by Robert Creeley
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, double dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
-- Sir Walter Scott,
"Breathes There the Man"
Albeit an Englishman wrote that deathless poem, it was nonetheless one who might well have claimed honorary U.S. citizenship for fact of his having caught the national sentiment so fairly. "We are the last first people," the poet Charles Olson writes in his compactly moving study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael. It is as if the United States were, in its sense of its own reality, that place to which all others in the world hoped to come because it argued so intently a chance for renewal, for a fresh start far from all fact of contesting history, all the old habits and values of the world thus left. It is as much the dream of those of us who live here, like they say, as of any aspiring immigrant. We all believe in the future as that place we will always come back to.
Growing up as I did in the classic New England small town wherein my mother was the town nurse (my father, a doctor, had died when I was four), I felt marginal in many respects. First, we did not come from the town but, rather, had come to it from what would be called now the Boston area. Though the distance to Boston was only some 25 miles, it was an implacable space to manage culturally. Even Concord, some eight miles distant, was far away from the habits and persons common to my childhood. So being thought a person from the other world of greater Boston in the small farming town where, in fact, my own real life was first significantly located meant a good deal of confusion for all concerned. A few years ago I went back to see my old cronies of that time on the occasion of our 50th high school reunion and there we mostly all were, curiously "children" again in that the lives we had managed with whatever means were now, by and large, over. We faced a new time once again -- old age -- and we were as fledgling in its circumstance as we had been entering our own first adulthood, with all the attendant, tentative paraphernalia of sex and earning a living.
I left my hometown completely by chance in my 14th year. My sister had gone to Northfield Seminary for her final year of high school and her close friend there had a younger brother at Holderness, a small Episcopalian prep school in New Hampshire. So my sister got the application forms, persuaded my mother to fill them out and submit them, and finally I was given an admissions test, did well enough for a scholarship, and off I went. Even now I can recall the searing homesickness I felt, keeping my mother and sister's letters unopened till there might be chance to read them and to cry sans witnesses. But the teaching proved extraordinarily apt and whatever education I can be said to have I got there. Some was curious indeed -- as 'translating' parts of James Joyce's great collection of stories, Dubliners, into Basic English. Much was classically solid -- the language study, for example, Latin and German -- and much simply the useful acquisition of a basic ability to read and write, to make clear, in William Carlos Williams' phrase, "what subsequently I saw and what heard." Although college must have had some information for me, it was got mostly from peers, the transforming impact of the Second World War and the first defining love I had.
Despite I could hardly know it starting out, writing was to prove the one constant in a life marked with endless shiftings of place and relationship. I married at 20. By 28 I was single again but then remarried within a year. Then separated again 20 years later, then married again, and so continue to be. Is that an American habit, I wonder? A few years ago Buckminster Fuller pointed out that a number of Americans representing one-fifth of the country's population leave home each year. What else might we say of ourselves? That we think we need know no language but English (although in obvious fact we know many -- more languages are being spoken in New York at this moment than anywhere else on earth!) -- that we need know nothing about opera or poetry, and I am sure the list goes on -- and still we'll be completely at home in our company. Is it an embarrassment to be discovered liking such things or having such skills? That catch phrase, "a good read," comes with the same inference as "a fun place" or "have a nice day." One never wants to take the arts, any of them, too seriously.
Robert Graves wrote that poetry is that art for which no academy exists, meaning, as I understood him, that there is no place one can go, so as to learn whatever the practice of poetry might be. But Graves had a tradition of some real kind for his own instruction and support. How different that "half-savage country, out of date," which Ezra Pound was born into and which, it would seem, many American poets as myself still choose as our condition, fearful that the far more secure model of English verse might displace altogether the small imaginal place we can call home. My generation was for years divided between those who followed T.S. Eliot's instance and so looked to a classically developed poetry in the English tradition and those as myself who doggedly followed Dr.Williams. When he was asked where it was he had got his "diction," he answered curtly, "Out of the mouths of Polish mothers." We wanted, much as Charles Olson puts it, "to leave the roots on." We wanted our writing to be fact of our own social body, evidence of our own collective family person, our Polish, Irish, Italian, German, Chinese, African, French, Russian mothers and fathers, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. To gain an admission and use for that source of our ways of speaking, our various rhetorics, was a long and often displacing battle. We didn't talk right, as one says, we were vulgar. So we were the "raw" in contrast to the "cooked" in Levi-Strauss' formula, and that was entirely our pleasure.
America, whatever it is, cannot be taken to be a single place. Yet I know I stay fixed in New England in my own mind as much as if I had spent my whole life there, perhaps even more so than one who has. It is my imago mundi, that picture of world I carry with me as its imagination. Almost doggedly as I have moved from the east to the west, north to south, traveling at times two to three thousand miles in each direction several times a year, I have still stayed "home," in my mind at least, still thought it must be snowing now in Boston or how pleasant it must be in Maine with the fall leaves turning color. That's where I was, however changed it seemed all was around me.
What otherwise might matter is still much as Whitman had it, that the country needs to embrace its poets. "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too." But that is remarkably simple to say but seemingly almost impossible to realize. Poets are so very low in the ranking of public performers or those providing the body politic with material of their interest and desire. If the sad events of September 11, 2001, provoked a remarkable use of poems as a means wherewith to find a common and heartfelt ground for sorrow, it passed quickly as the country regained its equilibrium, turned to the conduct of an aggressive war, and, one has to recognize, went back to making money. Is poetry of such little consequence in this country because it does not "make money," can be hardly called a "profession" or even a sensible "vocation," seems most aptly undertaken by adolescents and older, emotional women? Does poetry "tell" us anything of any relevance? What does it mean? All those questions have clear and very simple answers -- but they will not be found here. Rather, one wants it recognized that, in America, poetry prompts a response much as Marianne Moore's ironic first line, "Poetry? I too dislike it." Another artist once said, "Poets are like harmonica players. Terrific, but not much use for them."
So that's a sad condition to work in, like bad air, poor light, long hours. Who would ever think to be a poet in this country if he did not feel literally that he had to be? Someone told me of a fledgling doctor who, in the middle of his medical studies, unexpectedly inherited a large sum of money from a recently dead aunt. So he quit then and there, having, as he felt, no further reason to be a doctor. I knew another, met in a bar by accident after he'd given me a place to sit down, who said he couldn't stand the way people looked and smelled. He was repulsed. When I asked him how he'd ever got through medical school without learning that fact of his feelings, he said it was the training doctor he was paying attention to. He was following that person's lead, doing what he or she determined, and the patient was only present abstractly. In his own examining room, however, there was the absolute patient, all real, all flesh and adamant bone.
If I am any instance, American poets will go to their respective graves still wondering just what they are doing, and why they were doing it, and, if for anyone, for whom. "Is that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?" But there is probably nothing one can so do that finds such remarkable response and affection, yet is based, as Williams writes, "solely [on] air." American poets have a freedom rare indeed in the common world. They can write what they want to in a manner almost impossible to conceive of in other countries and cultures. So Pound, quoting Remy de Gourmont, "Freely to write what he chooses is the writer's sole pleasure," makes clear what our nationality has given us, at least in some sense. Not only can one write in that useful sense of "freedom" despite its obvious limits, one can also take words from a dazzling range of rhetorics -- high, low, professional, domestic -- with all their consequent tones and emphases. In contrast, a German friend once pointed out to me that Gunter Grass could not be understood by the very persons his brilliant novels were a "voice" for, the common workers. The rhetorical base in his writing was a "literary" German. The workers spoke a vernacular, which separated them entirely. In England Wyndham Lewis wrote of being "branded on the tongue." Class, education, and the ranks so defined made a very large difference to the possibilities of the aspiring poet in his time, and so continue to without significant change.
Perhaps I most respect the intense localism that being from New England -- and America -- has given me as a writer. Maybe the better phrase would be self-preoccupation, which is at its best in that tour de force which Whitman creates in "Song of Myself," so much and so revealingly a poem of this country. Or, in like sense, it is the quiet way Emily Dickinson writes with her magnificent clarity of the life we live daily in the minds and bodies we've been given. She grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, some 70 miles to the west of Acton, my hometown. Then there was Henry Thoreau, who said of where he lived, "I have traveled much in Concord" -- just down the road.
It's been the genius of this country to have made a lyric poetry of unique diversity and power. There are poets in other countries, perhaps, who have equaled its authority, but no community of poets has ever so written, with such a range and distinction, as have those of my world. If one is one -- and in the U.S. one must be, person or poet -- with all the attendant independence and individuality our culture so insists upon despite the painful isolation it effects, then the lyric poem -- that poem of singular, passing existence -- must also be his or her greatest resource. So I have lived with its abiding masters all my life -- with Williams, with Dickinson, with Pound, with Whitman, with Poe, with H.D., with Stevens, with Louis Zukofsky, with Charles Olson, with Robert Duncan, with Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn. The list goes on and on. Whether or not so intending, it was America gave me these enduring friends of my heart and mind. It was here we all lived.