Writing Is Reading

The Words
after William Logan

The question he could not have anticipated,
why do you read a book you don’t like?
short-circuited the patterns he’d formulated,
stuck a stick through the spokes of his bike.

What he’d considered a simple machine 
appeared to be the same blood and ash
as even his earliest dream.
And so he threw the book in the trash.

Like all his days before, he rode out again. 
He looked upon the same and not the same sky. 
As though for him came the call of a jay

though if it were mockingbird he couldn’t say.
He saw no reason to ask it why;
it would do. He wrote the words then.

I have a shelf full of neglected poetry books. Needing a new book to read on my lunch breaks I grabbed a small selection of Milton—still amazed by his sonnets (& wrote a response to XIX: “when I consider how my light is spent”). Next grabbed William Logan’s Night Battle and found myself responding to one of his. It occurred to me to go through all the neglected books and choose a poem from each to respond to, as an exercise if nothing else.

I thought I’d say a few words about this poem/response. The tone of many of Logan’s poems didn’t sit quite well with me. This has everything to do with me and not the poet; Logan is very good. I want to say this carefully: in a poem or in any kind of book at all I want the truth, the writer’s truth. But of course a writer’s truth isn’t necessarily the kind of truth a particular reader needs. I require some sliver of hope, however tiny. Even if it’s a shred of humor—that shred is saving grace for me. Logan seemed in this collection humorless and poems often end on a down note. Just as a matter of personal preference, I like poems that begin on the down note. (As an example consider my poem The Quitter. Unless one is referring to a bad habit, “quitting” is usually seen as a negative, especially if you call someone a “quitter”. I began with that down note.) A few of Logan’s poems left me feeling like, Yeah, and? What am I supposed to do with this? Life gives you crap. Make the lemonade! They were also, to my mind, a little academic, a little dry.

When I’m sitting on my lunches at work reading or writing, my coworkers never ask what I’m reading or writing. They’ll often ask what I’m eating or drinking, but not once has anyone asked what I’m scribbling down on a piece of paper. Because I’m self-conscious I fantasized while trying to read Night Battle that someone asked me about it, and what would I say? At that moment I wasn’t enjoying it very much. I imagined them asking why I was reading a book I didn’t like and myself in response standing up in silence and tossing the book in the trash. I should add that in recent weeks I’ve been distancing myself from poetry—on purpose, kind of like a vacation. By the way, I ride my bike to work and I think of poems as little machines. I really like little machines—like bicycles and mechanical watches.

I don’t believe in throwing books in the trash, only in giving them away. Night Battle is one I’m not prepared to give away. I did enjoy a number of the poems, especially the narrative poem Niobe, the sonnets and the rhyming poems—they’re unique (it’s curious that I think Logan is at his best when he avoids non-rhyming free verse). And with The Words it’s always nice when you want to respond to a poem with another poem. That’s an ideal reading experience for me.

I couldn’t find a copy of The Words online to share. I followed Logan’s line count and breaks and rhyme scheme. His first line goes:

He wrote the words then; they would have to do.

Because of the kind of guy he is, he ends on a down note:

The words once put to sleep would not awaken.

Now, once again, this may only feel like a down note to me, because of the kind of guy I am. Maybe to someone else it’s a spur, a kick in the gut, a warning that will help them not to let the words go to sleep. I don’t know, I’m not some other guy. We are who we are.

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3 Responses to Writing Is Reading

  1. William Logan says:

    Go for it. Poems give birth to poems.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    I really enjoyed your “The Words.” This line, so simple, yet having no end: “He looked upon the same and not the same sky.”

    And the whole topic of reading neglected books/books you don’t like reminds me of two things: first, trying to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and, after the first few pages, throwing it across the room. I tried again, same reaction. The third time, I skipped the opening chapter (I think it was about the narrator’s class reunion, heavily featuring aging men with prostate problems) and started where Roth actually started to tell the story. It turned out to be one of my all-time favorite books. Second, I’ve spent a good bit of time in recent months culling books (giving culled ones to the only(!) library near me that will take them), but held back two I’d tried more than once and failed. I’m now reading one of them, Siegfried Lenz’s The German Lesson, finally getting somewhere with it. While it’s going slowly (I’ve actually put it down to read other books in between!), I’m finding it absorbing each time I pick it up.

    • I’ve been reading more than writing in recent weeks–reading something very special that I’m not permitted to speak about yet since it’s an unpublished manuscript. But I will say it’s a great adventure and I hope to be able to talk about it soon.

      Thanks for your visit, Sue. LOVED your latest batch of collages.

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