I like to imagine this scene: The child prodigy Rimbaud reads Baudelaire’s prose poems for the first time and exclaims “Zut! Lines can wrap instead of rhyme and it’s still a poem?” and that revelatory surprise frees the younger writer to undertake his own groundbreaking Season in Hell and Illuminations. I’m making it up. Perhaps the real Rimbaud never had or needed such a surprise, but most artists could do with at least one in the course of their lives.
Mine didn’t come until I was in my mid-thirties. Rimbaud, at 21, had completed his entire oeuvre. By then I had only tried to write and given up, assuming I wasn’t any good. Silly me. I would have had more fun as a bad writer than as an indifferent scholar loading her brain with minutiae about French medieval literature. I wrote a dissertation full of footnotes but then lost all enthusiasm for footnotes and for compiling états presents, those summaries of work done by others on the topics of one's articles. Impatient with all that work done by others, perplexed about how to use my laden brain if I didn't write articles, I stumbled on the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. There I saw a mind harboring more arcane details than I could ever fathom. I saw Funes the Memorious—the boy so glutted with minutiae that he has to spend his days in a room with the shades drawn. Reams of erudition went into that story but it contained nary a footnote and was far too original to warrant an état present. When Borges wrote those he simply made them up. What’s more, these works of real and imagined erudition were blessedly brief, some as short as poems, none as long as even one chapter of a dissertation. You mean you’re allowed to do that?
It would be nice to report that under Borges’ liberating influence I went on to write a series of imaginative, falsely erudite stories. In truth I continued to attempt scholarship, at least enough to keep my job at a small liberal arts college. On one of my happier days there, Borges himself came to campus, and I was one of the faculty members assigned to interview him on a public panel. When it was my turn to speak, I asked about his fable, “Everything and Nothing.” Its main character is Shakespeare, who suffers from a feeling that he is no one and, in order to feel like someone, becomes Falstaff, Macbeth, Juliet and the others. At the end of his life he speaks to God: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.” I asked Borges if he was like his Shakespeare. Did he, too, wish he were “one and himself?” Several hundred students and teachers hung on the answer, sensing that this blind old man was one of the Wonders of the World, a visiting sibyl. He gestured toward the throng and said “I wish I were all of you.”
I remember one other time when my writerly mind, that poor late bloomer, discovered unexpected room to maneuver. While laboring on my first poems, I came upon Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station,” which presents a grease-sodden rural garage as a place of homely humaneness: “Somebody embroidered the doily” on the greasy wicker taboret. Somebody has lined up the oil cans “so they softly say ESSO-SO-SO-SO to high-strung automobiles.” The repeated SO startled me and prompted the thought: “Really? A poem can do that?” I needed no far-out verse experiment, only an arrangement of oil cans, to convince me that the answer is: Yes, a poem can do anything it wants and a poet merely has to know what that is.
Sarah White's recent book, Alice Ages and Ages (Blaze Vox, 2010) is reviewed in this issue by Ricardo Nirenberg. She is also author of a poetry collection, Cleopatra Haunts the Hudson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2007), a chapbook, Mrs. Bliss and the Paper Spouses (Pudding House, 2007), and a lyric essay, The Poem Has Reasons: A Story of Far Love (online at www.proempress.com). She lives, writes, and paints in Manhattan. See her poems in Offcourse #43.