Young & Old Writers
Last night, looking through old notebooks for something else, I found an old red three-ring binder of most of my oldest typed poems. I wrote these mostly sitting cross-legged on my bed in my mid- and late teens, the typewriter propped up on its case as a kind of desk; typing on the bed was quieter than on my desk, where the typewriter keystrokes tended to resonate through the wooden legs of the desk and into my room's wooden floorboards. I liked writing in privacy, so typing on the bed was quieter, perhaps more intimate.
Skimming through those oldest poems, most of which are crap, I saw so many generalities, so many grand sweeping statements. Perhaps younger writers put down these grand sweeping thoughts because they're incontrovertible—who could argue with them?—and young writers are insecure, still barely finding their way. As a young writer, I spouted off grand statements about life, the universe, and everything, trying to find myself within them. I was trying to find, or make, my own own identity, by working from the universal to the specific, from the philosophical to the story of my own life. So, most of these very early poems, many of which are fragments of unformed free-verse that might as well have been journal entries except they're broken into lines on the page, tell me nothing about myself, about what I was thinking at the time.
Except by inference, deduction, and their ability to help me remember what I was thinking and feeling around the time I wrote them. I am looking back into my own teens, right now, to reconstruct the unformed identity of who I was then, in the same way that these very early poems are unformed.
(My parents gave my sister and I identical Smith-Corona manual typewriters for Christmas one year, and I used that typewriter—my first typewriter—as my main writing and composing tool for well over a decade, all through high school and college. I took class notes by hand, in a tiny but accurate printed script, and all my papers were typed up on this typewriter. I can see where the ribbon needed replacing in the three-ring binder of old poems, where the poems began to be a little light on ink, then the next page is darker.)
It seems to me that a writer more mature in their craft tends to work from the opposite direction: from the personal to the universal. More mature poets don't start with grand sweeping philosophical statements, although they might end up there.
One of the virtues of mature poetry is that is brings the reader into the world the poet is making. Juvenile poetry tends to be so self-centered that the reader isn't brought in. The old writer's aphorism of "Show, don't tell," applies directly to the observation that younger poets often tell us what they're thinking, or tell us what to think, but they lack the craft to pull the reader into the experience for themselves.
A sweeping general statement might tell us what to think, or what the writer thinks, but the progression of moving from the personal to the universal invites to think for ourselves, while giving us the poet's embodied experience as a guide.
There may be an arc to a poet's career, as well: that, late in a poet's career, he or she might revert to sweeping generalities. This is not always the case, as some older poets continue to refine and extend their insights, become ever more supple and limpid in their great age. Yet some elder poets do seem to run out of steam, become exhausted, and revert to the grand philosophical statements typical of younger poets. Or they might have lost their way, due to failing health, failing clarity of mind, or the troubles of life, which can be exhausting and drown both inspiration and the ability to respond with one's full attention and craft.
Walt Whitman, even in his early editions of Leaves of Grass, written when the poet was in his 30s, was full of descriptions of experience, of lists of places and the kinds of people found there, which give weight to his underlying, philosophical arguments. Yet his late editions of his book contain many revisions, probably born of an increasing if forgivable reticence in response to a lifetime of artistic rejection, which make the poems less specific, more general. And some of his last poems are the grand sweeping philosophical statements of a young writer. Some remind me only too well of my own fumbling unformed poems in that red three-ring binder. What saves Whitman's poems in, for example, the Second Annex of the "death-bed" edition of 1891-1892, is that he has years of writing craft to use when writing his vague philosophical comments. For example,
A vague mist hanging 'round half the pages:
(Sometimes how strange and clear to the soul,
That all these solid things are indeed but apparitions, concepts, non-realities.)
I recently found the last published book of Robinson Jeffers' poems, The Beginning & the End, and other poems. (A posthumous collection, although some of the poems had been organized and collected by Jeffers over the preceding decade.) Although this collection contains a few poems written at his full strength, such as the famous poem "Passenger Pigeons," much of this last book is afterthoughts and aphorisms. I am again reminded of how similar these essentially prose statements about grand sweeping philosophies, broken almost arbitrarily into lines on the page, are to the grand sweeping statements typical of youthful poets. These late poems remind me of juvenilia. For example, this bit of late-life spleen:
For fifty thousand years man has been dreaming of powers
Unnatural to him: to fly like the eagles—this groundling!
—to breathe under the seas, to voyage to the moon,
To launch like the sky-god intolerable thunder-bolts:
now he has got them.
How little he looks, how desperately scared and excited,
like a poisonous insect, and no God pities him.
Despite Jeffers' distinctive voice still coming through, his strong, granitic way of phrasing things, this is a general philosophical statement, barely hung on the frame of the natural world—that observation of natural rhythms and forces which was his natural poetic environment when he was at his best. Like Whitman, his many years of honed craft prevent these late poems from being actual juvenilia, yet there are many similarities in intent, if not exactly in execution.
To go back to my own juvenilia, I am astounded to notice that I numbered the typed pages in this binder, up to page 205 or so. Most pages contain more than one poem, or fragment of a poem. Most of it is crap, of course, but I can say that I was at least being diligent as a young writer, trying to learn my craft by doing, and doing more, and more. I was if nothing else very prolific in my process of learning to write poems. A few of the parody-poems, at least, are witty enough to make me smile; which I can do because I had entirely forgotten them, and so could approach them today as if written by someone else.
There are many crossings-out and revisions in the binder, a few hand-written replacement pages, some entire poems stroked out and rejected. I've never had a talent for rhymed meter, which is very evident here; one or two whimsical poems or parodies have some wit to their rhymes, but little else. I think I've thoroughly proved that I am unable to write an adequate sonnet.
I freely admit that I was a child of late 20th C. Modernist poetics, which tended to view rhymed meter as quaint—although I was an Ogden Nash fan as a boy, and my father had a lifelong passion for limericks—while more "serious" poetry was of the Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound lineage. So some of the best of these juvenile poems—and one or two of them have survived into my more mature work, albeit rewritten—are free verse, organic forms, open-ended structures. I can see, in the few adequate-if-not-great poems in here, the seeds of a later style and approach. There are a few very strange turns and metaphors, not quite surrealist but easily magic-realist, that would develop into something more, later on.
I can see the lineage of my own development here, if nothing else, and what I see is that my current way of looking at the world, my unique use of language to convey experience, was already in place. I may have acquired more craft in the intervening years, to better support and shape a poem's voice, yet I can already see, in these very early poems, some topics and worldviews that I continue to hold. I guess I always did. What made me a better writer, over time, was learning the skills and tools of poetic craft, but the visions were already there, already in place, already liminal with light from other worlds.