I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed: The Poem as Fine Wine
In X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s fine anthology Literature, there is an exercise in the chapter entitled “Recognizing Excellence” to help students develop taste, a quaint term these days. A Rod Mckuen poem, “Thoughts on Capital Punishment,” juxtaposed with William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” You’re supposed to let the students choose which they like better, and hope they choose the Stafford. My students always chose the Mckuen poem, which begins:
There ought to be capital punishment for cars
that run over rabbits and drive into dogs
and commit the unspeakable crime
of killing a kitty cat still in his prime.
Purgatory, at the very least
should await the driver
driving over a beast.
Eventually, I got tired of arguing with them, something Stafford himself would never have approved of. So I don’t do that anymore.
They add sugar to inferior wine to disguise the taste. Young people, at least, like it better that way. My first taste of wine—Mogen David, from my gentile parents’ fridge, the only kind they ever bought—wasn’t bad, a kind of thicker Kool-Aid, and I can remember some shameful episodes with Boone’s Farm Strawberry when I was a teenager. But true flavor, a combination of good soil and rootstock, vines ripening in strong sun, the right amount of rain, cool nights and misty mornings, has to happen on the vine. Bad poetry is immature wine made of inferior grapes into which the author has dumped sugar, which is handy and cheap. It disguises the imperfections and caters to the sweet tooth of sentimentality. (If work is trite, we compare it to treacle, syrup, saccharine). Sugar is a shortcut past the slow process of letting the environment work in and on the fruit, the willingness (and here I apply the metaphor directly to the process of writing good poems) to let life happen to you for the changes it will provoke in your own psychical chemistry. These changes are not the products of additives, but of time and happenstance. Not every year will be vintage, but every year will have its own character, a blend of sun and rain, wind and drought, heat and cold, that will proclaim where you came from and what made you what you are, or were at that particular time you embodied its climate. The very processes that sometimes happily, and often painfully, form us also make us unique, like Snodgrass’s deformed “Old Apple Trees,” that whisper,
Soon, each one of us will be taken
By dark powers under this ground
That drove us here, that warped us.
Not one of us got it his own way.
Nothing like any one of us
Will be seen again, forever.
Each of us held some noble shape in mind.
It seemed better that we kept alive.
The parables and stories of the Bible recognize the affinities between the cultivation and fermentation of grapes and the slow growth and distillation of spiritual (and artistic) life. Good stewards work in the vineyards. New wine cannot be put into old wineskins. At the marriage at Cana, Jesus turns water into wine, a way of showing that the ordinary can be transformed into the exceptional. Believers drink the communion wine as the very blood of Christ. Poems and wines are essence, which cannot be rushed, but as Hopkins says, “gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil, crushed.”
This is not to say that every good poem, or wine, appeals to every palate. A student came up to me the other day and complained that while she had always thought she liked poetry, she liked only about twenty percent of what we had been reading. I told her she was indeed a lover of poetry with such a high percentage of approval; my own would fall roughly between five and ten percent. No matter how many poems we read, how many of them make, as Dickinson says, the tops of our heads come off, the hairs of our necks rise? We can get all the recommendations we want from Poetry Daily or The Wine Spectator, but even with good stuff, there really is no accounting for taste. Though you can see that poems have merit, and are made from quality grapes, most poems still don’t produce that visceral response we all want to duplicate—that feeling of having a completely new experience for the first time, like that first taste you ever had of a truly good wine, when the inside of your mouth detonated with a new flavor. (Mine was a St. Emilion Bordeaux—with Lobster Thermidor!). The rest of your life is a pursuit of that first experience, like the first time I read “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and decided to try to write a poem myself.
What a world opened up for me with that first taste of good poetry. To borrow a phrase from Northrop Frye, I found a “a whole new field of ignorance.” That particular field became a new vineyard, the mule wandering off couse from the lines I imagined, the plow not quite digging in, but there was excitement in the audacity of trying to grow my own grapes, especially with cuttings from the greats. The grafted vines of our reading and influences are the scions of Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, those poems that grow out of the tradition and then enlarge and enrich it. But we wonder if we have the skills to husband those vines to fruition. Is the soil of our life rich enough?
The narrator of Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man is a creative writing teacher who says he has only two rules in his classes, one of them being “all comments and criticisms are to be directed at the manuscript and not its author,” which he finds frustrating precisely because “what's wrong with any given manuscript is often easily located in the character of its author.” (99) Sometimes I think my hardest task as a teacher is simply, or complicatedly, to remember how young they are, if not in age, then in poetic experience. It has helped that I’ve kept a copy of everything I’ve ever written, and after I’ve had another look at those early poems, I’m a lot more understanding of how little experience students have had. Journals, too, are useful for reacquainting yourself with the callow, pretentious brat you once were. Too often we expect students to leave class with a few cuttings and come back with a good cabernet, forgetting how important aging is. Here is how Charles Ryder describes his own maturation in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted:
Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left
undone or done otherwise…All the wickedness of that time was like
the spirit they mix with pure grape of Douro, heady stuff full of dark
ingredients; it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of
adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders
it undrinkable, so it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is
brought up at last fit for the table. (45)
According to Humphrey Carpenter in The Brideshead Generation, Waugh, just before writing the novel, and fed up with army life, writes in a letter, “I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body.” (351) Carpenter says the novel itself was for Waugh “…a revisiting of the most heightened and vivid feelings of his early years, undertaken with the conscious motive of uncorking and tasting a fine vintage…”(354), and the most beautiful writing of the book, the description of those halcyon Oxford days, was aged for twenty years.
Eudora Welty says, “Don’t write about what you know. Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” It’s good advice, but it requires two things: 1) enough experience to have something to write about (Oscar Wilde says, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”), and 2) enough experience to realize the extent of your own ignorance of what you don’t know about what you know. God bless Dr. Bass for stopping me those many years ago as I walked across campus, and quoting my freshman essay to a colleague, something about the library as a hive where bees go to get nectar of knowledge. How kind he was not to point out that bees bring nectar to the hive, not take it away.
And not only do the vines have to grow and mature, the wine itself must age to break down the bad alcohols, to bring out the furry ripeness of experience reduced to language and allowed to deepen. Too often students illustrate Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but not his “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Donald Hall counsels us to put our new work away somewhere in a drawer and return to it periodically, having let the cool dark do its work. Then the carefully monitored fermentation of review and revision allows us to sip the poem, say it aloud, hold it on our tongue, hold it up to the light hoping to at last see that deep clear ruby of claret, the burgundy of Burgundy, the pale, honeysuckle yellow of Frascati.
In the meantime, while we wait for maturation, we can only keep pouring into the poems of students the sugar of workshop criticism and suggestion, and keep pouring their new wineskins full of the old wine of great poems. As the vines get older, and gnarlier, the wine may someday become vintage, or at least individual. I don’t know about you, but I flatter myself that I am a sturdy, old-growth zinfandel, full-bodied with a touch of tartness and a bite of bramble.