Poetry Rushes Forth
By Colman McCarthy
Sue Lenier writes a poem faster than you can write a check. Measured by quality, it doesn't bounce. In double-quick scrawls that are half-decipherable, she moves her pen over the paper and in less that 20 seconds has completed on eight-line poem.
Other poets agonize over writer's block. Lenier deals with writer's flow. Her bursts of creativity defy the conventional definition: writing is rewriting what you've already rewritten, says Paul Engle, the Iowa teacher and poet. Her talent for one-draft, unrevised verse is among the rarest of creative gifts, but it doesn't come without questions being raised in the margins: what value is it, does spontaneous poetry reflect the heft of creative genius or is it the show of mere literary glibness?
Lenier, a breezy and open spirit, says airily she'll pass up the debate. The 25-year-old Englishwoman, a Cambridge University graduate in the second year of a Harkness Fellowship to study drama and acting at the University of California at Berkeley, is little given to self-analysis about the outrushing naturalness of her poetry. Her 20-second poem, a swiftie written late in the evening in a nook off the grand ballroom of the Claremont Hotel, surprised her. For the past few weeks, she has not been writing regularly. But she had spent the afternoon walking shoeless along an isolated beach below Half Moon Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco on the coastal highroad. If a surge of poetry was to be felt, the evocative scenery would stun it out of anyone.
On the shoreline, she wore a windbreaker and a peach-pink wraparound skirt. There is comeliness to her face, appealingly pretty, as it takes the spray off the surf. Her blond hair, girlish with curls, is tossled in the wind. Lenier, the musical rounded accent of her native northeast Britain, turns to a companion to say that perhaps later in the day, after dusk and dinner, she may be writing a poem.
In the Claremont, Lenier, resting on a sofa too soft by half, speaks of her student days at Clare College in Cambridge. She finished her studies in literature in 1980. While talking on, and making no big deal of it, she writes her poem. When finished, she continues her conversation as though the person who had just been writing were a third member of the group who had appeared suddenly to deliver a poem but then, the work done and done well, slipped away. A few minutes later, beneath the near illegibility, Lenier writes out her words in clearer script. Light that lines like lovers on the houses and empty trees, then lies, shivering, in an empty shift Bereaved by clouds, torn open By the restless rocking of the earth Which, endless, cradles in a lute And, waiting, flakes on empty skaters curdling round the world.
The poem, which Lenier says is about failure, inevitability and a loss of faith, is new. But it adds to a larger work brought together earlier this year in a collection called "Swansongs" (Oleander Press, Cambridge, England). Nearly all the 101 poems in the book were written in spontaneous flows of inspiration, the words remaining on the page unrevised and going to the publisher as first-draft copy.
On the way out of the Claremont, its lobby bulked with overweight people who had come for a diet seminar, Lenier talks about her gift. "I think what happens is that before I start putting pen to paper I've usually got my ideas fairly well worked out already, either consciously or unconsciously. So there's no delay in writing it. I can let the poem go where it wants to. Ninety-five percent of my work is done before I start. From then on, I write it down with an occasional pause for thought or checking or realizing what I just wrote is illegible." She pauses and smiles. "With a long poem, I need a tea break."
But what of the temptation, she is asked, to temper the spontaneity by letting the poem rest on the page for a day or two and then going back to work over it with revisions? "No. I'm often tempted in the heat of the moment to throw it away altogether. I feel that if I waited a day or two and then looked at it again, this is a more likely outcome than revising it."
Despite only one book, Lenier has stirred British critics. Her poetry -- lyrical, romantic in the tradition of Blake and Shelley but with the hard edges of Yeats and Baudelaire -- prompted John Newton, a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, to say that Lenier "has much more of the great qualities of poetry than anyone currently writing in England. I think she's extraordinary. There may be things in history that match her gift for spontaneity, but I've never come across anything like it, especially not in English poetry."
Newton, who had Lenier in his classes for three years, confesses to having no idea how his former student came upon her gift. Other admirers don't know either, but they have come forward in praise. "Her poetry," writes John Rathmell, a Cambridge lecturer in English, is marked by "fierce imaginative energy and a total indifference to academic notions of what constitutes a 'contemporary' idiom." Another critic, Malcolm Bowie of Queen Mary College, London, said, "We're here watching an important writer emerging -- all in a splendid surge of creativity -- towards the fullest and finest exercise of those gifts."
The acclaim isn't universal. In head-on collision with Lenier's admirers, Christopher Reid wrote in The Sunday Times of London that she was "a striving, clumsy, humorless imitator of antiquated modes, with nothing original to say, but an earnest desire to make impressive gestures."
Lenier is grateful for the notices from both sides. The risk of writing, she says, is to go for broke with reactions: "Poetry shouldn't be safe. It shouldn't hide. It should expose. I would rather be a poet with a custard pie on my face than skulking in a corner."
Nothing, for certain, is hidden in the poem "Swansongs." The wild swans I saw at Coole last year Beat me like mermaids strewing the clouds And devilled with lustful virgin cloaks They beat my life with broken wings; The wind cries out, a lily sings And through it all the dead sea chokes . . . Belief and believe not. Belief is too dangerous for these white heavy days; I prefer graves and the mad swishing tails of swans When crying, they know the agony Of wings tightly forced to unfurl Beneath a pale and straining world . . . The wild swans breathe their last And the shutters come tumbling down Bathing in cold sleek white moonlight Dropped in silver tears From her large open eye that shadows the covering sun, Oh leave me and fail in agony, Shoot me here, let me feel the metal gun And its soft metallic stroke on my wild white wing.
Little in Lenier's soft manner or her current way of unpressured living suggests an inner intensity that produces this kind of strong poetry. Her personality leans to rosiness, underlain by a cheerful streak that can take a funny comment and tease the full whimsy out of it. In conversation, she has the frailty of a young poet of held-in emotions. It is hard to imagine that she has ever yelled or is crabby with friends.
Among these friends are her two graduate school roommates in a small rented north-side Berkeley house a mile below the hill of the university. One is a statistics student from India, the other an educational psychology major from northern New Jersey. Both display an obvious affection for the poet of the house, though if it's a choice between letting her write or making her take her turn washing the dishes, they tell her that the lemon-scented Joy is in the cabinet over the sink. The living room, in grad-student decor, includes a springless sofa, an Oriental-design bed sheet that was hung on the wall and meant somehow as artwork and a lamp with a bare bulb. The shade, it seems, tilted too close to the light one evening and burned. Replacing it is on the things-to-do list, which no one seems to be sweating about.
Lenier is in her second year at Berkeley. Her fellowship covers everything:
tuition for her theater classes, living and travel expenses. With some effort
-- perhaps shedding a pair of garish maroon leg warmers and donning a silk
running suit -- she could blend in with the area's California golden
Not likely, she says over a dinner of spiced
Indian food cooked by her housemate. "I always wanted to come to
California. In England it's seen as a sort of paradise. You hear about the
sun, the climate and the people. But I've never worked harder in my life.
American academics are much more difficult than British. They lay it on
here. In Cambridge I was doing a leisurely few hours a week, and over here
it's been 9 to 5. Anyone who takes English at Cambridge has a fairly easy
time. You'll do Milton one week, Spenser the next, Shakespeare the next,
then Chaucer. You can do all of them quickly. So you end up reading about
20 lines and you get very good at writing an essay about the whole of
Milton based on 20 lines."
Lenier's girlhood was spent in Sunderland, a North Sea town in a depressed industrial area. Her father is an engineer and her mother a nursery school teacher. A younger sister and brother are at home. Politically, she is a George Bernard Shaw socialist. "One of the things that made me want to come to the States was my interest in civil rights and civil liberties."
"My parents," she laughs, "one is left-wing, the other's right-wing. I could have gone either way!"
What nudged her conscience leftward were the disparities she noticed in the impoverished towns of northeast England. "You're exposed to things like high unemployment. You're exposed to people who haven't got enough, even if you've got enough. So you must react. Either you think the poverty is reasonable and should exist or you don't think it's reasonable and you try to do something about it. I don't think art is separate from morality, I really don't. There's no point in producing something that's beautiful unless you want to move someone. And as soon as you want to move them, then you're trying to get them to think in a particular way -- to move them toward moral decisions or social decisions."
At 18, the year before Cambridge, Lenier took time off from school to live with a poor family. "The experience," she recalls, "made me bitter. And angry. But it made me feel that this was where I belonged. I don't believe in poets' being rich, or even moderately well off. If they are genuine poets, they will be living where real things are happening. If I have any misery, it is petty compared with the misery of plenty of other people. If I can express misery -- not just my own -- I'm expressing it for people who are justified in feeling miserable. And if people see that, and it makes them think a bit, then maybe something will change. If poetry is anything, it expresses something beautiful in language to give the reader pleasure and takes them from all the things that are wrong and helps them see some hope and some beauty. That's the only justification I can think of for writing poetry."
Whatever the loosening forces that get poetry to flow out of poets, the larger issue than whether someone like Sue Lenier is extraordinarily gifted or only "striving, clumsy and humorless" is whether natural spontaneity is sufficient to carry the weight of creativeness. Dr. Wolfgang Weigert, a Washington psychoanalyst and teacher at the Washington School of Psychiatry, is conducting a series of seminars on the nature of the creative process and recently read Lenier's "Swansongs."
Lenier "knows how to play with words," Weigert says. Freedom to play is essential for creativity. In all our lives, playing with sounds precedes play with words. Babies are surprised by the sounds they make. They repeat the sounds, they gain mastery of the sounds through their play. Later the sounds are molded and formed through interactions with significant others, especially the mother. Images of things are retained in memories. The memory-images are said to be retained in 'the unconscious' and can be evoked through words. The music of poetry depends on rhythm and pleasing repetitions of sound. Ms. Lenier has a gift for evoking striking, arresting, compelling images and sequences of images into a grammar of experience. Of course, these objects have symbolic significance just like dream images which have become so important in the trade of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis."
In "Swansongs," Weigert singles out a short poem called "The Rose." Love, pouring in flowers, Bites with a bee And stings in a sulky rose -- How could I leave thee, lovely frost-stung petals? Your light that grows and glows and grows Within, beside, around me, all, and Around all those Who love the sting and not the scent of roses.
This exemplifies, Weigert says, "Lenier's mastery of conflict or ambivalence. A soft, beautiful rose suggests the sting of a bee. The soft beauty of pure love is always associated with or made impure by the pain of disillusionment, the 'sting' of separation or disappointment. This is the universal human condition which Ms. Lenier helps us see in her universal images of bee and flower."
Would "The Rose" have been a better poem with revisions and polishing? The question of first drafts versus multiple drafts probably will never be settled. Wallace Stevens, of the one-draft-can-be-enough school, writes that "the poet, in moments of exceptional concentration, sometimes experiences an automatism in which the poem writes itself. It seems as if the imagination realized its intention, however obscure the intention may have been, with an instantaneous directness."
Anti-automatism was championed by Louise Bogan. "It's silly to suggest the writing of poetry as something ethereal, a sort of soul-crashing emotional experience that wrings you. I have no fancy ideas about poetry. It doesn't come to you on the wings of a dove. It's something you work hard at." Back to the other side. Erica Jong: "I had poems which were rewritten so many times I suspect that it was just a way of avoiding sending them out."
And back again. Andre Gide: "One sentence follows another, is born of the other, and I feel as I see it being born and growing within me an almost physical rapture. The artesian welling up is the result of my long subconscious preparation."
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Metaphorically, the question about Lenier is whether she should be presenting her poetry to the public raw or cooked. "For my tastes," says Reed Whittemore, a former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the author of nearly a dozen books of poetry and a professor at the University of Maryland, "Ms. Lenier could do a little cooking. Rushes of words are not enough. Sound without meaning is not enough. Bright color and tonal contrasts are not enough.
"Probably she would agree with me here. At any rate, in some of her short poems I do see some of the cooking I look for. Also I see her, in her English way, going against the common American mode of rawness, which is unmusical and unrhymed. She is a musician-poet wholly in love with sound and rhythm, with 'musical' themes, more in love with these qualities than any others. In an America heavy on the visual side of the art -- on images, images, images -- she is unfashionable, but I think her music craze will be all in her favor as soon as she gets Swinburne, or the contemporary English equivalent of Swinburne, out of her head. In short, I'd say her book should be called 'Youngsongs' rather than 'Swansongs,' for her next book may be a lulu."
If graduate school were run at a slower pace, Lenier might be thinking of the next volume. But in a few months she will have a living to earn. She expects to have more success, at least financially, with acting, although she has few illusions about that. The company of actors, she is certain, is warmer than that of writers. "I don't know why, but I've always been inclined to avoid writers rather than get close to them. I'm more interested in other artists -- painters, musicians, actors. Oh, with writers, you get jealous."
Some of what Weigert called "conflicts or ambivalences" need to be sorted out. "Why do I write?" she asks herself. "I don't know. Millions of reasons that change every day. Probably it's an exotic and thoroughly enjoyable neurotic complex. If I'm sick, writing restores me to health. If I'm happy, it saddens me. If I'm sad, it makes me happy."
One thing beyond doubt. She left Swinburne behind in England. On the living room table, under the shadeless light, was a P.G. Wodehouse novel. "I adore him," Lenier said of another spontaneous writer.