I hate living in Los Angeles, but I’ve been told that my film career will be best nurtured here. Another place calls me home, where I might suffer for my art in comfort (suffering aside). Should I suffer all the suffering there is here in LA to better tempt my destiny? Do poets ever have this problem?
— Mark B., Los Angeles, California
Ah, suffering. The most appropriate answer to your query would use a poet who wrote in L.A., and by most accounts, suffered there: Charles Bukowski.
the words have come and gone,
I sit ill.
the phone rings, the cats sleep.
I am waiting to live,
waiting to die.
I wish I could ring in some bravery.
it’s a lousy fix
but the tree outside doesn’t know:
I watch it moving with the wind
in the late afternoon sun.
there’s nothing to declare here,
just a waiting.
each faces it alone.
Oh, I was once young,
Oh, I was once unbelievably
Bukowski suffered in L.A.’s inner city, with depression and alcoholism, but the speaker of his poem makes a very honest observation: “but the tree outside doesn’t know:/ I watch it moving with the wind/ in the late afternoon sun.” His dissatisfaction is internal; he knows that. The lines that end the poem lament what is gone — his youth — meaning maybe that if he were young, he wouldn’t be so close to waiting for his death, or at least he wouldn’t perceive it that way, being still distracted by all the complications of happy youth: new romances, trial and error, the liberating swig of that first pint of beer, films. He doesn’t have the means to be young again, thereby adding urgency to his lament.
Like Bukowski, Mark B., you lament what is gone in your life, “the other place that calls you home,” so if you have the means, he would advise you to get it back. Move back to that other place if you can, but be careful, because also like Bukowski, your dissatisfaction comes from the inside.
Before I left for Uzbekistan for two years of Peace Corps service, a good friend of mine gave me Between Angels, by Stephen Dunn. About a year later, it was one of those icy, breathless winter days that only a doubly-landlocked country could surprise you with, and I was riding on a crowded bus, sick with giardia no less, and nearing the end of my stamina. All of the sudden I remembered a poem in that collection, “Loveliness”: “Years ago when I was rotten with virtue/ I believed loveliness/ was just a face, a flower,// no underside to it, no dark complication” and the poem goes on to realize “the strange loveliness of a bruise.” I started the rethink my situation, and yes, in fact I did see the strange loveliness of it: after all, the bus passengers were all in that fix together. Needless to say, I felt better and endured the rest of the two-hour trip.
Rethink your situation, Mark B. After all, trees still grow in L.A.; the world still moves forward without complaint in the growing smog, and in a way, that raw endurance is simply…what? What do you think?
Many poets may find themselves in some lesser degree of your predicament everyday: to suffer or not to suffer — that is the question, isn’t it? Should we continue listening to the endless growls of the stomach, or finally get up and eat a sandwich? My dad always says, “Suffer — it’s good for your character,” having grown up poor in Los Angeles. My dad’s not a poet but many poets would listen to him, and at least for a little while, Mark B., I think you should, too.
How do poets know when it’s time to write another poem?
— Margaret W., Douglas, Arizona
It’s always time to write a poem! And especially if it uses your beautiful name:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
(“Spring and Fall,” Gerard Manley Hopkins)
William “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butler” Yeats once said that sex and death were the only things worth writing about. Is this still true?
— Nathaniel L., Carmel, California
You could analyze poems and conclude that they’re all about sex or death, because poetry takes you to the highest and the lowest boundaries of feeling, which is respectively sex and death. Yeats’ words still apply today, but I think you’ll find that a lot of poets write more about death because writing (among the other arts) is the best way to channel the powerful emotions inspired by death, and it also attracts readership because many readers are seeking the kind of consolation that a good death poem offers.
But the best way to channel the powerful emotions inspired by sex is to (after a breather) have more of it, and in our sexually liberated society, people have lots of it. But since the feelings inspired by sex are somewhat transitory, and we want to attach permanence to everything in our lives, fortunately many poets write good sex poems on a regular basis. A look at Verse Daily’s will tell you what poets think is worth writing about these days: Chanda Feldman’s “Settle” is about death. Nico Alvarado-Greenwood’s “Poem” is about death. “How To Do It,” by Paul Gibbons, looks like it’s about sex, but it’s actually about death.
Now, Kimberly Johnson’s “Love Song” is about a snake, which we all know is a metaphor for a penis:
…and the sharper chartreuse, to chart
the deadly pattern of your skin—
that sleek defiant pattern wreathing knots
concentric as you writhe, or is it
dark striations pulling taut? Your skin
so seeming simple is in motion complicated.
When I master its motions, I’ll sew myself
a dress of emerald and chartreuse, thin chemise
with knotting wreathes to dozy contemplation.
Then watch me work the garden. Down
among grasses and spikenard my whiplash
glance, my sidewound sashay, who
will resist? What power’s in desire:
with admirers seeking, chasing, charting…
Nothing on earth could make me stay.
Wow! I think we can safely say this poem takes us out of the “Public Garden.” I have to take a break now. “When I master its motions,” I’ll be back. • 6 October 2008