This essay is a modified version of Lammon’s editorial introduction to Arts & Letters #9, the spring 2003 issue. The closing references to living in a post-9-11 world, America on the brink of war in Iraq, and other observations seemed (unfortunately) still relevant fourteen years later:
I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”
(Martin Lammon’s note; July 21, 2017.)
When I was in college and graduate school about 25 years ago, writing teachers often looked you in the eye and talked about “finding your voice.” Back then, I spent my twenties trying to cultivate a voice, which I took to mean my style. I searched my poems for recurring words (night, fish, river, corn) and themes (family, farms, death). I tried writing long elegiac poems, then longer surreal poems, as if I were trying to choose between singing bass or baritone. I was acutely conscious of trying not to sound too much like James Wright, an Ohio poet (a tenor?) who so dominated the poetry stage of that time.
Now, I look back on those days and wonder who I was searching for. Over the past dozen years or so, instead of cultivating one voice I’ve tried to allow poems to become whatever they need to be. Some poems want to be longer, more narrative, less attentive to music and linebreak. Others want to be lyrical, their essence found more in the way words sound than in what stories they might tell. But if I’d been paying better attention when I was 25 years old, I might have noticed how James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” (“Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”) differed significantly from his prose piece “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62”:
Ralph Neal was the scoutmaster. He was still a young man. He liked us.
I have no doubt that he knew perfectly well we were each of us masturbating unhappily in secret caves and shores.
The soul of patience, he waited while we smirked behind each other’s backs, mocking and parodying the Scout Law, trying to imitate the oratorical rotundities of Winston Churchill in a Southern Accent.
“Ay scout is trusswortha, loll, hailful, frenly, curtchuss, kand, abaydent, chairful, thrifta, dapraved, clane, and letcherass.”
Two voices, one man. These works were originally published in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), probably written about 15 years apart. Although a critical reader could find stylistic and thematic links to the same writer, only a dogmatist would insist that both works share one style or “voice”, let alone a style particular to James Wright. Each work is unique, but not because one can find a discrete “voiceprint,” as if identifying a writer’s style were a matter of scientific calibration.
As a writer, as an editor, and as a teacher of writing, I’ve come to realize that searching for one’s “voice” was really a matter of learning the difference between indulging one’s personal taste (however good) vs. cultivating good judgment. There’s a kind of poem (or story, or essay, or play) that I prefer to read, but if the only works I ever read (or wrote) were of one kind, my life would be impoverished and malnourished, as if all I ever ate were ham and cheese sandwiches, smoked almonds, and java chip ice cream. I certainly have a taste for all those foods! But obviously I’ve had to broaden my culinary choices and make judgments based on more than mere taste. I’ve even learned how much I like asparagus, grilled salmon, and yogurt—all those foods I wouldn’t go near when I was a boy.
There are limits to metaphor, of course, but one more will help illustrate what I mean. Perhaps the most clichéd description of the relationship between authors and their works (and this description applies to editors and their journals, too) is the comparison to a parent and child. This comparison also has everything to do with taste and little to do with good judgment. Parents will love their children to a fault, a point often overlooked in this common familial analogy yet observed all the time in younger writers who love their poems and stories too much. How often do teachers witness this phenomenon among their students, who, despite insightful suggestions for revision, cannot bear to change one line of their beautifully crafted and well-intentioned poetry. They have a rationale or an affection for every word, every line, every trope. (Older writers—and some are friends of mine—are just as prone to indulge their personal tastes.) Such poets are like mothers who have learned the very smell, taste, and texture of their adorable baby sons, who will love them even if they grow up to become serial killers. Such authors are like fathers who believe their sweet daughters are brilliant no matter how dull they might be. Such progenitors have imprinted themselves on their infant poems and stories and will never willingly relinquish them.
Enough of metaphor and analogy, which will take us only so far, because those doomed sons do deserve to be loved and those good daughters are brilliant. But poems and stories require a more disinterested judgment, and if writers and editors make choices based only on their good taste alone, then their work will surely suffer aesthetic consequences.
No matter how disinterested an individual may be, no writer or editor can make consistent good judgments alone. Personal taste will always insinuate itself. Editors I know tell me they read everything, judge everything, and select everything for the journals they edit, and I wonder if they truly can temper their judgment with humility. Writers and editors must be arbiters of writing, but such arbitrations can (and I think should) depend on a process by which the individual listens to the intelligent voices of others. That process holds true at both the writing workshop and the editorial table. Over the years, I depended on assistant and associate editors to read and advocate for works submitted. I have often deferred to the judgments of my colleagues who served as poetry, fiction, and drama editors. Although I may sometimes have disagreed with their choices, I abided by them.
I do not think that I eschew responsibility, to borrow language from the wonderful poem “Ethics” by Linda Pastan. In the poem, an ethics teacher asks the students a philosophical question: If a museum were on fire, which would you save, a “Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?” Pastan replies, “why not let the woman decide herself?” and is chastised for “eschew[ing] the burdens of responsibility.” The poem ends:
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
Passing judgment is about deciding whether something will happen or won’t happen, and ultimately, whether something lives or dies, another reason why the analogy to the parental relationship becomes horrible when applied to authors and their works, as if they faced a kind of “Sophie’s Choice.” If I write a poem that fails, then I should let the poem lapse into obscurity, or if personal taste overwhelms my better judgment, then other readers—editors or publishers or good friends—will surely help the poem find its inexorable dead end.
When we are children, we are intellectually isolated, egocentric. We pout when we don’t get our way. We believe that the group laughing in the corner is laughing at us. We have no idea what death is. Only a thoughtful, informed community of readers and writers (a community defined more by experience and maturity than one’s age) can ensure that mature, disinterested aesthetic judgments are possible. Individual writers and editors will ultimately make their own decisions, but no one should have to make such decisions alone.
I write about making poems, stories, plays, and essays, about editing a journal. Yet as I write, it is the first day of a new year, and as a country we stand at the brink of war. Since 9-11, our personal freedoms are more and more threatened by a “War on Terrorism” that reminds me of the “Cold War” at its worst, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
It is the year 2003. When I was a boy, I imagined I’d be visiting cities on the moon, that we’d have landed on Mars, and that, just maybe, we’d have discovered there was life beyond our world. Older now, I’d be content to imagine a society where we valued teachers more than athletes, movie stars, and pop singers. I’d be content to imagine a country where people in airports were not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”
I imagine that James Wright’s piece about Ralph Neal and his boy scouts is one that the poet must have agonized over, a work of lyrical prose that balanced precariously between indulging his personal tastes and exercising his better judgment. Which is to say, it is like all essential writing that perseveres before, like everything, it ultimately perishes. Perhaps what I like best about “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” is how Wright imagines that their leader, Neal, loves them not because they were handsome and talented—they were “dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards,” like the one who grew up “doing life at the State Pen in Columbus,” or the man who drove “one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine,” or Hub Snodgrass who spends “a good hour…trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin”—but instead loves them because…
he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.
Finally, what I learn from reading Wright is how a deeper imagination transcends rhetoric, how good judgment supercedes mere good taste. I also learn that I cannot do this alone. I try to imagine all the Ralph Neals in my life, all the Hub Snodgrasses, and how what I do next depends on all of them.