What more should I say that hasn’t been said already? I’ve worked with words, lines and stanzas all my life. The world’s language flowed through these spotted fingers that tapped computer keyboards, typewriters, or clenched leaky fountain pens to engrave white pages with verse that few will ever read.
Just what more is there to say? I really want to know. Should I sing the praise of daffodils, stain your mind with analogy, simile, metaphor? Should I rail against the politics of the day, as if Caesar never lived and men never before killed on the Ides of March? Should I paint a picture of personal tragedy – a child lost in a chemical undertow; mutated cells destroying healthy tissue; the suppression of desire? What more should I expect of myself?
I know one thing: I am too old for new crusades, even though the young poetry Turks shy from the lance, from the righteousness of the truth, from the heart of the matter. Where are those who will speak out loud and bold? Are they silent upon a peak in Darien? Christ, is that all I can conjure, fragments of Keats from my youth?
I remember my life on a two-masted schooner anchored in Sausalito harbor, long before Ferlinghetti came on the scene. My father worked as a Navy welder, my mother waitressed at a greasy spoon in the Tenderloin. On calm summer mornings I’d dress in a sleeveless blouse and shorts – my legs were worth looking at back then – and stare across San Francisco Bay. The oily-sheened water looked like a varnished painting. I thought about Jack London on his adventurous fish patrol, about syphilitic Al Capone crouched in his cell on Alcatraz, and dreamt of sailing under the Golden Gate, out past Land’s End, into the deep blue thick of things.
Now, after a lifetime plying literary seas, I need directions on how to find the horizon. My compass swings wildly and I search for friendly shores to beach my craft. Notice my clever use of the word craft, its double meaning. Pay attention; your son might find it on a future examination:
“Explain what the poet intended by her use of the word craft and its relevance to the poem’s overall theme.”
God, nothing destroys the spirit of poetry more than being forced to study it. Yet one of the ironies of my time was that poets became teachers, or got jobs working the docks unloading freighters inbound from the Orient. They wouldn’t let girls work the ships, so for more than half a century I taught creative writing. I admit that being immersed in youth gave me fortitude…and the University helped publish my work. But all that is past. I now step carefully onto ice floes, watch the progress of cobalt blue cracks, or of lumbering Ursa as she approaches, grinning. But mostly I long for adult conversation, something to spark these aging synapses.
I’ve been blocked before. But this time it feels different, feels more final. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful that you introduced yourself, an admirer of my old songs. We should speak of the world, of your wife and children and the bustle of life in this fair city. Maybe I should look to those aged scientists and find solace in their proclamation that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. Or best yet, I should remember the English bard’s exquisite counsel:
“So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,
so long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Maybe this letter is my new this. I have written it just for you. Will it pilot me through the Golden Gate once again? Will I be up to the task of sailing? I end with more questions. I hope you will help with answers, challenge me to write something new, avoid tired old phrases, clean my palette of crusted paint, and breathe out new songs. I must keep writing until the answers do not matter, until some younger voice, separate from the mumbling crowd, does not derail me utterly by asking, “How is your new work going?”
Hoping for patience,
first appeared in the March 2008 edition of The Boston Literary Magazine.