What if Robinson had not taught the President’s son? Would we have missed his poems entirely? Very likely so. We like to believe that success is a product of hard work, talent, diligence, or any number of other factors, and while these things matter deeply, they don’t always tell the full story. Sometimes, let’s be honest, something like luck, or grace—or downright nepotism—sets things in motion.
THE POET WHO NEVER ACHIEVED
No matter—dreaming still, he walked his room,
a steady pace, and seized upon some words
that knew their windblown strength,
like certain birds
that writhe in downdrafts but soar beyond their doom.
He read his betters, praised them when he could
and sought to make them better known, though few
could know this fact, not knowing him,
it best this way. The years stretched on, withstood
the poems he offered up; and when he died,
the movers boxed his things and never knew
that thirty years of poems fell into flame
and were consumed.
No matter—words abide.
Even the ones put down so brief renew
the world somehow—toward loss, toward lack of fame.
At the time I wrote “The Poet Who Never Achieved,” I had written only a handful of sonnets. My closest poet friend, Wil Mills, was constantly pestering me to write sonnets. Since many of Robinson’s best poems were sonnets, and partly to answer Wil’s challenge, I decided to attempt the form once again. I felt, though, that I needed to hide the form or not to make it too obvious—a rather inept and childish way to trick myself into following what I thought of as constricting rules. Of course, those same constricting rules, for Robinson at least, brought small gems of perfection into the world like “Reuben Bright,” “Calvary,” and others.
I didn’t have a specific poet in mind. At first, I was just imagining Robinson remaining unknown his whole life. What if that had happened? Soon, though, the poet of the poem became any poet, a no one, much like poets all of us know whose writing lives have gone unnoticed and who, especially as teachers, have made other poets, not themselves, better known. Many celebrated and “better known” poets may have no idea how many others have helped to advance their “fame.” A servant-mindedness is their nature, a genuine humility before the patient unfolding of time and its revelations. As readers, we move along in an absence, an impoverishment, “not knowing” those poets whose words might have enlarged our conceptions of ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. How many poets have we missed?
Or perhaps such poets are content, even refreshed, by their anonymity? I’ve known such poets, I believe. For them, writing is abiding, is being, is breathing; and achieving otherwise seems not to matter in the least. Maybe their example “renew[s] the world” in a way we have yet to imagine? I was taught as a child to “be transformed by the renewing of [the] mind.” A poet who doesn’t “achieve” anything other than renewing his or her mind—well, maybe there is something to be said for teaching the self to move not toward renown or acceptance, not toward wanting posterity, but instead “toward loss, toward lack of fame,” which, in reality, within the fullness of time, will likely be the fate of most poets, even those most of us believe have achieved some level of success.
“No matter,” the poem says, “Words abide.” That’s my Baptist upbringing sneaking in, remembering being taught that God’s word does not return void. Maybe no one’s words simply disappear or lack influence, even a poet who doesn’t “achieve” in the ways in which we typically measure or define success. Perhaps by insisting upon being noticed, we limit our conceptions of the real value of writing, the moment by moment encounter with the wonderful mystery of existence, how utterly incomprehensible it is that we can speak a language and be understood.
Sometimes—maybe most of the time?—our only audience is ourselves, the day to day experience of writing this or that poem which, most likely, very few will ever read, much less be changed by. Maybe that outcome is okay, realistic, pragmatic, and worthy, not to mention mysterious, awe-inspiring, holy, and fulfilling. Writing a poem may only teach humility, and maybe that’s an achievement—even if singular to one poet even—that begins to “renew the world.”
January 2005. My son Eli was three and a half years old, and he and I were playing a video game called Dig-Dug. In his child-voice he asked, rather excitedly, “How many lives do you have?” That question makes sense within the context of a video game because one usually begins with three or four “lives” and then dwindles down from there, depending on when one gets caught or “dies.” Something about his question, though, struck me as opening into a context other than the game we were playing. Yes, how many lives do I have? I suddenly thought of all the authors I’ve read and how each one has given me lives other than my own, lives worth thinking about, lives worth considering. Maybe there is no real way to account for all the lives I now have access to, but maybe this poem attempts to give voice to a few of them at least.
HOW MANY LIVES DO YOU HAVE?
a response to Eli’s question
Aesop cannot find a moral to my life, while
Basho tucks me in his knapsack, strikes out on a journey.
Camus turns down the café lights and occupies himself.
Dostoyevsky whispers in my ear and, running, I can’t hide.
Emerson, at my funeral, shows up to read my journals’ genius thoughts.
Frost leaves me in the snow-filled woods then hides his path’s escape.
Goethe blows upon the pile of ashes I’ve become to breed a fire.
Hopkins harrow-haunts my hopes, arrests my daily wrestlings.
Issa mourns the loss of time that holds us both within its care, though
Jeffers gives the world back to itself without my selfish taint.
Kabir’s ecstatic that I’ve walked out back to toss the scraps that
Li Po scrambles from the woods to sniff and steal away.
Melville bellows, throws doubloons about my feet, to which
Neruda writes some skinny odes that reek of mist and sea wrack.
O’Connor plays a chess game with my soul, her story’s only character.
Proust knows I love the wind to last for days across the window screen.
Quasimodo takes his half of a parabola while I tremble holding mine.
Rilke sends me stacks and stacks of letters, rose petals tucked inside.
Stafford knows my face and name, says give them both away.
Transtromer shadows me, sneaks up behind, whispers, “Guess who?”
Ungaretti sings the music of a single word until the singing, too, is sung.
Vallejo walks across the street to place a crumb inside my mouth.
Whitman nods to me, the two of us hid out beneath the silence of the stars.
Xenophanes says together we’ll revise those other poets’ blasphemies.
Yeats gets down a book whose fragrant pages drift inside my dreams.
Zagajewski convinces me that I’m Linnaeus and everything’s misnamed.
Reading Aesop was one of my first reading experiences as a child, so beginning with Aesop made logical sense to me. After that, though, I began making an alphabetical listing of all the authors whose writings have influenced and expanded the lives I now live. Ammons, Bly, Canetti, etc. The list grew and grew. I knew right away that I would use the abecedarian form, and it occurred to me that I had never seen a poem using authors’ last names down the left-hand margin of a page. The poem took me most of a week to complete because I kept getting sidetracked by doing research. I say “sidetracked,” but in reality doing research was most of the fun of writing such a poem.
Soon I had to abandon the premise of using “favorite” authors, as if anyone would actually hold me accountable for the authors I chose. Well, yes, there is a certain credibility one has depending on which authors matter or are one’s favorites. Shouldn’t I, as a poet, have chosen Dickinson instead of Doystoyesky? What if I had used Canetti instead of Camus? By the time I reached Doystoyesky, though, I realized that each line would allude to something particular in each author’s work, perhaps even something important to me personally. I assumed that my reader would be as well-versed in each author as I was or that, if not, a reader might be prompted now to seek out an author’s work. For instance, I assumed that those familiar with Emerson know that he read from Thoreau’s journals at Thoreau’s funeral. I also assumed most people familiar with Hopkins know of his use of alliteration and assonance; thus, my use of “h” sounds in the first half of my line and “e” sounds in the second half are a way of mirroring something distinctive about his poems.
The particular line I struggled with the most was the Stafford line. I teach Stafford’s work. I met Stafford more than once. There is something about his sensibility that resonates with me. Like him, I write a poem almost daily and have for close to thirty years. Like him, I am driven by the process of writing, not necessarily and not always by the product, the finality of a knock-out poem. On the other hand, Wislawa Szymborska is one of my favorite poets. Her sensibility, too, has entered my own. I have loved her poems for almost as long as I have loved Stafford’s, so choosing between these two authors was my hardest decision in the poem. What does Szymborska teach me? What does Stafford? What life has been added unto my many lives because of each of these authors? I could choose one but not the other.
In the end, because I had twice had conversations with Stafford and had got to know (fleetingly) something about the quality of his voice and presence, I ultimately chose to honor Stafford. He gave a reading at Bowling Green State University in KY when I was a student at Austin Peay State University in the late 80s. I sat next to him at a dinner, and he spoke with such calm and assurance and humility, with an utter lack of fanfare about his own “celebrity” as a poet. I was 19 or 20 at the time, too young to know anything. About a year and a half later he came to Austin Peay State University to give a reading. I remember that he entered the Zone 3 office where I was a scholarship worker, and he said hello to everyone and shook our hands, the typical cordiality of a visiting author. Then he turned and picked up the latest issue of Zone 3, in which two of my own poems were printed. He scanned down through the table of contents and suddenly looked up at me. “I see someone here I should read,” he said and smiled. I was 21 years old, just beginning to get a few poems published, and he had remembered my name from our meeting in Bowling Green more than a year before. I was stunned. I have met many writers through the years—in fact, I have been introduced a half a dozen times or more to several of them without being remembered in the slightest. That “Stafford kn[ew] my face and name” had its roots in reality, in a particular exchange between the two of us, but in another sense, his own poems also seem to recognize “my face and name.” They also instruct me to “give them both away.”
This poem has an interesting path to publication. It was rejected multiple times. In 2006 I sent it to The Hudson Review, but after a year I had not heard anything. I assumed the submission had been lost or overlooked. No problem. I wrote the journal. No reply. Ok. That happens more often than one would think, so I sent the poem out for another two years. Multiple rejections again. Then, in June 2009 I had an email from The Hudson Review asking about the poems of mine they had accepted in June 2008. Unfortunately, I had never received their acceptance letter. The poem was accepted two years after I submitted it; then I didn’t get the acceptance letter; then another year passed. Three years total. The poem appeared eventually in the Autumn 2009 issue of The Hudson Review.
In a way, the poem “died” many times but finally found “life.” Now, all these years later, more than twelve years after I wrote it, the poem is appearing in No Other Kind of World, forthcoming in August 2017.
My son is now sixteen.
Jeff Hardin is professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including Fall Sanctuary (Nicholas Roerich Prize, 2004), Notes for a Praise Book (Jacar Press, 2013), Restoring the Narrative (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, 2015), Small Revolution, and No Other Kind of World (X. J. Kennedy Prize, 2017).