Poetry came into my life not buoyant, alluring, playing games of dalliance, but dark, reflective, downcast, wearing a formal gown. I fell immediately in love. A world upside down tumult. I was sixteen and had never danced with poetry before. Unexpected. Not courted. We spent the night together. Understand though, despite the fevered living, this was not exhilaration. This was an embrace on the brink.
Like most schoolboys, I had limited acquaintance with poems outside those encountered in textbooks. Homework assignments completed dutifully but indifferently, generated no intimacy with poetry. In fact, in literature class I could never quite figure out what the teacher wanted and thus I flailed about rather poorly. The approach of giving the expected answer worked well in my other classes and gave me the mistaken notion that I excelled in subjects simply because I had high marks. School for me was not so much about learning as it was a competitive game and it became the central focus of my life. I measured my success by Achievement Awards: Math, History, Geography, Science. I knew the rudiments of Newton’s Principia and I could identify and state the significance of key historical events as outlined in The British Epic. But literature? It was all so vague and there was no ready answer to memorize and repeat. I had to strive even harder in my other classes to make up for my weak showing in English if I wanted to be in the overall top ranking. This I did, I later realized sadly, without an independent thought in my head.
Until I fell in love.
Now, in this instance, I mean with a girl. I mean in a head-over-heels, arms to the sky, shout to the wind, exultant sixteen-year-old kind of way. A love that overcomes gravity; a love that soars. I mean first love. I mean a love that counts for nothing in the adult world.
My father was transferred. We moved away.
The laws of physics suddenly applied to emotions. My descent was ungainly. I felt buffeted by forces outside my control and all I had left was bitterness as I languished for a love fifteen hundred miles away. Melancholy became my consort. School? Achievement Awards? What was the point? For that matter, what was the point of anything? All of human endeavour seemed ultimately insignificant. I knew nothing about philosophy but young love thwarted prompted the ancient questions I had never seriously asked. My discourse was not sophisticated but my inquiry was ardent: What was the purpose of life, anyway? No one seemed to have any satisfactory answers. Yet lives went on. Thoughtlessly… it appeared to me. Why wasn’t everyone overwhelmed by this question? In their daily lives, most people conducted themselves as though they were unconscious of any quandary. Despondent, I was at least aware of the absurdity.
Naive? Well, yes. And, of course, no. Years later I would read Camus and nod with recognition: “We get into the habit of living before we get into the habit of thinking.”
Listlessly now, I drifted through school, not knowing that my education was about to begin. Not knowing that there was another way of gaining knowledge about the world. Not knowing John Keats.
The initial introduction was perfunctory: a homework assignment given out like so many others, distant from the true lifeblood of literature. “Explicate the sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ by John Keats. Page 115, An Anthology of Verse.” Explicate? What was that? Sonnet? Okay, fourteen lines with some sort of structure that I couldn’t quite recall. At least it wasn’t long. Somebody’s hand went up.
“What does ‘explicate’ mean?”
“I want a line by line explanation of the poem. For tomorrow.”
Great. One more irrelevant thing. Just add it to the pile. The pile of increasingly useless tasks. And by tomorrow.
“Also, look up sonnet in the glossary and be able to identify the type of sonnet this represents.”
That night, alone in my room, out of the remnants of my duty as a formerly conscientious student, I turned to the poem:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
Glean’d? Charact’ry? Garners? What was all that? But fears that I may cease to be. Yeah, no kidding. I knew those fears. And a teeming brain too! I read the opening line again: When I have fears that I may cease to be. It lodged in me like a pike pole.
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
I didn’t quite get it. Something about not being alive to … trace? I was groping but the pike pole still held me.
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;
Never look upon thee more? Fair creature of an hour! It was his love. It was my love. I wasn’t going to see her again. Not really. She was too far away. We might visit, sure, but this was the danger, this was what would eventually happen: Never look upon thee more. Exactly.
—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
What? What? I read the lines over and over again. The words coming like slow, mighty waves crashing over me. This was it. This was my experience too. Alone. At the edge of the world, the wide world. And nothing mattered. Not love, not accomplishments. Nothing. The waves kept coming. Waves of words, of love dashed, of aspirations wrecked on the shore. Waves of recognition: nothing mattered; it all tumbled into nothingness. The waves breaking over me, waves of words turning into tears. My god, I was crying. I was crying over a goddamn poem. What the hell was happening to me? I didn’t even like poems. I didn’t understand poems. This was homework for god’s sake. School stuff. But I kept reading it aloud over and over. I took it into my body, into my lungs. Awash in the sounds, the elemental force of the ideas, I soon knew the final lines by heart.
Then I turned again to the opening. The lines rhythmically rising and falling, surging towards that expansive shore. They came in pulses. In groups of four. They rolled with rhyme. The whole thing held together the way the end of one wave is the beginning of another. The sounds wanted off the page; the words wanted to be heard. I kept saying them aloud because they were so true. Because they were so sad…everything dashed to nothingness. Love. Fame. Everything! I kept saying them aloud because they were so beautiful. Because they were so well written. So well written? I paused.
This was even more strange. I was alone in my room crying over a poem. A poem that seemed to confirm for me that the activity of human life when measured against the vastness of the universe was insignificant. Yet this was, I recognized in a way I had never before even considered to be important, a sonnet. This was something a human being had made. And it made me cry. Astonishing. The poem had been crafted with such effective regard that it seemed to almost defy what it was saying. If human effort was so pointless, why make a poem? Not only that …Who was this guy, John Keats? When did he live? What did it say in the back of the book? 1795-1821. The poem was over a hundred years old. Not only that …he died when he was twenty-six. And the poem still lived!
What was a sonnet anyway? I wanted to know. I checked the glossary. Ah, quatrains, yes. Three of them. And a rhyming couplet … the one fixed in my gut. How was he able to make it all work in such a formal way and yet end with those devastating words? I felt the tension of the poem in my body. Exhausted by the ideas. Energized by the language, the sounds, the rhythm. Even the form: elaborate architecture on a precipice. This had never happened to me before. It was like a frenzied dance just to the point of collapse followed by an invigorating surge of renewed gusto that took me to the edge again.
And then I did a rather juvenile thing. In some ways. From another perspective it was, for me at the time, brave. Remember this started out as school homework. I declined to explicate the poem; I had experienced the poem. I had lived inside it for one impassioned night and I was compelled. I took out a blank piece of paper …and no, while it might have been a fitting response, I didn’t write my first poem … I didn’t have that in me yet. Instead I simply put a dot, off-centre, on the page. This was the assignment I would hand in to be marked.
The next day, emboldened by a sense of deep understanding that had always eluded me before in literature class, I raised my hand to present my insight to the class before the papers were collected. Unsolicited, I offered, in a quavering voice, my thoughts on the poem as represented by my visual statement. I held up my paper with the dot.
“Ultimately nothing we do matters. We are just a speck of dust in the vast universe. Poems, love, this assignment, me talking right now … it all seems pointless. And yet, … it’s incredible that we even exist, that we fall in love, that we write poems. I just don’t understand it and I don’t think anybody does. It all just sinks into nothingness.”
I got a zero on my assignment and I got on fire.
It was a contradiction I realized, but I was burning to read more poems. Particularly those that confirmed my sense of despair. I spent hours in the library and copied out, in careful fountain pen script, my own anthology. Schoolwork was abandoned. Instead of memorizing the periodic table I memorized “Ozymandias.” I skipped class and walked on Dover Beach. I cupped, against the wind of academic demands, Macbeth’s brief candle, which flickered just enough for me to find my way down many dark passages. One of those lead to the direct, austere, voice of Stephen Crane:
Should the wide world roll away,
Leaving black terror,
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential,
If thou and thy white arms were there,
And the fall to doom a long way.
The pike pole again. I copied it out and mailed it fifteen hundred miles. Poetry could travel. From heart to heart, from era to era … maybe even from inside me to someone else. For the first time I considered that I could write poems too. My letters became the garners to hold my early, thin harvests.
Garners? Ah, yes, I knew what that meant now because I had, of course, fallen in love with words: their shape, their sound, their meaning. Meaning. I wanted to make meaning with words. Yet I kept running up against this enigma of not knowing the meaning of my very life. But by now I knew I wasn’t alone. I had dialogues with Pascal along the margins of my copy of Pensees. Words, words, words with Hamlet. And that other Dane: Kierkegaard. I toiled with Sisyphus, shoulder to the rock, searching for Camus’ metaphysical honour. And I endured the absurdity.
My youthful, long distance love, however, did not last. I managed to make it to university but dropped out, several times. I hitchhiked across Canada, delivered mail, worked on a farm. Just kept my head above water in a cynical maelstrom of my own making. Until I experienced a sea change again: I was a world-weary twenty; she was a fresh Irish colleen, newly arrived in Canada at eighteen. Poetry was my calling card but existential gloom my bearing. The poems won her heart; my disposition broke it.
Our romance had a turbulent current but poetry was a lifeline. And gradually a shift in perception became noticeable. We took long walks together and she would point out Blake’s wildflowers, or perhaps make a sighting of Hopkin’s falcon. We looked for Whitman under our boot soles, and, sure enough, we found him! His dithyrambic energy transferred to our gait. We travelled to Ireland and hiked in the Mourne Mountains. On one outing, atop Slieve Donard, after a long climb through wind-driven mist, the scudding clouds that had obscured the summit lifted suddenly to offer us an exhilarating view from the peak of the undulant ocean and the sweeping strand below. Looking out over the wide world, we embraced. The fears were dissipating.
In my arms now, a woman, with whom I could share the emotional experience of poetry. It was a transformative combination:
You are an alchemist my love like October on fire
You magic your movements and touch with a feather frost
In your fingers the trace of my spine
Till I quiver like an aspen turned to a tremble gold.
You are an alchemist my love like October on fire
You lace your undress as slowly as tamarack’s subtle surprise
The scent of the forest is all you are wearing
And my hands love to linger in the auburn allure of your hair.
You are an alchemist my love like October on fire
You star scatter the sky after sunset’s flush
And as you await the again of dawn
You whisper me a secret of the alchemist’s art
October is on fire with spring
And April is alchemy all over.
I found myself writing poems of affirmation. Poems that marvelled the miraculous. Poems that celebrated. And the change in viewpoint came directly out of the alchemy of love.
Without contraries there is no progression. Despair; exaltation. All necessary.
And necessary too, with the Irish colleen who would later become my wife, Barbara, a trip to Sligo: Yeats country. It was a pilgrimage undertaken together to the idyllic Innisfree, to the imposing Ben Bulben, and finally to the graveyard at Drumcliff. The landscape seemed to evoke his ethereal voice:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
This was a lesson to be learned! Yeats may have needed to sail to an idealized Byzantium but we were young, we were in one another’s arms, we were part of the sensual music. And the singing school was here and now. The poems came in a tidal flood. Waves of words tumbling into celebratory songs despite the tatters, despite the vastness, despite the apparent nothingness. Waves of words. Even the sounds were enough to buoy the spirit. Even the sounds.
Published originally in The New Quarterly, Issue 88.
Republished by The New Quarterly in the anthology Falling in Love with Poetry.