On Wednesdays, I’m moving posts from my old blog in anticipation shutting it down…
When my son was young, I learned not to notice his noises. Most of them were cartoonish background, the swishes, clicks, whistles, and growls of a scene he imagined. But I remember one revelatory morning. As I gathered my things for work, I heard a high-pitched squeak and then another and another. By the time I’d reached his room, he was pinching the collar of his shirt with fury and muttering, “Stupid button, stupid button, stupid, stupid, stupid.” In one twist of thumb and forefinger, I buttoned his collar, and he ran downstairs to breakfast.
For me, scenes of petty frustration are commonplace—the buttons that won’t button are in league with itchy tags, slipping socks, and stuck coat zippers. They are part of a larger confederation that includes doors that won’t latch, books that won’t stay open, glasses that hide themselves, DVD menus that slip past the scene you’re trying to reach, and everything that is suddenly and inexplicably broken. As lifeless and blameless as objects are, each can become momentarily a someone, vital and real.
I think of poetry that way—the moment the concrete comes to life.
Some readers of poetry, especially ones infected by the modernist notion that literature must be difficult to be worthy, see poetry as smudgy pictures. Take a clear feeling or idea and blur it, poeticize it by representing ideas in objects or by injecting ambiguity. I sometimes work that way too. However, those efforts rarely bloom. I try too hard to be original, and all is lost. I’m beginning to recognize that success may require understanding originality differently, as having immediate and original impulses, as play.
This idea isn’t original with me. It owes a great deal to Johan Huizinga, the author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, who argued, “To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.” We have to see things anew, uncomplicating them the way my son uncomplicated that button and I’ve uncomplicated my DVD player by cursing at it. Maybe all art has to be play—not meaning-making—to find its natural form.
Huizinga sets play up as the opposite of seriousness, but he prefers “non-seriousness.” Within the context of a game, we play very seriously and intently and—in the moment, at least—regard what we are doing as grave and important. However, that is only within the game; another part of our consciousness recognizes “This is a game” and sees it as different from the rest of our lives.
Huizinga doesn’t equate play with irrationality either. Play is rule-bound, time-bound, and space-bound. Part of a game’s appeal is that, “Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life, it brings a temporary, a limited perfection . . . play has a tendency to be beautiful.” Because of limits, play creates initiates and adherents, people who appreciate and share the beauty of its particular forms.
At school, my son used to play a game called “stadium rounders” cobbled together by a gym teacher. Really, it was kick ball with special and shifting rules suited to the place you played it. If you hit one wall, it was a home run. If you hit a farther wall, two runs. If you kicked the ball and it went through one of the basketball goals, your team automatically won the game and you got to keep the ball. Stadium rounders will not be included in the next Olympic Games. It hasn’t instituted mandatory drug testing. It isn’t “a business.” It began and ended with recess and had more rules than mah jong. It was fun, and nothing like real life. When are you ever sure you have won the game? You never get the ball.
Is poetry like stadium rounders? In Huizinga’s paradigm a writer also enters an arena separate from everything else and, during the time he or she writes, follows “rules” established, if only loosely, by other adherents of the game. Writing is intrinsically valuable; any thought of how someone outside the game might look at this poem or what will become of it intrudes on the play. The best moments of composition occur when critical judgment dissipates. You want to get close to the primal play of imagination, the leaps that create metaphor and personification instead of inventing them. Thinking, “I need a simile here” or “An appositive would make this stanza as long as the others” destroys the moment.
The idea is to suspend life to create.
But how does an artist suspend life, and how does he or she forget The Audience or any formal training? In stadium rounders that’s easy to do. Poetry represents experience; it’s about life outside the poem. It doesn’t leave life. It examines it intently.
And willing innocence into being is like restoring your virginity—psychosis seems required. Huizinga sees that. “As culture proceeds,” he says, “the play element gradually recedes into the background . . . crystallizing as knowledge: folklore, poetry, philosophy, or in the various forms of judicial and social life.” Even he has made play into a bookish concept himself.
And what about ambition? Play is not for anything but itself. Modern poetry, like modern professional sports, and modern visual art, seems quite purposeful and significant. Playing becomes difficult when the player begins to see him or herself from an outside perspective and wonder how good a player he or she might be.
In an essay “Poetry and Ambition,” Donald Hall writes, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems” and cites Keats’ remark, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” Noble thoughts, but they can choke art. To be a good minor leaguer and improve your game, it might be better not to notice you are playing in the minor leagues.
I try to take Huizinga to heart and play. “When art becomes self-conscious,” he says, “it is apt to lose something of its eternal child-like innocence.” I try not to think about being the next coming of T. S. Eliot. I know honor is earned during the game and can’t be willed into existence. Still it’s hard.
Think of those parents shouting from the bleachers who have crossed into another awareness—how your child’s performance is a reflection on your parenting. I’m not judging—seeing your child as yourself is easy to fall into. And it seems so much harder to join in children’s play-spirit.
One morning, my family awoke to find it pouring rain outside. While everyone else was sitting safely at the kitchen table munching on cinnamon toast, I went out to put out the trash and returned nearly drenched. I was an absurd picture. I was spotted with drops, breathing hard, and holding my shirt away from my chest. In response to my children’s stares, I said, “I stepped in a poodle.” They are adolescents now, and they groaned. But I remember a time their chins might have tipped back in laughter. They used to be able to see cartoon cats and dogs fall in every hard rain. If only we could hang onto that picture.