Last week, the Journal of Radical Wonder launched a video series for writers on how to find inspiration. John Brantingham, the magazine's co-editor, began the series by urging participants to start in their own backyards and look for signs of life that they hadn't noticed before. "Life is wonder," he said, "and if you look at it the right way, life is also joy."
Words have connotations, and "wonder" -- which a typical dictionary defines as a sense of surprise and astonishment, mingled with curiosity -- often gets associated with joy and innocence. S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders uses the rapturous beauty of sunsets as a symbol for wonder, even implying, in its final passages, that if the story's hardened gang members took more time to gaze at the changing colors before dusk, they would be less inclined to vent their aggression on the streets. (The novel, which came out in 1967, may be more a child of the Summer of Love than we often give it credit for.) Brantingham, in his video, cites Allen Ginsberg's poem "Sunflower Sutra," in which the author encounters a sunflower amid the grime of San Francisco and spins it into a metaphor for our own desecrated purity: "We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside..."
So, wonder starts with looking. To be surprised or astonished about something, we first have to study it closely -- something our constant attention to duties (and iPhones) can easily thwart. Like Ponyboy, we can find that doing so puts us in a more vulnerable and receptive state. We only comprehend the natural world up to a point. Submitting to the aesthetic rush of a sunset or sunflower reminds us that we are merely explorers in the world, not its creators. Perhaps a mindset of this kind can dissuade us from a rumble with the Socs or an overdependence on locomotives. I think, though, of a line from Ginsberg's greatest inspiration, Walt Whitman, who wrote in "Song of Myself": "I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also." Even in a state of wonder, we are simply engaging in heightened awareness of the world around us. What we do with that awareness depends on our personal ratio of goodness and wickedness.
Watching Brantingham's video, I began sorting through my own work to see if I had a poem about the concept that he described: perusing one's own backyard for truth or enlightenment. The one I finally came upon was "Boy at the Backyard Pond," and it goes a way toward proving Whitman's insight. The poem, which came out ten years ago in the book The First Thing Mastered, is about wonder but not joy, alertness but not innocence. The poem's title character finds himself at the titular location, musing about the clarity of his reflection in the water but also his power to dash it with a stone. Earlier, the boy terrified his family members by hoisting a goldfish bowl over the floor (and apparently threatening to drop it), and he is mesmerized by his ability to destroy things if he pleases.
Does that make him a bad kid? I don't know. I never hear anyone refer to someone as a "bad kid." We have a tendency to view children as basically good and earnest, and if they act otherwise, we often blame it on circumstance: tough times at home, learning disabilities, growing pains, etc. Mostly, we reserve our harsh judgments for those who are older and know better. Perhaps the boy in the poem has a side of him that would protect the goldfish, that would rather study his reflection than stone it. All of us are ruled by opposing forces. In any case, "Boy at the Backyard Pond" ends in progress -- not just in terms of the character's development, but in terms of the rock that he hurls at the water. Of course, it will break the surface and make a splash. Of course, that disruption will be followed by silence and stillness. Is there a point in action if the world erases it? The boy has time to ponder that question. It may not be wonder in the innocent sense, but at least he is exploring his own backyard.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.