Okay, I may have a problem. I am a recovering lawyer and now aspiring playwright and poet. Is it possible that I miss time sheets? “Every six minutes” for a lifetime?
People used to say: “You are what you eat,” but what if you are what you “do” or have done?
Maybe I’m getting worse. At the law firm, I made a rule that if anybody could finish a story that I was telling I would stop telling it.
Now I don’t care. If I can get a second laugh or even a third from the same story I will repeat it, again and again. (And I’m going deaf so I’m the only one who doesn’t have to hear it.) It could be senility. It could be I’ve lost any sense of embarrassment, but it definitely demonstrates no merciful memory loss, at all.
The other thing is, even in retirement I must “work.” I have grown even more intolerant of delay because everything I’ve written should be on stage by now! Damn it!
What has happened to me?
In the past year, I have written or rewritten three plays. One (Onaje) has been produced in New York, two will be produced in New York (Vox Populi, for which I wrote the libretto, and The Grace of God & The Man Machine). Another, The Naked House Painting Society, is looking for a home.
Yes, I used to be impatient as a lawyer but now my stuff is not produced fast enough? Do I still need litigation? The need to measure work on massive conflicts in tight building blocks of measured time along with a new project have made me afraid.
I have started working on a poem based on Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno has 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto. That in itself was my wake-up call. How sick is this?
The law can definitely create “delusions of grandeur.” Might it also imprint the structured, ordered, anal impact of time sheets?
Is it now that I require 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto? Seriously? But I haven’t given into it yet, I think.
Still, as I started the Prologue and began to “write about what I know,“ I found a schizophrenic litigator’s theme begging for harmony. This is how it starts:
With first light, or birth, or perhaps before/
And maybe after, comes the dialogue:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. No monologue./
Two nagging voices in constant conflict./
One “as doubt“ the other “as hope,“ both spent/
Bickering on some path I did not pick/
Living the daily schedule of events/
As I wake and wonder where each day went:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. What event,/
What plea, what prayer from my central core,/
What keeper of my life long travel log/
Can cure me of this endless dialogue?/
I start with a sonnet? How sick is this?
T.S. Eliot said:
“evenings, mornings, afternoons,/
I have measured out my like with coffee spoons;”/
And the poor man was just a banker.
Still, it will be funny and too long for me to repeat, so that may be progress.
Perhaps because I am older, or perhaps because I am now a playwright and a recovering lawyer, I decided I would make a commitment to a more spiritual Christmas this year.
I committed to finding a passage out of the comfortable consumerism, “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the hula hoop, and into a less self-deceptive and more spiritually aware holiday.
My problem is I excel at self-deception.
In the past, I have always believed that I was sufficiently into the festivities to fool myself, and I would let the transformative spiritual moment gently pass.
No, in truth I am a wizard of self-deception.
I fool myself in little ways all year long as I artfully keep my “spirituality” — like my “modesty“ — at bay.
For example, I have a room right next to my study that contains the framed memorials of the important accomplishments (of which I am so very proud) from my life as a lawyer and playwright.
When I enter this room, I am reminded that I don’t take myself too seriously, because it also contains a sink, a toilet and extra toilet paper. But of course, it is not a private bathroom. If nature calls, our guests are forced to see what I am proud to believe I have made of myself, framed and on the walls when they lock the bathroom door behind them.
I have employed this same gift of willfulness and self-deception when I have prepared myself to let the holidays gently pass by each year.
But as I have said, I think things have changed now that I’m a playwright and recovering lawyer.
I have been forced to see things less as an advocate and more as an observer.
A judge or jury renders a verdict, but there is no redemptive celebration thereafter. Rectifying and resolving social wrongs, if that happens at all, offers no thought of spirituality and in my case, may regrettably explain the bathroom.
But as a playwright, I have come to observe that my plays are meaningless unless the actors commit to giving them life and the audience commits to embracing the performance and the work.
So I have observed that some ethereal things do not come to pass at all unless there is belief, commitment, and then action.
This year, I will find the time for that individual commitment and action on Christmas Day. After I celebrate the joy of being with my family, I will take a walk — perhaps just a little walk — out by myself alone and consider the universe, which I do not understand. I’ll stop for a moment and realize that even if I have no belief in a heaven or a hell, I accept that cold hand of “grace,” which is what so much of religion and spiritual faith is about. And then when I return back home, I’ll try not to see if anyone is locked and reading in the bathroom.
Working on the libretto for the operetta, Vox Populi, has brought me back to my love of poetry.
My favorite poems create a universe with a few words. Two good poems with a similar subject, put side by side, can introduce the creator of the other.
Like a painter organizes color and shape with his or her brushstrokes, the poet organizes a vision with the sound and rhythm of words:
“Whose woods these are I think I know./
His house is in the village though;/“
The brushstrokes? The sound and rhythm of these two lines? Speak them out loud. They are like the rocking of a hammock they are so smooth and quiet.
In complete contrast however:
“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/
I sought it daily for six weeks or so./“
Brush strokes? This is not like the rocking of a hammock, it is like riding a three-legged horse.
Those are the opening two lines of two completely different poems by two completely different people. Now let’s look at the last two lines of these two poems.
“And miles to go before I sleep./
And miles to go before I sleep./“
Brush strokes? The same rocking hammock. Compared to:
“I must lie down where all the ladders start,/
In the foul rag-and- bone shop of the heart./“
That must’ve been a hell of a rough ride? You are correct.
They are both about the end of life. The first by Robert Frost is entitled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the second by WB Yeats is in titled “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”
Both are about “acceptance,” it seems to me, but that acceptance comes in completely different, very personal forms. Frost’s, in a late evening snowy New Hampshire woods, and Yates’, with the casting off his “Circus Animals” (his life’s work of Irish themes).
The libretto for the operetta is meant to be baudy and entertaining. My poetry, on the other hand, is a personal statement that is directed from me to the reader. It’s from my heart.
I have placed links to both poems below for your review and your own contrasts and conclusions. Feel compassion for these two people. They are writing because they are reaching out to you.
As I turned away from Degas’ statuette of a dancer at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last week, I almost missed the imitators. The imitators were lining up, looking at the statuette and striking a pose. The reaction was not mocking and somehow not disrespectful. The imitators were reacting to a man-made object created out of his imagination. The interaction is what mattered.
When I was in high school, I read a line from W. H. Auden that said “poetry makes nothing happen.” It stopped me in my tracks. It was the late ’60s. I wanted to do things that made things happen. I became a lawyer. I made things happen.
Now I know I misread the line. Auden was making fun of all those things that appear to make things happen but really don’t. Art makes things happen in that it offers the chance to interact with a created object from another person’s imagination.
But why does that matter? It seems that at the center of our existence we travel a number of years in the mundane pursuit of what we need to survive, but art offers a conversation with another who is, or has been, on that same journey. It offers, but does not demand, this conversation.
In the same gallery, hordes of people were moving from picture to picture, cell phones out, photographing the exhibit as they hurried by. They had not accepted the offer. They were just capturing the object.
The imitators had accepted the offer. They were interacting with the Degas’ statuette.
The conversation can happen in many forums but it is always between the artist and the self. It can come through some or all the senses. It can be theoretical. It can come with an artist’s demand for your attention, as with Andy Warhol asking you to notice common objects, but for me it is always a very personal person-to-person communication.
It can also be environmental. On my way home, I noticed the statues in the park and the park in the city as I walk through. The art of the statue inside the art of the park surrounded by the mundane existence of the traffic and commerce of the city.
I found Auden’s quote:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
In Memory of W.B.Yeats
(d. Jan. 1939)
He says all this better than I but I had to learn it for myself.
As a lawyer I was your advocate, but now as a Poet my job is to help you see all things differently. For example:
I have a silver gray antique BMW Z3 convertible. It looks like a ridiculous self important go-cart. It has five gears and a stick shift. It is loud. It is very low to the ground and only my head sticks out of the top.
When I drive this car I am publicly on display as a self-confessed idiot. Sort of a clown. Young boys with fresh learner’s permits pull up to me at stop lights, rev their engines, and laugh at me. I should be embarrassed.
But if I tell you, “I know I look like an old man driving a roller skate…” you laugh — but once you’ve imagined me in this car, you look at the car and the old man differently. It may be funny or it may be sad, but as a poet I have that ability to make you see things differently .
It is the ability to break the mold that we all live in and take for granted, again and again and again. The cement truck pours and we instantly take for granted that hardening cement and live with those forms forever. Poetry has the ability to break what is permanent and make it new by presenting it differently.
When I write a poem or a play I am asking you to hear my voice, look through my eyes, and see the “flash” vision that I create out of what we live in and take for granted together. I am driving the same roads, obeying the same traffic lights, and stalled in the same rush-hour traffic as you are. I’m using the same language and your words but I am aware of the sound of the words and the rhythm of our shared language in order to create that “flash” of the vision I want to create: “The old man driving a roller skate.”
That is the poet’s work. I must jackhammer out of existence something you have seen in your imagination, perhaps forever.
Let me give you two “flash” examples. Two quick comic examples from the best Poet of the English language: Shakespeare describes a drunkard who is upchucking on the street as, “Speaking with a full flowing stomach,“ or snidely describes a couple in an illicit affair as, ”being a beast with two backs.” In a “flash,” he can help you imagine what you expect, differently.
The job of the Poet is to bring you back to before the cement truck came into your life.