When I lived in New York many years ago, I used to go to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. It was his studio, and now is a series of rooms full of sculptures and drawings, short films, the akari lanterns for which he is probably most famous. There are polished stones inside the museum as well as out in the garden. It’s one of my favorite places. Even describing it now I can feel what it was like to be there, the cool darkness and occasional brightly colored shapes. I miss it intensely.
I had the idea to go repeatedly and take notes and write a long poem. It turned out to be terrible. I see now, looking at that old document, that I took a lot of it and repurposed it for a long poem I eventually wrote later that year, “Brooklyn with a New Beginning.” In that newer poem, I was writing from a lonely place. I was coming out of a deep and debilitating depression, and felt that I was freeing myself of certain negative relationships to the world and to people that had led me to the same bad places over and over. I did not know exactly how, but things were changing.
Part of the problem with the original poem was that it transcribed what I saw in a way that wanted to be symbolic or resonant, but was just reporting. One time when I went to the museum, I saw three women standing together talking about one of the sculptures outside in the garden. In the original version of the poem this is how they appear:
Four middle-aged women
ghosts draped in furs
walk among the gardens.
They are standing before the fountain
that collects in the east,
but here disperses.
They are discussing which contemptible akari
(sculpture of light)
would look best on the piano.
This is not only boring, but mean. It’s also a complete projection, because I myself had one of those lanterns in my room, and I love buying postcards and other mementos in museum gift shops. Sometimes it’s hard for me to resist doing so before I see the actual show.
In other places, the poem is just pointlessly weird. I’m trying to find the right tone, but I oscillate between forced lyricism, a willed profundity that often veers into what now seems like a parody of fake haiku “wisdom,” and a pretend kind of understatement, often in the space of a few lines. The poem is basically a catalog of poetic failure, and extremely painful to reread. And yet, I will quote sections from it now, in full mortification:
LOOKING FOR NOGUCHI
I went with my brothers to look for Noguchi.
It had rained many years
since shoulder to shoulder
in California with axes composed
of music resistance and concern.
And I had learned so much about other things.
Weeping cherry, smiling katsuro.
It’s so hard to find
a way into the mind.
Noguchi says he’s in the obsidian.
But that looks like me
in the obsidian.
cast by shadows
the floor is a sculpture
of overwrought solitude
in the chapel
Overwrought solitude indeed. The problem with this poem, as with so many poems, is not that it needs to be more “creative” or “imagistic,” but that the poem’s consciousness in relation to the poem’s content is not genuine. It’s more or less all stance, and lying. In other words, I was not ready to write this poem.
This reminds me of Wallace Stevens describing the difference between mere reality (“things as they are”) and the reality in a poem. The poem is not an act of reportage, but an enactment of a relationship between consciousness and the world. That stance, that relationship, is something that can take a long time to uncover. It has to be discovered anew in each poem. It is also, mysteriously, all bound up in form and sound: the way the poem appears on the page, moves down the page, and sounds in the mind and bones of the person reading it … these musical factors are inextricable from the poem’s personality. Auden: a poem is a kind of pseudo-person.
Halfway through the original draft of the bad long poem, I wrote: “The garden looks out over the river/ facing west/ and in another direction/ on my apartment/ looking out on Brooklyn/ Brooklyn/ Brooklyn’s a row/ of dented Sundays.” Here is the glimmer of a strange and, therefore, authentic feeling. One good moment amid all the ridiculousness. So often, when writing a poem, the beginning, maybe even a large part of it, is just a warm up. The true imaginative space of the poem is entered through the process of writing. This is what Richard Hugo talks about in The Triggering Town, how he always has to think of some abandoned town in the midwest in order to get into the mood to make the music that will show him what his poem is truly about. The problem with so many poets is that they are unwilling to allow their poems to lead them to deeper meaning. They are too attached to the initial thought.
There’s also the basic problem that sitting in the museum and thinking about the experience of sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, and the feelings in both places, is needlessly complicated. It requires a lot of directional language (in my apartment, back here in the museum) that is annoying and boring. It also asks the reader to do a lot of pointless separating and categorizing. Part of learning to write poetry is realizing that you are building a structure that a reader will enter.
I often tell my students to ask themselves what it is that they are asking the reader to do, and whether it’s worth doing. Readers are already in an unfamiliar place in your poem, and you as the poet need to be thoughtful. Don’t make them open up a spreadsheet to keep track of where you are. Yes, I know T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land and you are welcome to write it, too, but if you are not writing it, don’t write it.
The eventual poem, “Brooklyn with a New Beginning,” is much simpler in its basic mechanism (location, mood, et cetera), and also (or perhaps, therefore) has a much more coherent, considered stance toward the surrounding world and the internal weather of the speaker. In the final version, each moment of the poem has its own authenticity, and is not mixed up with other things. The dying brother has rented me this window. The elm runs its hand over the face of a brownstone. I walk among the furniture, thinking about living in Brooklyn, where all days feel like “dented Sundays.” The consciousness of the poem is moving with relative simplicity down the page.
The akari that appeared several times in the original version, both too literal and too strained toward a false profundity, sits much more easily in the final poem:
At night my ideas
a little and were manageable glowing units,
it was unclear whether
the glow was reflection
or like in a lantern made of white paper
came from within,
or if to continue such decipherment
or is itself the enactment of
the aesthetics of bioluminescence.
By the light of one paper lantern I’ve drunk
seltzer with lemon in the dark.
I’ve asked docent of night
of the sunken beneath the water cathedral
who knows where the sparrow falls?
Aloud I said sometimes a bomb
shows a certain
Let’s pass the night
discussing for whom.
There is still an echo of original poem’s tone—basically, the way a very lonely person with too much time and too many ideas might talk—but it’s been exponentially reduced. The person talking is there enough to keep things grounded, but not overwhelming, and there’s plenty of room for the elements to have their own reality, without being in the shadow of this very unhappy speaker. There were many docents in the original version, all of them laden with unearned significance. They have all now become one docent, albeit a docent of a strange cathedral sunk beneath the water. There’s room, in other words, for the poem to be weird and intuitive and to start to escape the realms of what I, or anyone else, could really paraphrase. But only because first, it’s been grounded.
Many years later, I was asked to write a poem about an artist, to be published in a German newspaper. I decided I wanted to revisit my love of Noguchi, and his museum. As soon as I started to work, so much about that place came flooding back to me: the gardens, the other sculptures, the drawings of playgrounds he had designed and which were never built. Also, so much of the material of that original, bad poem that didn’t make it into the final draft.
I didn’t have to look at the old poem to remember what I had written and seen. In a way, the writing of that original failed poem helped me select, gather, and unconsciously treasure certain specific memories of the place. That was probably its main purpose. I don’t have a particularly good memory, so for me, it was unexpected to be able to call up exact visual details from the museum, something I would not otherwise have been able to do. That is one of the beneficial side effects of writing poetry: to cement things in my memory.
Even so, I was having a lot of trouble actually writing. So I ordered a book about the life of Noguchi, Listening to Stone. It arrived, and was dauntingly thick. I did not even open it. When the deadline for the German newspaper was nearly there, I put my hand on the book and silently prayed that some of its information would enter into me. I felt silly, but also hoped that it would help. This absurd and desperate moment became the beginning.
I only opened the book once, with the vow to myself that wherever I placed my finger, I would use that phrase somewhere in the poem. Luckily, I settled on “rare blue mountain flowers.” I showed the poem to my editor, Michael Wiegers. He had some line edits indicating moments when he got confused. And I thought, yes, I can see why.
I’m so glad Weigers told me where he was lost. I believe if there is confusion in the poem, it means there is a deeper resonance still unexplored. I never want anyone to feel lost, at least not in a boring way. I would like them to know exactly where they are, and maybe only then to feel lost, in a deeper way.
I realized that for a good reader, there was a basic imprecision with the you that is repeated toward the end. If, indeed, I were doing what my editor thought, which was switching the meaning of you from Noguchi to the speaker to back again, that would be unfair to the reader. How could they be expected to follow?
In poems, “you” is such a strange word. It can mean every single pronoun. We’ve all read the poems where a poet says you but means I. It’s a poetic convention I find annoying. That’s true for we as well, speaking to the collective through the use of you. Of course you can mean singular, though unspecified, as well as plural, y’all (or as they say in Pittsburgh, “yins”). It can even mean he, she, it, or they.
Surely this dizzying flexibility is why you is so difficult to employ. Often, when I feel a lack of precision in my student’s work, I go looking for the word “you.” I ask the writer, Who do you mean by you? If they can’t or won’t say, this is a problem (maybe a psychological block, in which case it is important to be gentle). Sometimes they do know, and when they say, it is clear to everyone that the word “you” is not appropriate as a substitute, or at least not a substitute that permits understanding for a reader.
I am sympathetic to this—it’s a problem I have myself. Often a floating unspecified you is the mark that I have not yet worked out what must be worked out. It’s a place holder, TK. Which is okay. But eventually, something needs to be explored, and maybe I’m just not yet prepared.
Reading the poem again a few more times, I see that actually, the problem began earlier: “in those stones the reflection/ of whatever about your shadow nature/ you need to discover with unstable/ certainty flickers.” It is clear to me that this “you” is a person visiting the museum, but in the poem, I don’t say that. It’s not at all clear that I am talking about both the stones that have been placed in the museum gardens, and a visitor walking among them. Oh. After thinking about who I really meant (a visitor to the museum, not Noguchi), and how I could be specific about it without breaking the mystery of the poem, I came up with a solution:
if you go there visitor you will see
in those stones the reflection
of whatever about your shadow nature
you need to discover with unstable
certainty flicker while outside
the wells in the garden ….
Such a small fix, really just adding visitor, as a direct address. And the invitational subjunctive, if, which provides a concrete possibility, an invitation, as opposed to a presumption that this is already happening. I very much prefer the idea that I am respectfully inviting someone rather than assuming. This was, come to think of it, surely part of the problem with the original, very bad poem I wrote, which was more interested in projecting some version of myself onto the mind of a reader, who would feel a combination of pity and admiration.
The use of direct address has the added benefit of drawing the reader in, potentially at least. It’s always better when you feel as if someone is talking to you directly, and acknowledging your presence, even if it is awkward. At least it’s honest.
I like adding the word “visitor” here. It takes on a slight resonance beyond the ordinary. The reader is a visitor to the poem. The problem of the poem, which my editor pointed out, gave me the chance to deepen my engagement with it. It made me ask: Who is the audience? Who is listening? Who is the poem for? All poems are questions. Or maybe they are negations (a pushing away, an opening up of a space) followed by questions. There is a Jewish mystical idea that God once filled all the space in the universe, and then, in order to know Himself, He withdrew and created a space, which is our reality. Our job is to find holiness within ourselves and reflect it back to him. Maybe that, too, was a question: Can I be seen? Can you?
Read Zapruder’s poem “The Pledge” in our Summer 2019 issue.
Matthew Zapruder is the author, most recently, of Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017) and Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, fall 2019). He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California and is editor at large at Wave Books.