My mother said it best. But I don’t settle for the best, and I don’t listen to mothers, and I don’t listen in on goodness like some latched-key kid outside his teacher’s door.
* * *
In the spring of my junior year of college, I started the heavy study of Restoration poetry. Ironically, it was neither restorative, nor restored, and had so many wheels and gears, nothing could jump from it with simple elation. Except for two poems, panegyrics really. The one, my father’s perennial favorite, was the sad, omniscient view of a dilapidated word: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The second, less depressing than the first, was a drunkard’s tirade on the idiocy of human occupations. It came from the syphilitic hand of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. A man so dichotomous, he matched innate brilliance with rampant sexual impropriety. At some point, the escapades of his penis made their serpentine way to his head. But before this tragic infection, he spelled out an insightful poem on men chasing cerebral things out of glory to no avail. It was so bitingly sarcastic that most of his peers failed to see its quality; it rested largely unappreciated.
But I found it—tucked away in Norton’s dry and cumbersome anthology. I read it once, then twice, then four more times. I read it to myself in class, aloud in the spring sun, and parsed under mumbled misunderstandings while lounging on my bed. Ultimately, I decided to be offended.
So I did what high school English teachers encourage and college professors dismiss: I wrote John Wilmot a rebuttal in verse, calling it simply: “To John Wilmot, In Defense of Reason.”
Knowing the dangers of sacrificing meaning and voice for rhyme, I carefully applied my words, attempting to match the audacity of Wilmot’s accusations. Several drafts and two days later, I taped the poem to my professor’s door. When class convened the following Thursday, I eagerly awaited his most surprised discovery of my work. Hoping that it would become the fire of discussion, I squirmed uneasily in my desk.
But he never said anything. The whole class came and went, occupied with Johnathan Swift. Wilmot never entered into the discussion.
When the two hours of waiting ended, I went to the front and accosted my professor, trying to hold back my anger.
“Did you get my poem? The one I posted on your door?”
The answer came with disregard. “Oh yes, I did.” It was clear he had not been impressed. But I wanted to hear it outright.
“What did you think?” It was all I could do not to let go with an unbearable flood of excitement, frustration, and angst.
“Honestly, the quality of the poem was not very good. But the ideas might be worth discussing.” And at that, he collected his things, lent me a wry smile, and walked out the door.
* * *
There was something of an abstraction in his voice, an unidentifiable emotion that lunged every so often, unpredictably, at the beginning of his sentences.
“Don’t write in verse! I’m asking you to analyze in these essays, not compose!”
My undergraduate professor of Romantic literature obviously did not appreciate my florid embellishments. Where was I able to be inspired? Wasn’t that the point of this sublime poetry?
“Tell me,” I sternly replied, “do you expect us to absorb these poems and be inspired, happy only to have found great insight through the masterful work of others?” He paused, reclining in his chair and letting his excited accusations fall.
“I can’t help but feel,” I continued, grasping my poetry anthology for effect, “that you want us to live in this, to get this, to be inspired by this. But when one of us begins to let that inspiration fire his own poetry, you balk. Are you teaching with the belief that we can never be this good?” I waved my 1000-some page textbook in his face. “Or do you think that maybe to REALLY understand it, we have to create our own poetry?”
Taking a deep breath, he looked at me and said, confidently, but emotionless, “No.”
To this day, I don’t know what his answer was. But I won’t forget it. Especially when I get lost in the love of another’s work, convincing myself—without intention—that nothing and no one can ever match it. It has happened. And undoubtedly, it will happen again.
So I seize the moment and appropriate Wilmot’s depravation, living in a few unhealable damnations that Thomas Gray would likely know. I do this to be inspired, to be a part of, to feel; and if this experience is what every Romantic praises, then I will continue it in poetry. Oh, kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame, but this untimely poet will fish and fly as both, ringing ’round the well, and the just man—if God allows—that lovingly justice to all and to each, according to every man’s dream.
It’s hokey, I know. But in the end, if I am the poet, who will have had the last word?