The work that makes us one
When I was much younger, and first approaching the vocation of poetry, I was awed and somewhat disturbed by the profound alonenessm it demanded. Had I the courage to spend a lifetime struggling to perfect an art and a vision with no one else's help, guidance, shared inspiration? Could one person trust his own mind so devoutly that it could steer a life and a life's creation in ultimate solitude? Teachers -- true teachers, who instigate the hunger to learn -- are both rare and brief companions. Critics too often compound the burden instead of shouldering it beside you. Other writers, I reasoned, would be bound by their own insularity. I wondered: how could anyone survive the challenge?
It is only of late that I've come to believe that the real challenge of art is not the aloneness -- nothing so easy as that. The test is linking the solitary self to the vast world of selves via the delicate scaffolding of language. The poet must construct his private dwelling in order to nurture the home that has no boundaries.
One of the clues to this reconsideration came to me by way of the poets of medieval Japan and the idea of linked verse.m In art books I used to come across scroll paintings like "the Thirty-six Master Poets" pictured here, and I would wonder what they could be about. Musicians, of course, needed to band together to create a symphony, a chamber group, or even a duet. Architects, sculptors, muralists, and printmakers most often assembled a team to produce their larger efforts. But meetings of poets? Gatherings? Whole conventions? What could poets be coming to share; what work could these supreme soloists perform together?
Besides sharing the talk of the day, their stories and laughter and human commiseration, the poets would gather to create aggregate poetry. Linked versem (renga) -- a forerunner to the most popular Japanese form, the haikum -- was a string of short poems written in rotation by a small group of poets. Originally the settings consisted of a mere handful to poems, but the form soon developed into chains of more than 100 pieces. The "rules" for linked verse specified the length and number of lines, and called for each poem in the series to be joined to the preceding by "witty association or verbal play." As the form matured, he connection between stanzas became mroe subtle and the relationship to the whole creation more intuitive and profound. Each poet would add one more link that caught up some of the tone, idea, or vision of the chain and focused or broadened its boundaries. The culmination of this process was a kaleidoscopic expanse of human discovery formed, not by one poet's perspective, but by the conjunction of many minds.
Here, in the age of "Me, Myself, I," such a cooperative undertaking seemed painfully necessary. I began to experiment with this form with several poet friends and the result, though not always great art, spawned in each of us a curious brand of wonder. Accustomed to leading a poem with one's personal graps , we discovered the new sensation of having a shared work arise in our midst.
As in the ancient tradition, the first stanza of the poem had to establish the season and an emotional cornerstone for the whole series to build on. We tailored the more stringent rules of the Japanese style to suit the needs of American speech and free verse, simply requiring short imagistic stanzas. And the poem began.
The poem on the opposite page, "City Spring," is one of the products of this collaboration. Can you feel how the piece searches, reaches, quietly extends itself? This poem begins with an urban setting, a scene that could take place in many varied city lives. The first section develops a concrete situation with its own special emotional tone. Traveling then (by hand, mail, telephone wire), the poem makes its way to the next poet of the group. Perhaps the writer's eye turns inward now, coaxing a subtle self-awareness out into the scene. But the vision leaps again as a new set of eyes joins it, and the third poet focuses on a different dimension of the metropolis. There is no plot line to guide the story along; the unifying thread is the communality of the experience. Scene by scene, voice by voice, the city's humanity unfolds.
Unlike what you might expect, the stanzas don't war with the poets' styles and voices don't vie for attention. Their distinct characters seem to establish a freewheeling harmony. Each image casts light on the one before; each verse calls forth the one to follow. The governing spirit is simply: "seem -- more clearly, more deeply."
The poem circles the group several times, growing with each station on its route. Now it is completed. It is impossible for me to judge the work with the criticism or praise of a personal creation; it seems to be mine, yet not mine. It is like standing alone on a hillside -- but hearing other voices humming in my ear, pointing out precious details and overlooked shadows and lights. The vision has grown with dimensions and interrelations no one of the poets could have designed. The astonishment is not any one contribution, but the sharedm perspective that is all about us. There are now four pairs of eyes, four hearts , reporting on one encompassing mind. For a moment, aloneness is superseded by . . . some unnamable unity that each of our words and works struggles to affirm.
When an individual takes up his or her solitary work -- making poems or bicycles or loaves of bread -- this special sense of wholeness is essential for any meaning to reside there. And it is not only the physical sharing of labor that binds our work. The excited pitch of conversation, the adding-on to someone else's effort, the simple pride in completion, or the small glimpse of a fuller dream, all set the separate lives into unison. It is that vision of solidarity, I believe, that balances even a poet's solitary craft. Robert Frost's lines tell that story:
Men work together, I told him from the heart,
whether they work together or apart.m
The finest works always convey an unspoken: "Now, please -- your turn."