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Poetry, patience, and rage

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I discovered a magazine review of one of my poems for the first time this week, nearly twenty years after the review was published.  It was like coming across a $10 bill crumpled up in the pocket of some long-ago thrift-store corduroys that had not only been forgotten, but had slipped to the bottom of the closet and been buried under sedimentary layers of old sweaters and worn-out shoes.  What happened between the review’s appearance and my discovery of it is a small story of failure, rage, and acceptance.   

Two or three decades ago, I had no idea that becoming a poet was in some ways no different than becoming, for example, a marketing executive: To be successful, one had to build a career, and to build a career, one had to be a “careerist,” something that involved infinitely more effort than merely studying the great poets, composing good poems, sending out manuscripts, and waiting for the inevitable recognition.  That, unfortunately, and lacking a mentor to tell me otherwise, was the tack I took.  I floated my poems out there like little paper boats, and most of them came drifting back to me on the next incoming tide. 

What I’d needed, if I’d really wanted to establish a name for myself, was an armada of influential friends and fellow poets, and perhaps an MFA from Iowa State.  But I was too prideful, and too dumb and stubborn, to take that route. 

But when three of my very smallest and least ambitious poems (haiku, as it happens, among the most delicate of poetic crafts) were published in a literary magazine back in the mid-eighties, I was inordinately pleased.  I vividly remember going out to a bar called Four Farthings that evening with my friend Julie, and in an ostentatiously ironic display of faux exuberance that concealed my actual exuberance, of which I felt a bit ashamed, I offered to buy drinks for everyone in the bar. 

Everyone accepted.

The magazine paid one dollar a line, and the drinks cost me around $50.  A haiku, of course, is three lines long, but the $41 deficit was well worth it for the loopy stupidity of the moment, and for the success, however pointless and sophomoric, of my misdirection:  My temporary friends in the bar thought I was mocking the triviality of my accomplishment, whereas in fact I was loudly but secretly celebrating it. 

The truth, as Julie alone understood, was that this rare publication meant more to me at the time than all of the rewards, and awards, my advertising and public relations career were gradually beginning to accrue.    

A couple of years after this, an editor sent me a letter and a contract requesting my permission to reprint one of the three haiku in an anthology.  “Payment” would be two copies of the anthology.  I signed the contract with a flourish, and returned it the same day. 

Well over a year went by, and I hadn’t heard a word about the anthology, so I sent the editor a brief and neutrally worded letter of inquiry, along the lines of “Just wondering when…”  I was busy enough in my non-poetic career at this point that I barely had time to dash off this note, and yet unsuccessful enough in my poetic non-career that I was anxiously awaiting those two gratis copies. 

A short time later, the editor sent me a postcard that read, in its entirety: “Still in process.  Patience is a virtue.”

Would it be possible to describe the rage, the fury, the sense of thunderous injustice, I felt at this editor’s condescending reply?  Was I being impatient?  Of course not!  I had waited patiently a year without hearing, or asking for, another word about the book! 

So why did this schoolmarmish remonstration upset me so much?  Because (though needless to say I didn’t understand this until many years after receiving the card), few things anger us more than when we think we’ve carefully hidden an emotion that is shameful to us, and someone else nonetheless casually and devastatingly points it out. 

This editor halfway across the country had struck to the heart of the matter:  I was, in fact, deeply impatient, and not only about this minor anthology, but about the whole hopeless project of becoming a published and established poet.  

I felt even more angry about the various rejection slips that floated back my way.  It wasn’t merely the rejection itself, but the manner in which it glaringly illuminated the contrast between my overt pride in my poetic skill and my carefully buried insecurities that I wasn’t quite good enough, or perhaps (looking at Auden or Wilbur or Jarrell) nearly good enough. 

Back in those days, I was always overreacting to slights and insults, which I had aplenty in my twenties.  (They mysteriously disappeared, the casual insults and my brooding or volcanic over-reaction to them alike, somewhere in my early thirties.)  Some of those slights were genuinely slight, but my outraged reaction to them were inversely related to my deeply buried acknowledgement of the grain of truth they usually contained.

The anthology eventually arrived; it was nicely designed and edited; it was quickly consulted to ensure that my name had not been misspelled nor my haiku hacked up; it was promptly filed away on my bookshelf.  Like the scattering of literary magazines containing my other poems, some of them with idiotic names and all of them with vanishingly small readerships, it was immediately forgotten. 

I never again contacted, or heard from, the editor, and gave no more thought to the other poets in the anthology than, most likely, they did to me; poets are unique among literary writers for their ability to project a kind of grandiose spiritualism and misty-eyed adoration of the universe while nonetheless maintaining a steely and unshakeable self-centeredness. 

And thus her postcard still rankled.  In my actual career, I had occasional disagreements with the CEOs of major corporations that usually didn’t bother me too much, because I had a broader base to stand on, and because my only purpose was to help the company succeed, whereas the very insignificance of the publication, and my embarrassment over the not-insubstantial ego-centered pleasure it had fleetingly afforded me, made this obscure editor’s tritely patronizing note perversely that much more painful.   

A word now about rage, which isn’t precisely the opposite of patience, but is certainly bitterly opposed to it.  

My anger over my failed efforts to become a successful poet was not so much inappropriate as misdirected and unproductive.  I had once submitted a rather long and very ambitious poem that I had spent, literally, years in composing (I wasn’t impatient when it came to the writing process itself) and received, in response, a rejection slip that said, “I loved your poem — in fact, I read it to our staff at our weekly meeting.”  Again, this was written on a rejection slip; I wasted many months brooding over what the hell it possibly could have meant.

Granted, like most twenty-somethings, I was an angry young man, but if I had applied that psychic energy to making connections (I could have just called that editor up and asked why, if he’d loved the poem, he hadn’t just accepted it and, by the way, would he be interested in a shorter piece) I would have, perhaps, accomplished something substantial.    

Now, fast forward two decades to earlier this week.  Through the miracle of Google Books, I discovered the brief reference to my poem in a review of the anthology, which had appeared back at the time of the anthology’s publication in a small literary magazine (not the one that published the poem originally.) 

The opening lines of the review, containing my poem in its entirety, read as follows:

“Any book of poems that starts off with an invocation so prevailing, as enriching as the following…

                 What is lovelier
  Than this glass of cherry pop
             In the summer light?
 
                             
                     Michael Antman

 …has got to be special.”

My initial thought upon reading this was a kind of mild gratitude for the kind words — apparently, I’m perfectly fine with damp-eyed effusions when they apply to me — followed quickly by an equally mild regret that I hadn’t encountered it two decades ago, when I could have used the encouragement.  (Anyone who buys drinks for the house after publishing three tiny poems is badly in need of some kind, any kind, of encouragement.) 

But then I read on, and discovered that the editor had “spent months reading through hundreds of journals and books.  From among thousands she eventually chose only about a hundred (poems).  Then, as difficult as it may seem, letting these ‘settle’ for approximate (sic) two years before returning.” 

(Upon taking the now-faded anthology off my bookshelf today, I discovered that the editor had made this very point in her own preface which, in my self-absorption at the time, I hadn’t even bothered to read.)

Suddenly, once again, I felt chastened.  Her words had been an admonition not only to me but, I suspect, to several of her other impatient contributors and also, perhaps, to herself.  Let us imagine, for a moment, that I had taken her postcard to heart instead of boiling over at it:  It is entirely possible that I would have stopped wasting my energy getting angry with editors, who after all were only doing their jobs, and applied my youthful rage and boundless energy to, instead, patiently building a poetic career.

Oddly enough, the little poemlet (which, by the way, isn’t even a true haiku, but that’s another story) at the center of all this holds its own buried admonition. 

When I first wrote it, I meant it on a conscious level as nothing more than a sort of pocket-sized and deliberately childlike (in the most positive sense of the term) ars poetica, a distillation of my conviction that beauty is absolute rather than relative, that the side of a worn brick tenement in a certain slant of light can be more inexplicably affecting than an Eero Saarinen or Frank Lloyd Wright, and that the illuminated liquid in a glass of soda might, for a fleeting moment, be more scintillating than a ruby, even though on a relative basis the ruby is priceless and the sugar water worthless. 

But years later, with the help of a friend, I realized that in a sort of semi-conscious way I had written the poem not merely as a comment on relative aesthetic worth, but also as a miniature disquisition on evanescence and mortality.

Living things sparkle for a moment in the sunlight, and what indeed is lovelier. 

And then, with the dying of the light, they disappear.

The “cherry pop,” in this case, being the blood that courses through our veins; as the sun and the season fade, we stop sparkling too, and it is our knowledge of this that makes the sparkling all the more precious while it lasts. 

Or, as Wallace Stevens said, even more concisely and certainly more memorably than I had, “death is the mother of beauty.”

A poem, a postcard, and an obscure review.  All of them contained buried meanings or lessons I was either unaware of or incapable of absorbing in my twenties, and this lack of self-knowledge, in turn, was created by my impatience and my anger and my lack of perspective.

In fact, looking at the hard numbers today, I realize that I actually published 20 poems and made, in total, no more than 120 or so submissions — a not-so-bad-ratio, as an author friend of mine pointed out years later. 

In any event, over the years, all of my misapplied anger was replaced by a kind of resignation or enforced patience — enforced, that is, by my relative lack of success – and though this was somewhat better than my earlier anger, it wasn’t really the right way to go either.   But in recent years, I think I’ve discovered, in my emotionally slow way, a middle ground between patience and rage. 

It’s called persistence.  Or, to be specific, persistence combined with passion.

Persistence was certainly the method I applied to my “other” career, paradoxically because of my initial lack of passion for it.  But when the passion came, too, some years later — I have come to appreciate and love my marketing career, and now actually look forward to its challenges every day — the combination made me better at my job than ever before.   

Realizing the way in which this “passionate persistence” truly works, and how it is a sort of synthesis of patience and rage, neither one at all satisfactory on its own, but powerful when combined intelligently, is something that took me many decades to achieve.

But note that I’m saying “many” decades.  Not “too many.”  It played out,  probably, the way it was meant to, and fortunately while I’m still full of fizz, and more committed to literature than ever before.  I understand better now than I used to how the system works and how, perhaps, to find my place in it. 

Part of this understanding is knowing how to await what may come — including even tiny surprises like today’s discovery — and how also to accept what may not ever come before the sunlight fades. 

It is a realization that is, in every way, more precious than rubies. 
 

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2 Responses to “Poetry, patience, and rage”

  1. Truly, emotion recollected in tranquility! I guess it takes many years to grow a rich and deep wisdom. But I wouldn’t chastise the young Michael who in his exuberance bought drinks for all. Exuberance Is Beauty, as Wm. B. wrote. How fleeting is exuberance, like the brief glint of light dancing in the cherry pop (see, I would say soda, not pop, which doesn’t sound as nice). Cherry Whip, too! What does the color/fruit/concept of cherry mean to you? Something worth exploring, perhaps.

  2. This is a great piece of writing, as well. WFTC readers deserve a little history. The cherry pop haiku was written in 1978 as part of a haiku correspondence Michael and I had when I was working at a company called DoAll and Michael was working for the Chicago Board of Trade. The end product was a book of 100 haiku, 50 poems by each of us, called “Here are more we missed.” In addition to appearing in the publications Michael mentions, several haiku from our book were published in an anthology as part of a competition run by Japan Airlines. I still have the $5 check (the first and only $5 I ever earned for my poetry!) I received for my poem. As I recall, Michael got a $10 check. Soon, readers will be able to read this book online, when I get the time to post it. The cherry pop poem, imho, is the best haiku of the lot.

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