My 2013 book The First Thing Mastered contains two poems about infancy. One is "Newborn," which is the book's closing poem (about the moment of childbirth) and which I blogged about last week. The other is "Waking," which opens the book and captures the first days or weeks of life from an infant's point of view, or tries to.
"Tries" is the key word. This is one case where I am not sure if I did or did not, whatever Master Yoda may say. A more reasonable bit of wisdom may come from the poet Archibald MacLeish, who wrote in "Ars Poetica": "A poem should be equal to: Not true." I don't take that as a charge that all poets are fibbers, but rather an acceptance of the line between reality and art. The two exist on different sides of a divide: The first provides the second with material, and the second colors our perception of the first. We artists may be magicians on our best days (or tell ourselves that we are), but we operate in the field of illusions. At times, I think back on a conversation with a college classmate who insisted that Life Is Beautiful was a better film than Schindler's List, since no film could accurately capture the truth of the Holocaust, and Life Is Beautiful had the sense not to try.
Why try, then? Maybe it's a form of power: our little desire to play God and create our own worlds (even if they often abide by the rules of His/Hers). We can't conjure up an actual horse, but we may create a painting of a horse that reaches more eyes than any real animal. Michelangelo's David is more beautiful than any flesh-and-blood man could be. No night sky has ever swirled like Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." Both artworks are equal to: Not true. We have held onto them as truths now for hundreds of years.
I realize that I'm citing some lofty names here. I am not nominating myself to be in a league with Michelangelo, Van Gogh, or Roberto Benigni. But their examples let me off the hook a bit when I sat down to write "Waking." As noted in my previous blog, this poem displaced "Newborn" as the opener in The First Thing Mastered, since I felt that that poem provided too much adult perspective to begin the collection. I wanted to start by evoking naïveté and innocence -- obviously, not an easy task for a college-educated writer in his mid-30s. And there lies the limitations of the poet. We may use simple words to evoke a simple time of life, but they are words regardless, nothing that accompanied us out of the womb. The best that we can do is hint at a life where context is absent and everything is taken at face value. At some point, we must wonder about everything that we see and hear and touch, before we start to apply names and figure out cause and effect.
I couldn't write a true poem about those moments of life, so I wrote the best not-true one that I could. We have all forgotten our first days in the bedroom, but this poem about a bedroom contains a crack that our eyes focus on every morning. This poem contains a milk bottle and a chandelier that catches the red sunlight. Is any of it accurate? You and I both could have answered that question once. By the time we could express it in words, it was too late.
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.