by Holly Case
A few years ago I found among my effects fourteen typewritten pages of prose fastened together by a rusty staple. A relic from the summer of 1996, the text was a guide to reading poetry. “It is impossible for me to write anything about the explication of poetry without pontificating a bit,” it began. The author was L., then a masters student in English literature at one of the state universities.
L. and his wife lived in a dark, forever-damp colossus of a barn that sat isolated on a flat plot in a shallow valley, close enough to the James River that it was called a neighborly “Jim.” There was a vacant dance hall upstairs in what had once been a hayloft, and downstairs living quarters that flooded perennially, their polychrome carpet mingling with Jim’s riverbed in a lavish, whiffy delta. L. wrote his master’s thesis there, as well as the epistolary exegesis on poetry for a young me.
That summer our separate holding patterns intersected in my parent’s two-story living room, which we were hired to paint while waiting for real life to begin. As the heat rose each day, I got crankier and L. grew more avuncular. Often the subject turned to poetry, his spiritual homeland but an exotic destination to me. After listening to him go on about iambs and enjambments and “-ameters,” I likely lost patience and told L. he’d have to begin at the beginning. Intent as he was on becoming an English teacher, he must have taken my defensiveness as a challenge. Shortly thereafter I got the packet.
What he had given me was a manual of poetic hermeneutics written in the style of a Protestant Bildungsroman. “Reading poetry is hard work, at least it is for me,” he wrote, “and the struggle begins with accepting a grim responsibility.” To read the treatise is to watch L. hack his way through thickets of interpretation—Duchamp, MacLeish, and a certain James Juba (“a Ph.D. candidate and a hulking, bearded, genius of a homosexual”)—while passing through phases of enchantment and despair. There follows a hard-won delineation of the difference between “analysis” and “explication,” a “smoldering hatred of that narrow-minded analytical term, ‘hidden meaning,’” and a definition: “A poem is…intentionally crafted to communicate something from one person to another.”
I spent many an hour trying to glean the “hidden meaning” of these words. If poetry was a message passed from poet to reader, what then was the elucidation of poetry? Not a message, I had to conclude, but a key to reading messages. Not meaning, but a way of deciphering meaning. A skill to be honed for later use.
The paint dried and the summer ended. L. and his wife moved to the West Coast and I to Eastern Europe. I was vaguely aware that he had gotten a job somewhere in California and was living his dream of teaching English at a public school in a struggling district, trying to make a difference. Years later I found myself seated next to him at a wedding dinner back home. I asked about his job. He told me he had quit and was studying to become a certified public accountant.
L.’s poetic treatise includes a ten-step aid to poetic illumination. (Step ten: “Assume there is a reason for everything.”) I asked him many times what happened in California, but was only given rough outlines: tragedy, monstrosity, death. “The world is actually populated with a fair number of honest-to-god monsters and they walk among us and they do the most horrible things imaginable,” was all he would say. (Step nine: “ARGUE: Discussion nearly always results in clarification.”) “Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked him another time on the phone. “No.”
L. is no stranger to tragedy, monstrosity, and death. “I’ve been hospitalized more times than you’ve had hot breakfast,” he once told me. He mentioned three dozen visits to the emergency room during his youth. “Mostly blows to the head.” His father died before he reached his teens, and his mother was largely absent. By his own account L. spent the period from age ten to seventeen engaging in bare-knuckle fights and running with rough company. “I had a circle of about a dozen friends in high school,” he recalled. “Each of them is dead now.” There followed a list of names (Dave, Jeff, Hank…) and causes (drugs, drugs, prison fight…). I wondered to myself at his use of the word “each.” Why not “all”? (Step two: “Read the syntax literally.”)
After a guided turnaround, the young L. had taken his first hit of poetry in the form of Petrarch’s sonnets during his freshman year of college. “There was something in the English of the octave and the turning of the sestet,” he told me during a phone conversation. “This rigid, perfect, cage-like structure in the verse; I didn’t have the tools to name it at the time, but I could feel it. And at every line I found myself pushing against that cage, trying to get out. The sentiment expressed by the poem was greater than the cage that was created and I was caught up in that tension.”
There followed another long silence until I re-discovered the treatise. When I sent L. a scan of it, he elaborated on its origins, described the Brother daisy-wheel electric typewriter on which he had written it, claimed to have “banged it out”—glossary and all—in about three hours, and vowed that everything he had put down was still in his head. (Step seven: “DO NOT RELY ON THE NOTES IN ANNOTATED ANTHOLOGIES!!!!”)
At one point L. and I wrote a few flip poems via email, alternating lines and exchanging parenthetical slights.
And do not hear snow water going down culverts (rhyme that, sucker!)
Wearing gutter tin so thin it hurts (sucker yourself!)
It proved hard to reach him during the months before tax time. (Step six: “Remember that poems exist in time, and times change.”) He worked twelve-hour days and weekends: “corner office, six-figure salary, doing business with the lead-pipe cruelty…” I could tell poetry was still on his mind, though, when he pointed out with self-satisfied elation that “IRS” was a slant rhyme of “IRIS” (ISIS). Or when he posted Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” to his Facebook page:
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
“I make my bread by counting beans, but I have time to read poetry and play music,” he told me, though he confessed to having let his subscription to Poetry magazine lapse at some point (“the poems look like columns of newsprint and read like overwrought prose”). The only salvation, he opined, would be a reset to around 1951.
That was mid-March 2015. By the end of the month L. had declared his solemn intention to seek alternative employment once the April 15 deadline was behind him. “I’m done with public accounting.” (Step four: “Be willing to be surprised.”)
April 15 came and went. L. called a few days later. “I am more than likely to vanish into the woods for an unspecified period of time,” he warned, and told me about how he had once spent twenty-six days in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back, a pocket knife, and a water filter. Then at length he spoke about salads made from miner’s lettuce, upland cress and shaggy-mane mushrooms, beds fashioned from two armfuls of young pine branches, the facing-down of bears, the dodging of bison and elk by running (artfully) around trees. And poetry? I wondered. “I have been known to recite many things in the wilderness.”
We’ve spoken a few times since. He made partner at the accounting firm and started working even more hours. (Step eight: “Take a poem on its own terms: adjust to the poem, don’t try to bend it to represent emotions you are feeling. Listen to the poem’s ideas and avoid imposing your own on the work.”)