In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear
To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be.
I’ve been thinking lately about what it means as a poet to have grown up in suburbia. What foundation was set for my sensibility in that first landscape? It is more specific than that since I grew up in the suburb of a very small city. I didn’t grow up on the outskirts of New York or Chicago. I grew up in Pennside, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Reading, itself only just meeting the definition of a city in terms of its population when I was young. But a suburb nonetheless that must have impressed in me its tailored landscapes, those manmade terrains that are different from either the parks of a city or the untamed edge of the truly rural.
The word itself, “suburbs” is from the Latin “sub” meaning “under” and “urbs” meaning “city.” It comes from Roman times when the poor lived at the foot of the city hill outside the wall. But in modern times that “under” means something else and has a weighty significance, at least, as I reflect on it. For all its scenic advantages, the suburban sensibility feels inferior to its urban brother, feels less savvy, less witty, less cultivated. It lives in the shadow of the urban and it may contribute to why, when I was young, I preferred the eccentric to the accepted. I had rather sit alone and think than talk with my peers. It’s why I felt a kinship with a thin tree at the crest of one of the surrounding mountains. It stuck out crookedly, a bald patch on its right side, but even from miles away it was beautifully distinguishable from the monotony of the level ridge of maples.
That need for distinction has long impaired my poetic voice, loaded it with a self-conscious groping that I still labor to overcome every time I write. Any poet worth his salt is beyond the need to impress and is instead driven by the need to realize his vision. But finding that vision requires confronting life right on the spot, at its dirtiest. This is not something the suburban sensibility is trained to do. If suburbia is anything, it’s a place to learn how to evade, to dodge the shadows in the corner, to avoid ever saying what is really meant. Stating the unequivocal truth could disturb the clean-cut image of life among the trimmed lawns and hedges, the neat streets and manmade lake. In suburbia, even rage and neurosis are ordered and pretty.
That clean order — even nature itself tamed — might be what led me to first desire order in art, which is not the same as clarity. Beauty ruled all themes; the music of a poem exempted it from making sense. I could not then have conceived of aspiring to Lowell’s prayer, “Pray for the grace of accuracy/Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination,” at least not semantically. The pulse of a genuine moment was something too real for me to dare touch, not that I wasn’t aware of it. But the suburb is an adult version of a childproofed environment, all the edges are sanded down or cushioned, all the hazards are locked away. Like a child, you know the forbidden is in the locked drawer; you just come to accept the rules of the house because you don’t know any other world. These are the dark distances between people in suburbia, distances astutely explored by the poet Carl Dennis.
Within me that distance has been the long stretch between the artificial voice of my expected self and the authentic voice of my real life. All my effort since starting to write has been to bridge that distance, to close the gap between them. The best poetry I’ve written in recent years has been about how to dodge expectations, not only of others but also and perhaps especially those of oneself. Henry Miller said that for the writer attempting something new, nothing is worse than his friends. In struggling to realize an authentic voice for my poetry, no friend has been a greater enemy than that one in my head who keeps telling me how I should sound, who I should be, what I should say.
How Freudian this comes off is not lost on me. But my concerns are aesthetic and philosophical, not psychological. I refuse to call that friend my superego, though he has helped me be a better person, that is, to not say everything on my mind since that isn’t always helpful. He is the master diplomat, but this makes him a poor poet, since the poetic voice is not really about right and wrong or even kindness, but rather it’s about clarity, insight, articulation of the fully realized moment. But the fully realized moment cannot be abridged, even if it is edited. That is to say, it must be complete even if it has only one, true articulation, the way Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in the best order.” So I must use every means to stifle that unpoetic diplomat, to arrive at the truly poetic moment and simply write. This has not been easy.
Between Keats’s idea that poems should come as leaves on a tree and the truism that the real art in a poem is hiding the art, there is the suburb. The suburb is the artificial wearing the natural as lingerie. It wraps itself in green and decorates its hair with flowers. It’s a seduction and a siren’s song because it is a nowhere, an in-between world that’s neither wild nor tame, neither urban nor rural. It cannot disrobe and show itself in naked honesty because its beauty, indeed, its very substance is in its apparel. It may be why, as a young poet, I was obsessed with form but was equally nagged by the dread that I didn’t have the mind to be a poet. I always felt that one day I would be found out, that, like the suburb, I was actually all appearance.
The border of a suburb is not wild. This is not because there are no untamed animals, no skunks or deer ducking behind nearby pines. It’s because between nature and such communities there are enough artificial hurtles that one is free to romanticize nature. So from my street to the nearest woods, the transitions — the community pool, the football field and tennis courts, the creek and surrounding road — were obstacles to any entrance into both the wild and the creative. I sometimes think it may be why I’ve struggled with transitions in my poetry. By contrast, the urban sensibility doesn’t feel the need to connect the dots or supply bridges. From stanza to stanza, either you’re smart enough to keep up or this poem isn’t for you. And it’s important to realize this isn’t snobbery but simply apprehending the world on your own terms, being oneself without apologies. But I’ve always been afraid of losing people along the way, and so tediously laid the groundwork for every step. The problem with such carefulness is that it crowds out the reader’s imagination. A reader should find a home for his imagination within a poem; it should be a place for him to breathe deeply and settle down, even if it’s into the mystery of what it’s all about. This means the total picture includes untamed elements, some invasion of the dark and disordered into the context of the ordered creation. Without it, there is no perspective or context and thus no true insight or cause for wonder.
For the urban sensibility, the edge of the city is not the edge of order, but the edge of civilization. This differs from the suburban sensibility in that it is not mere landscape, but an expression of our humanity. Civilization lies within us. So, for the urban dweller, the edge of the city is the edge and end of humanity. But for the suburban sensibility, the neat, clean order of the landscape is not an indwelling reality. It is, rather, imposed on both the outward and inward landscapes. The edge of suburbia becomes the edge of the safe world. It is not that humanity ends there, but that understanding ends there. Beyond is the incomprehensible, the unpredictable. So my poems have always had a laborious, plodding need to be understood, to be safe. The problem with this is that the best poems of the day are born in liminal spaces, in the outskirts, beyond the longstanding definitions. They risk being misunderstood even by the majority. It is Blake being called mad at the end of his life and his work waiting until the 20th century to be given its just admiration.
I left suburbia for New York City nearly twenty years ago. But suburbia stayed in me. It limited my art, my growth as a poet. I could never escape the logic of its layout. It infected my lines and stanzas, ordering them into a beautiful, sanitary banality. Then I read George Oppen’s poetry. He was dense, difficult and passionately struggling toward clarity. I had never before been enthralled by any objectivist poet. But he was someone who took me in thoroughly. In that rapture, I read prose about him and interviews and came across his idea of a poem as a certain “sequence of disclosure.” This idea was new to me since I had always measured a poem’s movement not by its semantic unfolding but by its phonetic modulation. I lived by Joseph Brodsky’s dictum that “for the poet, phonetics is semantics.” But this dictum had been too native to me to help me grow. I had to abandon it in favor of a “sequence of disclosure,” a modulation of meaning that was itself the music and movement of a poem.
At the same time, I had been reading a number of other poets and had recently read Horace’s 13th Ode from the second book. It was a poem that startled me by its seamless progression. It starts simply with Horace contemplating contemptuously a tree on his property and ends among the shades in Hades. I remember the shock at the end of the poem, of realizing where I was and how Horace had taken me there without jarring my senses. I had been transported from the simple earthly reality of his yard to the netherworld of shades and no charm was invoked or Sybil consulted. There were no hurtles as in suburbia. I found in this poem an example of that sequence of disclosure, something I found I then had to master, because it was a way of escape, not away from reality, but into reality.
A few other poets, modern poets, helped me cut the key to that door: Gerald Stern, Carl Dennis, Stephen Dunn, Stephen Dobyns and Derek Walcott. These were the major stars in that guiding constellation. What was interesting was that, as I wrote the first poem of escape ten years ago, the realization of this new aesthetic, this new philosophy, occurred to me in geometric terms.
The idea that a poem should come full circle was not only axiomatic because of its long tradition but inevitable to my suburban sensibility. Although everyone in suburbia works elsewhere, life there is self-contained. Work is merely what you do to support life in suburbia. But life in suburbia is suburbia and all roads there lead back to its center. This was a form of circling the wagons. A poem then was always about redemption. However, now my desire, my driving need, was for something parabolic, something arcing out and away and ending as far from where I started as possible and arriving there with an inevitability that should not resemble logic. Logic is only one kind of meaning, but all meanings and, in fact, most meanings are not logical. And the most meaningful material is at the edge of what we know and just beyond. It is only here that poems matter, have an almost life or death significance, because it is only from here that one can look back on where you came from, and have the perspective to see the immense battle for identity involved in each moment taken for granted. From here it is possible to reenter the streets of suburbia and not be governed by them.