Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, tighter in scope, also used a pre-determined form—37 prose poems comprised of 37 sentences, one for each year of her life—the matrix upon which to reshape her past and its reflection on her present. My Life, like Tjanting, responds to the pulse of thought, probing and quickening, internal and external, past, present, and outside a time frame, stringing rhythms across the mind of the page.
Hejinian’s poetic memoir taught me how each sentence can embody an experience, evoke a past, tease the present. Then each new sentence demands a succession of presences resisting the chronology of conventional narratives, opening up space in the reading rather than closing it down.
Here’s one of my favorite passages:
Summers were spent in a fog that rains. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.” The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yielded ancient, stunted apricots…Even a minor misadventure, a bumped fender or a newsstand without newspapers, can “ruin the entire day,” but a child cries and laughs. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself dependent on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It is a way of saying, I want you, too, to have experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view—so that we are “coming from the same place.” It is possible to be homesick in one’s own neighborhood…A sting of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of “the way things were” was the same from one day to the next, or from one occasion…to the next, that I can speak now of how we “always” had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the place mats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as “cottage fromage,” that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home…
Hejinian taught me autobiography—the meaning of a life—is more than an accretion of facts or a series of reflections: our autobiographies are in flux, our present perpetually re-composing our past. These are memories not represented as incontrovertible truths but as mileposts of the process of understanding.
When we moved to the Palouse from the Bay Area in 1994, we felt a weight lift from our shoulders. In the Bay Area, doing errands was a daylong venture; in Pullman we could meet with realtors, bankers, friends, have time for a cup of coffee, and do grocery shopping in but a couple hours.
But what to do with all this space, this different pace? How could I connect to this rolling landscape? I turned to writers who were illuminating the West: Edward Abbey, William Kittredge, Gretel Erlich, James Galvin, Mary Clearman Blew, and many others.
We increasingly live our lives as if we are separate from the natural world around us, as if it can’t touch us. Yet if we lose that connection, we lose how the natural world can be a source of health. Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge weaves three stories: her mother and grandmother’s fatal bouts with cancer, the rise to record heights of Great Salt Lake, which devastated heron, owl, and snowy egret habitat in the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge, and Williams’ own complicated grieving and ultimate healing.
Williams’ intimate vision of the Great Salt Lake basin sharpened my eye for the Palouse. Peering at the edges of wheat fields, I saw red-winged black birds, hawks, and, if I was quick enough, coyote.
Williams showed me how this attention can ease pain. I was reeling from the death of my two-year-old nephew—killed in a car accident near the Grand Canyon—until a trip to British Columbia. I was camping in the Kootenays where I hiked upon kokannee swimming upstream to spawn, to lay and fertilize the eggs of the next generation and die. I was overwhelmed. I broke down. I was rebuilt—life’s an ebb and flow, a cycle, something I knew intellectually but now felt viscerally.
Here are a couple passages from Refuge:
Brooke and I slip our red canoe into Half-Moon Bay. Great Salt Lake accepts us like a lover. We dip our wooden paddles into the icy waters and make strong, rapid strokes, north. The canoe powers gracefully ahead.
For two hours we paddle forward, toward the heart of the lake.
At the bow of the boat, I face the wind. Small waves take us up and down, up and down. The water, now bottle green, becomes a seesaw. We keep paddling.
The past seven years are with me. Mother and Mimi are present. The relationships continue—something I did not anticipate.
Flocks of pintails, mallards, and teals fly over us. There are other flocks behind them, undulating strands of birds like hieroglyphics that constantly rewrite themselves. Spring migration has begun.
My mind returns to the lake. Our paddling has become a meditation. We are miles from shore…
My hands are numb. We bring in our paddles and allow ourselves to float…
There is no place on earth I would rather be. Our red canoe becomes a piece of driftwood in the current. Swirls of brine shrimp eggs cloud the water. I dip my empty cup into the lake. It fills with them, tiny pink spherical eggs. They are a mystery to me. I return them. I lean into the bow of the canoe. Brooke leans into the stern. We are balanced in the lake. For what seems like hours, we float, simply staring at the sky, watching clouds, watching birds, and breathing.
A ring-billed gull flies over us, then another. I sit up and carefully take out a pouch from my pocket, untying the leather thong that has kept the delicate contents safe. Brooke sits up and leans forward. I shake petals into his hands and then into my own. Together we sprinkle marigold petals into Great Salt Lake.
My basin of tears.
Vietnam was a formative conflict for me. I was too young to serve, the draft ended when I was in 8th grade, yet I grew up with the war, following it on television, in newspapers and magazines, well aware of the war at home waged in Madison not much more than a 100 miles from my hometown. I’ve worked and studied with men and women who served. From many walks of life, they all had one thing in common: they chose not to speak about their experiences. There was their life before and their life after.
To seek out ways to communicate with these friends and acquaintances, I read fiction about Vietnam, reams of first-hand accounts, but the experiences depicted were beyond my understanding. Finally in The Things They Carried by Tim O ‘Brien, I began to understand the lives of the men and women who served in Vietnam. O’Brien pulled down the veil, dropped me into the middle of the war alongside Lt. Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobson, Rat Kiley, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, Lee Strunk, and others. I waited in ambush, endured months of monsoon rains, mailed an envelope filled with lice to my draft board, watched Mary Anne arrive in culottes to go more native than the Green Berets, walled off a part of myself as the men in Alpha Company were killed and replaced.
Here’s one of my favorite passages from the opening chapter:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water…Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed five pounds including the liner and camouflage cover…Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots-2.1 pounds - and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RT0, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father... As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet…Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce.
I wish I had that window into their experience in Vietnam when I attended a march of veterans in Madison—I was 19 or 20—where I witnessed people cursing and spitting at the vets. The war had been over for years. These vets—no more than fifty of them—humped up East Washington, away from the capitol. Those of us on the sideline failed to reach out, I regret, failed to grasp how we were perpetuating an unwinnable war.
I hope I’ve shown that reading literature, as too often popularly declared, is not in-action. Reading literature is not escape. Reading literature is anything but anti-social.
Reading can be the real world. I never had anyone tell me that; I didn’t have any English teachers who evinced any passion for reading. I discovered it one book at a time from all-embracing Kerouac to Silliman and Hejinians’ innovations in poetry to Williams and O’Brien’s ability to forge bonds between others and me with experiences dissimilar to my own. My lived experiences are not inherently more memorable than the experiences evoked through reading—I would be hard-pressed to give up reading as much as a ten mile hike in the Sawtooths. I hope I never have to choose. I hope I can continue to enjoy both the turning of pages and all that blooms there and the rush of a beautiful embrace.
Americans are reading more than ever. Americans are reading all the time—on-line articles of all kinds, more text messages than stars in our galaxy, chats—yet Americans are reading less poetry and literary fiction. If this digital reading leads young people to re-shape and re-direct their lives, as mine was by the reading I did, I have no qualms. Whatever reading we engage in, whatever experiences we seek out, should ultimately transform our lives. Why else read and experience? To run in place or tread water?
I argue—and I’m not alone—that literature provides the rich contexts for transformative experiences, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. I would hate to see our opportunities to become fully realized beings diminished by the shrinking of our reading repertoire.
We should seize this moment to read stories, YouTube mash-ups, Facebook comment strings, the constellation of texts we receive from friends and family, poetry, news blogs, novels, literary essays, memoirs, demanding these varied texts not simply serve as placeholders in the world but push us to change these places in significant ways.
I bequeath you a life lived through language. May you wield it as a tool to define your world so that your world does not confine you.
Dream: I was in Portland preparing for a marathon reading of James Joyce's Ulysses. I got to see a new video by Lisa Radon and Tim DuRoche. On a beach, a ten year old girl stands in the foreground, green knit sweater, black pants, black boots. In the background, at surf's edge, eight ghost-like images of the girl, each with different colored boots, move forward, left to right, one at a time, to merge in a ghost-like transition with the girl in the foreground. With each merger, a word appears on the front of the girl's sweater (I don't remember what any of the words were), leaving footprints behind the same color as the boot the ghost-girl was wearing. This merging process happened eight times.
Editors Crag Hill and Nico Vassilakis present, in conjunction with James Yeary, a cut-up collage of words from essays from the anthology at the Avant Symposium at Ohio State University in Columbus: http://www.thelastvispo.com/2011/03/10/151/
This is a part of what I’d love to say to you, in this my last lecture. There are a multitude of avenues through which to arrive at a meaningful life: setting and achieving professional goals, undertaking physical and/or mental challenges, forsaking the material for the spiritual, enacting change at the local, state, or national level, predicting problems in the future and working on solutions to them now, nurturing the young and old, and continually learning new things (languages, programs, flora and fauna, dance moves). I’ve journeyed down many of these avenues, yet looking back on this occasion, I see one I did not expect would lead me to this moment, to you: reading and writing the world.
Reading saved my life. No hyperbole. When I was thrashing away, at 17, I discovered poetry and literary fiction. Reading slowed my swirling mind, sharpened my sight. When I was 18, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, along with Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, were de rigueur, books to be read with religious fervor.
Barely graduating from high school, with no plans to go to college, I did not know how to make a living nor how to shape a life worth living. Reading and writing helped move me forward. Little did I know then reading and writing would lead to a long-term career—I’m in my 21st year as an educator. Tonight I will walk with you through six paradigm-shifting books: two novels, three books of poetry, and one memoir. This reading marked who I was, what I was looking for, and more importantly pointed where I was heading. I offer this lecture as a map to you.
Often things that have the most meaning for us are stumbled across, found when we are looking elsewhere or perhaps not even looking at all. Yet we are instantly ready for them as if we have been waiting for them all the time.
I went to the bookstore to look for a book of poetry featured in an article about contemporary poetry, What Thou Lovest Well Remains American by Richard Hugo. To my delight, the bookstore had the Hugo book. There were other books of poetry on the display table, including Howl by Allen Ginsberg, a small, square, unassuming book. I splurged—or my mother splurged (I can’t remember if she was there; she always bought any book I wanted to read)—and bought all four, perhaps the only four books of poetry in the entire bookstore.
I have not viewed the world the same since reading Howl. Before, I loved poetry about nature, especially Robert Frost—my father called me Nature Boy. Ginsberg’s Howl, from the first line, proved poetry could be much more than I imagined, its language could be vulnerable, spare, and ugly, and it could embody taboo subjects like drug use, sex, and insanity. Howl ripped my face off. Here’s the opening(remember, Howl was published in 1956, the mythical halcyon years of the Cleaver family):
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall…
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares…
This was no quaint, hermetic lyric poem about nature; this was huge, boundless. Heretofore I believed literature was about personal fulfillment. Now I knew it could also be a weapon hurled at complacency, at hypocrisy. Like the Big Bang, Howl, expansive in its force, propelled my thinking into significantly reconstituted spaces.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I was mad for the madness of the Beats — Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, and, of course, the king of the pantheon, Jack Kerouac. Beat writing fed both my displeasure at what humans have done to each other and my pleasure in the natural world.
As a hitchhiker on Wisconsin ‘s blue highways, I packed a change of clothes, a notebook, always a notebook, and Kerouac’s On the Road, which I carried from Madison to Seattle, my first road trip. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty opened their veins and arteries to the country, to its small towns and big cities, its people, rural and urbane, virtually without judgment—even states like Iowa we now fly over or fly through as quickly as possible wrought magic on Sal when he first entered them.
Kerouac had a Whitmanesque embrace of the American landscape that comes through in this passage from Chapter 3:
The wind from Lake Michigan, bop at the loop, long walks around South Halsted and North Clark, and one long walk after midnight into the jungles, where a cruising car followed me as a suspicious character. At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air... And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop had come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West…
My first ride was a dynamite truck with a red flag, about thirty miles into great green Illinois, the truckdriver pointing out the place where Route 6, which we were on, intersects Route 66 before they shoot west for incredible distances. Along about three in the afternoon, after an apple pie and ice cream in a road-side stand, a woman stopped for me in a little coupe…[She]wanted somebody to help her drive to Iowa... Iowa! Not so far from Denver, and once I got to Denver I could relax. She drove the first few hours…and then I took over the wheel and, though I’m not much of a driver, drove clear through the rest of Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, via Rock Island. And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up. Rock Island—railroad tracks, shacks, small downtown section; and over the bridge to Davenport, same kind of town, all smelling of sawdust in the warm Midwest sun…”
Some say the American road trip has become cliché. I’d argue it’s holding its own as a rite of passage, no matter what heightened or debased form it takes, journeying into the Other to come out the other side with a firmer sense of our nation’s cultural and geographical diversity. I’m hard pressed to find a student at WSU who hasn’t rocketed off in a car or bus with no concrete plans to points east, west, north, and south.
In 1980, without job prospects, never having lived in a city larger than 150,000, $450 to my name, I rode 52 hours on a Greyhound bus from Madison to San Francisco to gorge on the manic energy of the Beats, or whatever was left of it, to pursue their lifestyle, or what I imagined it to be, staying up all night rushing toward ecstasy or insanity.
Attending a poetry reading at the Grand Piano coffeehouse on Haight Street the very night I arrived, I knew I made the right move. I heard as many poets as I could over the next two years, including Beat legends Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I haunted the basement of City Lights where poetries large and small bulged from shelves and magazine racks. Tables and chairs were so homey I often stayed and read for hours.
My knowledge of poetry expanded exponentially. As it grew, I soured on Beat writing. Their poems now seemed clumsy, obvious, self-centered; they no longer crackled with urgency. One evening I stormed out of a Corso and Kaufman reading at the Art Institute. Mugging for the audience’s adulation, Corso trivialized his poetry, and Kaufman’s mumbling irked me.
Within a year, in an issue of Soup, I stumbled upon a poetry that radically shifted my view of writing again. The eclectic second issue included an odd poem, “China,” by Bob Perelman. I was perplexed, having never read anything like it before. It resisted paraphrase and exploded the notion of coherence as I thought I knew it (or as I thought I needed it in poetry). I wanted to write plain yet elusive lines like the following:
We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.
The people who taught us to count were being very kind.
It’s always time to leave.
If it rains, you either have your umbrella or you don’t.
The wind blows your hat off.
Poetry in San Francisco was in the midst of a revolution equal to if not greater than the Beat literary renaissance of the 1950s. Everyone seemed to be talking about Language poetry. People loved it, grabbed onto the movement’s coattails, or hated it, objecting to its obscurity, accusing it of stripping poetry of its humanity. Prolific essay writers, the Language poets relentlessly critiqued the conventions and clichés of contemporary poetry. As if overnight, now looking at the dynamics of written language under an electron microscope, my writing morphed. Writer of expressive lyric poems (ten to twenty line poems hitting on emotional or political issues), I began to enlist other ways to whelp words around thought, around the world.
Where Ginsberg and Kerouac gave me scale, Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, a book-length prose poem, demonstrated how a poem can be constructed one discrete sentence at a time (no sentence required adjacent sentences to add to its meaning), mixing details mundane and extraordinary. Silliman’s choice to employ the Fibonacci sequence (each number the sum of the preceding two numbers, 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 ...) to organize sentences was intriguing, but the inclusiveness of his sentences particularly appealed to me. Silliman wrote about everything: “A pile of old clothes discarded in the weeds of a vacant lot....In the plastic blue dish sat old soap slivers...An odor specific to porn shops....”
I realized there weren’t anointed subjects for poems – roses, bones, dawn, death of father, etc. The minutia of our lives also resounds with meaning. No longer reified, poetry descended to earth, mingling with the teeming Bay Area. I read Tjanting everywhere—on MUNI, BART, in coffeehouses and city parks—because it resonated, resided—in all these sites.
Here are the first seven paragraphs:
I started over & over. Not this.
Last week I wrote “the muscles in my palm so sore from halving the rump roast I cld barely grip the pen.” What then? This morning my lip is blisterd.
Of about to within which. Again & again I began. The gray light of day fills the yellow room in a way wch is somber. Not this. Hot grease had spilld on the stove top.
Nor that either. Last week I wrote “the muscle at thumb’s root so taut from carving that beef I thought it wld cramp.” Not so. What then? Wld I begin? This morning my lip is tender, disfigurd. I sat in an old chair out behind the anise. I cld have gone about this some other way.
Wld it be different with a different pen? Of about to within which what. Poppies grew out of the pile of old broken-up cement. I began again & again. These clouds are not apt to burn off. The yellow room has a sober hue. Each sentence accounts for its place. Not this. Old chairs in the back yard rotting from winter. Grease on the stove top sizzled & spat. It’s the same, only different. Ammonia’s odor hangs in the air. Not not this.
Conventional poems have one entry point: you read line one closely or you have little chance to understand line 12. Tjanting has as many entry points as it has sentences. The slow, halting opening, the poem taking one step forward and two steps back, gives way in later paragraphs to a seaswell of observed fact interspersed with commentary on the process of the poem’s composition itself. There are many ways for the reader to engage with Tjanting, the reader co-creating the meaning with the writer. I now demand poetry that expects me as a reader to make the poem.