Skip to Content
Search Icon

Innocency of Ear

On youthful pretensions.

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I presented a girl a number of poems for Christmas. They were my own verse translations of a handful of medieval lyrics drawn from the Cambridge Songs and the Carmina Burana. I had illustrated them in ink and colored pencil, and I mounted each poem and its drawing on a complementary piece of colored paper. I then put the lot of them—there were four or five—into a decorative bag with tastefully selected tissue paper. I was very proud of this gift, and expected some degree of, if not adulation, at least polite recognition and a perfunctory sentence of praise or two. Instead I got a look that I understand much better with many years of hindsight. Our attachment was broken off not too long after.

I did not learn my lesson. Instead I got into Eliot and high modernism. By my senior year of high school, I had put together a handsome little portfolio of the worst verse you’ve ever read. No illustrations, though—Blake was exchanged for early Robert Lowell, if Robert Lowell had been brain-damaged. The showpiece was a very high-diction three-movement mythological deal called “A Cup for Tantalus,” loosely about my connection with the girl who didn’t appreciate my Christmas gift. I asked a couple of my English teachers for comment; the one who liked me carefully avoided saying anything, and I wished that the one who didn’t hadn’t. I can still hear the acid question: “Do you think your readers know what an ‘ilex’ is?”

Undeterred, I continued my spree against the English language. The plans were always grandiose—a cycle on the Passion! Retellings of Orpheus, Tannhauser, Lancelot! A surrealist epic on the grammatical sciences! A fragmentary pseudo-medieval chanson in a constructed language! All the pretension might have been forgivable if any of this had been good. None of it was.

Naturally, these vast and inevitably unrealized designs were paralleled by sentimental and somewhat self-absorbed verse offerings to women—mostly undelivered, thank God. (At least here I had learned something.) There was also occasional verse—here, after a tour of a Venetian fortress on Crete:

Where art thou now, o holy Mark,
And thy ships so bold and free?
Thy children call thy blessed name
From the grottoes of the sea.

Worse were the apostrophes in imagined situations:

So let me say to you, buttoning-up
That I’m no stranger to your stranger’s smile.
I’ve gained a certain familiarity with names
And unfamiliar faces from the midnight mile.

It was around this time, the middle years of college, that my assaults on taste extended into other languages in a serious way. My notebooks started crawling with longa and brevia, defective iambus and elegy, the disjointed limbs of Martialian epigrams on teachers. For a professor with an esteem for Zimmerman,

Quomodo discipulus Thomae fert classibus alpha?
Ille equidem ferto semer amore Dylan.

For another, now deceased, with a habit of banging the table to emphasize points,

Albertus sapiens est grave mente manuque
Qui sic sit mensis discipulisque ⏑⏓ 

And here I was at a loss—I wanted to put “terror,” but that was the wrong shape; a page of arduous scribbling shows substitutions, scratch-outs, reorderings. At some point I noticed the defective caesura and became unhappy with the dubiously adverbial “grave,” and the little couplet was pulled like a doomed ship into a maelstrom of furious ink, never to re-emerge.

What emerges from all this dross? A certain innocency, perhaps—innocency of ear, certainly—but more prominently a taste for melodrama and un-self-conscious sentimentality. It turns out, I was a romantic. It is no accident that my poetic readings preferred the antique; my awareness of English verse stopped with Richard Wilbur, and my real preferences and familiarity always lay in the more distant past, with Donne, Milton, Byron, and Eliot. (It was not until much later that I came into the heroical everyday of Philip Larkin, and I began to grow up.) The worlds for which and from which I wanted to write verse was dead, long dead—and, in some cases, so were their languages.

Heidegger writes about the temple at Paestum and the idea of past art. No one today could produce the temple at Paestum, no matter how much he admires it. The poetry I loved was past art, a dead form; everything I tried to write was born dead. Its necrosis spread into my life. (I reread that and think that perhaps my melodrama isn’t entirely gone.) At that age, an ill-defined but real and often urgent dissatisfaction permeated everything. The girls and then women I wrote poems for did not last, or I didn’t last for them. Worse, I was not hailed as a genius. None of the little magazines accepted my poems. My last verse efforts were an extreme case: a Sanskrit term project in which I translated several Sappho fragments into correct but unlovely classical arya verses. My teachers (all women) were polite but unmoved by this display of technique. I was just no good.

Incompetence can be a blessing. If I had been any good, I’d have been stuck in this weird little backward-facing posture indefinitely. Instead, the best thing possible happened: I had to get a job. Journalism is a safe discipline for romantics; it keeps us chained to the present. I have never written my wife any poetry. Nor do I intend to. I’m on a winning streak with her, and I’m afraid of breaking it.