Window seat

In the old days it would have been called a ''crack'' train - the once-a-day special pounding south from Toronto to New York City. The railway company, with a certain poetic flourish, has given it a name: the Maple Leaf. These days, however, eleven hours and thirty-two minutes somehow seems less ''crack'' than it used to; and when I boarded the Maple Leaf at Albany the other evening, it was clear that there weren't many of us who still shared that delicate mix of nostalgia, civility, and leisure necessary for train travel in an airport age.

So I had, from the outset, half a car to myself. Now, that's a disorienting circumstance: I've been wedged into so many coach-class airline seats in this country, and settled for so many aisle seats on British Rail trains, that I've come to think of traveling as a gregarious and demotic sport. Suitcase in hand, I wandered down the empty, darkened coach (they were changing engines, and we boarded in the semi-gloom of emergency lights), tried several locations that were not to my taste, and finally came upon an alcove whose two pairs of seats faced each other. I chose the forward-facing window seat, hoping the lights inside might be subdued enough to let me glimpse the Hudson River.

But the train pulled out, and the lights came up full, and the window was nothing but a gloss of reflections. I had books and papers at my side, yet nothing called out to be read. So I sat and thought. That, after all, is what trains are good for: promising ample time, they are havens for procrastinators, dreamers, and those who have found the link between idleness and insight.

I found myself recalling a similar alcove a few years ago on a train from London to Scotland. I was with my wife (who likes sitting forward rather than backward) and we were rolling through Yorkshire pastureland in broad daylight. I had recently come (through the bizarre logic that sometimes characterizes changes in career) out of an academic life teaching poetry and into journalism; and I recall thinking that, given my newfound occupation, I was in the wrong seat. Looking backward, I saw only what had just gone by. It occurred to me that I should be sitting where my wife was - that journalism, wedded to the workaday world and intent on spotting trends before they crest, should take the seat on the train facing forward. The backward-looking seat - leisured, contemplative, and rooted in an academic turn of mind that ponders the ever-deepening past - belongs to history. To be sure, both journalists and historians do a good deal of rubbernecking over their shoulders. But their natural pose is straight ahead - the journalist keen to identify the speck on the horizon before it hurtles into the present, the historian content to wait until the massive object that once filled the window recedes and takes its place among the other objects of the landscape.

The metaphor came and went, I recall, and I had only time for a tremor of suspicion at its overly neat two-part structure before something - a herd of sheep, perhaps - sparked a comment from my wife and I craned round to see. So it was not until the other night along the Hudson that I came back to the analogy. What was it, I thought, that had made me slightly uneasy?

I was pondering that point when, for reasons I never did learn, the lights on the Maple Leaf suddenly blacked out. The train rolled on undisturbed, and soon a maintenance man clanked up the aisle and disappeared into the rear of the diesel engine. I looked out the window. There, dimly lit under the cloudy night, was the river, and beyond it the lights of a town on the far shore and the low mountains so beloved of the painters of the Hudson River School.

It was a glorious sight - mysterious, evocative, yet altogether gentle. I spent some moments looking straight out the window, nose close to the glass. Then, with a jolt made all the ruder by its absolute silence, the lights came on again. River, town, mountains, and sky vanished. I was staring, instead, at a reflection of myself.

Startled, I drew back - but not before, in an instant's illumination, I saw what had troubled me in the earlier analogy. What it lacked, I saw, was a third element: the sense of the now. If journalism looks forward and history backward, who is watching that illusive evanescence we call the present?

With the question came the answer: the poet.

I sat back with the same relief Dr. Watson must have felt when Sherlock Holmes explained a missing link in an unsolved case. The poet, indeed - the one who catches in sharp detail that moment when the future is just sliding into the past - must always sit sideways, face to the glass. He can glance forward (more readily than the historian) or backward (with greater ease than the journalist) - but only at the risk of losing forever the fleeting image of the now.

I pondered that idea, slowly, carefully. And as I did, I began to see why I had been content to leave the haven of the academy for the hurly-burly of journalism. For modern poetry, I realized, tends to miss the mark. Poetry has always, perhaps, ridden the Midnight Special of the mind. But for centuries the lights inside were dim: and if the poet's own face showed up in the glass, the reflection was not bright enough to obscure the vision of the world beyond. But these days, it seems, the lights inside are at full glare; the poet, searching vainly for an outer world, sees only himself. Solipsistic, self-enwrapped, he comes to see poetry less as a charting of the world's play upon the soul than as a mirror for the ego.

Dear reader, if I have chosen journalism, do not take me for a Philistine. I love poetry - I would not write you this way if I did not. Nor, by ''poetry,'' do I mean some hideously impersonal versifying of a merely objective world. I know full well that the self really does matter - that true poetry is born at those illusive borders where the river of individual consciousness laps against the world's shore, where future dissolves into past.

No, I am only calling for balance, for an art that sees beyond the self. I long for a poetry that looks through the same window and into the same world that the journalist and the historian see and know. We are all of us, after all, on the same train.

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