is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.
The key to this poem’s significance lies, to an unusual degree, in its title, the desperation of which is only a little mitigated by that fulcrum-phrase in the middle: “as if.” My existence didn’t really depend on writing this poem; yet it is about how a writer’s life comes to depend on writing. Behind the poem, underneath and through it, is an unstated feeling of fecklessness and vacancy, the despair that comes from Not Writing. This poem grew out just such a prolonged and frustrated silence (thus the first four words).
The first section, then, is about silence, the silence of death that language can sometimes overcome--particularly the non-biodegradable language of poetry, if only it is good enough. Such goodness is terribly rare (thus the second sentence) and so much of bad art is merely formalized complaining. The importance of choosing the right words and putting them in the best order is what the rest of the paragraph is about.
The second section concerns the physicality of writing. Lectures and memos can be written on a keyboard – the words are weightless and ephemeral - but, for me, stories, essays, and poems always begin with my big black German fountain pen. The Pelikan demanded something German, thus the allusion to Nietzsche and his Will to Power, which he found behind all we humans do, even the meek and selfless. Successful writing provides that addictive “sensation of power” Nietzsche insisted is the only authentic form of happiness.
The third section is about the meaning of Thomas Mann’s dictum that a writer is “one for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” The difficulty is felt acutely by those who want to write and cannot. Writing is easy; Not Writing is hard. This is true of all artistic endeavor, I think, therefore the analogy to disciplined dancers, who suffer in their feet and legs, while the clutz “dances” any old way and doesn’t suffer in the least.
The penultimate section shifts the analogy to music. Musical notation is also a form of writing, or utterance, and, like poetry, a way of overcoming silence. The notes recorded by Bach and Mozart are meant to be performed in a present from which the composer is absent so transcending the silence of silence, and of death.
The last two lines are about Last Words. It seemed to me at the time that every true poem begins as a kind of Last Word. Poets hope the best of these final words will outlast the silence into which they know they are doomed to sink. To write, then, in this sense, truly is a search for the words on which one’s life depends.