Sydney Lea On Poetry: A Meaning That Suffices

I was not a bookish boy. My uncle’s farm was the metaphoric volume in which I could look up, say, how crows specifically communicated, as in “Danger! A man with a gun!” As a father, I now look back on this with some horror, but from my ninth year my own father set me loose as the would-be man with gun; I carried my single-shot .22 wherever I went among those old woods and fields.

Father and uncle had one rule: shoot nothing you won’t eat. But rather than shooting less, I ate more. I know the taste of opossum and raccoon, for example, and even of blue jay and flicker. I could go on, but another sort of taste prevails.

I now regret such carnage, but not the awareness it spawned. I don’t mean mere competence with animal habits, tree identification, the interactions of the natural world’s components. It’s hard to say what I do mean, but that competence seems akin to an ability to track my own mental processes, the interplay of one impression with another, as if these things were outside myself, like wildlife signs. To that extent, maybe those reckless early years did prefigure the bookish life I’ve lived.

Wallace Stevens once described the modern poem as one “of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” I agree, but I don’t think such discovery happens ad hoc: one poem, then another, etc. It is a lifelong process involving, precisely, self-abandonment to things outside oneself.

I recall the first book — not a comic or a Dick and Jane sort of story — that I read at one go. Wintertime of sixth grade, and I had a whopping flu. As soon as symptoms abated, I seemed to relapse. I missed two weeks of school, so sick I couldn’t even long for physical activity; yet I had no other resources.

I’d resisted my mother’s dreary exhortations to take up some damned novel. After a week, though, staying inactive in bed seemed bound to drive me crazy. The topmost volume in the pile she had left on the lamp-stand was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I started it, an emphatic skeptic — then read right through to the last sentence. To my amazement, I had left my normal milieu, in which some version of logic prevailed; as the cliché has it, I’d been lost in a book.

There stood a pickle jar on my bedside shelf. Inside, suspended in alcohol, wavered a copperhead snake, which my mother had decapitated when I was a fourth-grader. Lord knows why I kept it until I left for college. I have not returned to The Good Earth since, in part for fear it would fail to transport me as it did. But whenever I think of my encounter of it, I see the poor snake in its jar. I also whiff the cloying odor of fever, see the umbers and beiges of Pennsylvania’s November foliage through the window, feel the rough nap of the bedspread, taste the Vicks Vapo-Rub that I rolled into pellets and such. All these are somehow accompanied by a sense of hovering above the everyday world.

I did read a bit more as a teenager, treasuring Ernest Thompson Seton’s Lives of the Hunted and Wild Animals I Have Known, for example, but reading them story by story, not in one rush. I was in college before I read another whole book at one sitting, and then only because I’d procrastinated on an assignment. Yet reading habits are not the point.

To get a bit closer to that scarcely definable point, I’ll skip next from Pearl Buck to my 16th year, when, likely a bit later than most, I took up Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. I remember my affection for poor Fodder-Wing, and my awe at Slewfoot the bear, but beyond that my impressions are indistinct. A more lasting one involves a certain clawfoot bathtub. I’d reached the part in The Yearling where protagonist Jody must kill his pet deer Flag when I felt the heat of tears coursing down my chest into the tub’s tepid water.

I have hoarded that state of mind from that day forward. It is part of what some would call my character — and it represents a certain writerly energy that took me years to understand, however incompletely. It blends in mind with all those associations from The Good Earth: I have an inkling for a poem, the snake wriggles in with the flu odor; the rough bedspread coexists with the bath water and the scary bear and the savor of Vicks; the dark oak leaves clap and flutter over the expiring young buck, while Asian men and women in black pajamas look up from their field work.

This is odd and I know it.

One more leap ahead: when I was in my thirties, and literary theory started to be the rage on college campuses, I found myself in cocktail party conversation with a colleague, a fellow I liked and still do. He had hopped aboard the theoretical tram, and his take on “literature” (theory puts everything in quotation marks, it seems) sounded mildly intriguing, to the degree that I understood it. But for me it lacked something crucial.

I would have stood no chance in disputation with this more learned fellow, and tried none, but on the way home, passing under the canopy of trees on our dirt road, something came to me. It was not a thought. It was the flu smell; the shudder of leaves; the final breaths of Flag; two young peasants conspiratorially smiling at one another over the bent back of their aged Chinese father; tears in warm tub water; a savaged serpent; tangy patent medicine — that sense, again, of being overwhelmed by these sensory materials and simultaneously looking down on them. Meanwhile, the person designated by the pronoun “I“had uncannily been removed from whatever world this was.

My inadequacy as theorist or scholar hit me like a sledge hammer just then. I couldn’t have expressed what I needed instead, still barely can, but I knew I’d have to go after it in a more lyrical way than my conventional professor’s role would allow.

Whatever that old complex of associations may represent, it moves me to no analysis. nor would it submit to analysis. In times that I’ve approached some recapitulation of it on the page, though, I’ve felt things to be, to cite Stevens again, “for a moment, final.” It’s as if my mind has found something that, for a fleeting moment, will suffice.

Sydney Lea is the poet laureate of Vermont. He lives in Newbury.