In the fretful year following my MFA in creative writing, one of the first jobs I acquired was as copy editor for a small developmental firm on Milk Street, near Boston Harbor. Unable to find a publisher for my graduate thesis, the market non-existent for a recent graduate lacking a book, I entertained the thought that I might never work in academia again. I programmed poems into my screen saver, which would sadly flicker on the monitor while I slept at my desk, or while I was at lunch, wandering through Boston market, listening to the language of the hawkers, walking as far as the North End to listen to the Italian Americans speak the Sicilian dialects I used to hear in my own neighborhood growing up. One day, sitting in front of Paul Revere’s house, eating falafel in a small park where the Catholic school kids play at lunchtime, I suddenly apprehended how little I could express what it was to be American, let alone one of its poets.
I know I wanted wonder at the center of my work again. I know this because on a lark, in June of 1995, I began to inquire seriously about jobs abroad. Through a foundation that hired teachers on yearly contracts, and by good luck—and good timing—I did finally acquire a teaching position in the small industrial city of Frydek-Mistek out in the Eastern recesses of the Czech Republic. Next thing, I was sitting on my bus from Prague, with all of my possessions thrown into the soaked cargo trunk underneath me. A girl asked the bus driver to stop so she could pee in the woods near Novy Jicin. The bus was filled with students and grandmothers, their hair wrapped in babushkas. Over each town loomed its various factory stacks, its architectural features indistinguishable from the rest. Even my city, Frydek-Mistek, seemed indistinguishable.
I’d have to learn everything over: how to ask directions, how to answer the phone, how to get a haircut, how to find a flat, how to open a bank account, how to silence a class of screaming Czechs, how to barter for a deal at the open market, how to say “excuse me,” how to say “screw you,” how to handle the police when filing residence papers, how to tell the doctor “I have a sore throat,” how to order a meal, how to send it back. One is born into innocence again. Foreign sounds and ways which seemed quaint at first soon begin to engulf, try the patience, make one yearn in homesickness for a diner to appear miraculously on the road to Brno. But the diner doesn’t appear.
An American teacher in a neighboring village and I realized together one day that we were in fact the village idiots of our respective towns. By that I mean everyone knew who we were, and about our “problem.” Our problem was reliance. To live we had to rely on the sympathy of shop assistants, bank tellers, postal workers, and of course food servers. The feeling of wonder soon faded under the wealth of details the foreigner must contend with, first and foremost language. But the experience of the village idiot is not altogether without epiphany, as Rilke’s great poem demonstrates:
The Idiot’s Song
They’re not in my way. They let me be.
They say that nothing can happen to me.
Nothing can happen. All things flow
from the Holy Ghost, and they come and go
around that particular ghost (you know)—,
No, we really mustn’t imagine there is
any danger in any of this.
If course, there’s blood.
Blood is the hardest. Hard as stone.
Sometimes I think that I can’t go on—.
Oh look at that beautiful ball over there:
red and round as an Everywhere.
Good that you made it be.
If I call, will it come to me?
How very strange the world will appear,
blending and breaking, far and near:
friendly, a little bit unclear.
(trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Forever outside of the Apollonian, logical system of the everyday, the idiot observes that our human scope of understanding is absurd. He achieves what Rilke called repose, a state of letting go and receiving without attachment. Truly, to live in a community and speak none of its words, one learns repose, learning to see no “danger in any of this.” Every day is like walking blind with intensified hearing—though not for words, which are as yet a string of unintelligible syllables—but sounds, tone, the rising and falling in the human voice, the little upturned squeak that means “I’m asking you something,” the monotone rattle that means “Get out of my way,” the slow, patronizing scream that means “If I speak loudly enough, you’ll understand,” the flip-flop tone that means “Is the answer yes, or no?” One begins to recognize sounds before words, words before lines of phrases, and lines before ideas.
The fact is, in that new environment, everything, even language, seemed an appropriate subject matter for a poem. In that state of overload, I couldn’t decide what I should keep or cut. What was interesting simply because it was unusual? What was interesting because it communicated on many levels of consciousness? This question forced me to focus on words alone—the foreign environment soaked into my daily writing, but I found myself more and more concerned with sounds. The unknown, the uncharted, I decided, was the art, and by embracing the uncertainty (even if it meant failure), I knew I was a participant in the game.
I want to call this geography because voice and subject are intimately linked to the physical where-you-are and the where-you-have-been. Poetry is history. Within the great poetry of any era are locked both its compromises and its revolutionary thought. In America especially, the overwhelming expansion and development of the frontier influenced who we were and are as writers. Between 1803 and 1850, with Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and later with the spoils of the Mexican American War, America’s border extended suddenly into wild country, dragging with it our collective imagination. Little wonder that Whitman should be the product of that unprecedented expansion:
Endless unfolding of words of ages!
And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.
A word of the faith that never balks,
Here or henceforward it is all the same to me, I accept Time absolutely.
It alone is without flaw, it alone rounds and completes all,
That mystic baffling wonder alone completes all.
Whitman’s ideology is very similar to Rilke’s Idiot’s: Both speakers are baffled and filled with praise for that which they cannot understand. Both accept the “completeness” of what Whitman calls “all.” Both find truth within the realm of the imagination alone, from which rises the word. For Whitman reality is made material by the word, the word “en-mass,” words ranging continuously outward. The land, he suggests, is like the word, an extension of the unfolding mystery and wonder from which we came. In Whitman the words jut outward like the wilderness, so that one finds oneself “Surrounded, detached,” as he writes elsewhere, “in measureless oceans of space,/ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them…”
The irony of Whitman’s big-hearted sentiment is that it is also our curse: it leaves us disconnected with the land because we are ever, by nature, lighting out for elsewhere. The land to the American sensibility is what we win from it, create with it, accomplish by it; it never exists on its own. As an American writer I feel I am always waving my hands behind the scene, saying “here I am,” or I’m right there in the picture summoning up the names and values of things. Truly, I feel compelled to do so; the literary quarterlies and book publishers encourage me to reinvent the land, to re-present, to real-ize it as one of Whitman’s children. That is not to say we should criticize the poetry of our time. It would be just as ridiculous to criticize an Elizabethan for writing in accentual syllabic verse. Fused inside every individual’s perceptions and daily regimen is a testament of the pacts by which that person lived. And in the finest lyric of this century, Whitman’s expansive language and vision have borne some truly memorable poets.
American writer Jim Barnes is an example, at his best, of the kind of poet who is able to juggle Whitman’s blessings and curses. I met him while I was teaching creative writing at Ostrava University. In the spring of 1996, we received word that “an American Indian poet,” would be coming to Ostrava to read his work; the department was to host his visit. The poet was Jim Barnes. In his work I noted more of his separation from, not his connection with, the Native American tradition, though, like a ghost that is felt in the house but not seen, the past is deeply present in each poem. Consider these lines from “After the Great Plains:”
Nothing remains the same in this long land.
Bird, fox, gully, grass, all are history
as soon as the moon rises or the wind climbs,
tales told by shadows leaning toward a vista
few eyes discern.
What strikes the windshield hardest as you drive
across is haze, distance claiming being
as absolute as the grasshoppers crushed on
the glass. There is no sameness to a land
that paints itself
different each dawn. The wind in your hair
today becomes a mouse’s breath four states
beyond tomorrow. The river you ford could not
be any river. Particular, it flows through
the heart of the land.
After the great plains, you are not the same.
The lovely edge of this poem comes from its play on sameness and change. Each stanza establishes a five or six beat line and finishes with a curt two beat line. So rhythmically it is doing exactly what the words suggest: it establishes expectations, then re-negotiates them. When we read this poem in class, one of my Czech students made the very fine remark that, having traveled through the Midwest, she felt the Great Plains never changed, that they went on and on and on, seemingly forever. Underneath Barnes’ poem is the mythological disappointment all Americans—Native American or not—suffer at the loss of certainty. Even such a vast and imposing certainty (that the Great Plains do not change) is challenged by American life. Wind becomes a mouse’s breath. Clarity fails.
David Keplinger is the author of eight poetry collections, including Ice (Milkweed Editions, August 2023) and Another City (Milkweed, 2018), which won the UNT Rilke Prize. His books of translations include The Art of Topiary by Georg Büchner Prize winner Jan Wagner and Forty-One Objects by Danish poet Carsten René Nielsen, a finalist for the 2020 National Translation Prize. Keplinger directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University, where he teaches courses in poetry writing and literary translation. (updated 7/2023)