"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

While Standing on One Leg

There is a famous Talmudic story of a man who came successively to the leaders of the two houses of interpretation of the Torah with the following request: “Please teach me the essence of the Torah while I can stand on one leg.” Rabbi Shammai, known for the authoritative justice of his interpretations, took up a stick and beat the man out of the house for impertinence. Hearing the same request, Rabbi Hillel, known for his leaning toward the merciful in his interpretations, said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Go learn.”

Mutatis mutandis, I thought of them one evening when a former student called as I was about to rush out the door to a social function. He suggested that we talk the next day but asked if he could pose a quick question before I hung up. “Of course,” I said, and he said, “How does one write a good poem?” “Ha!” was my reply. “You call that a quick question? I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Later that night when I couldn’t sleep, I composed the following poem to serve for reply. I hope it leans toward Hillel.

There once was a poet named Speed,
Who suddenly felt a great need
For help from the muse
When words that he’d choose
(But seeming to bloom) went to seed.

A year and a day did he plead
And swear he would follow her lead
Till she sent a hint:
“Work on without stint;
My visits are not guaranteed.”

Thus humbled, the poet named Speed
Returned to his writing desk, freed
Of childish notions
That shortcuts through oceans
Of ink could help him to succeed.

Now, chastened but hopeful, when Speed
Sits down his word gardens to weed,
He knows anytime,
Muse willing, his rhyme
Could blossom as flower from seed.

Robert Lax said to Thomas Merton, “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.” Writing a good poem is a bit different: It takes two, the poet and his muse. But the muse cannot be compelled. She may be invoked or appear uninvited, but she can dwell only where a place is prepared for her.