Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Lars Iyer And Weldon Kees
Once upon a time, writers were like gods, and lived in the mountains. They were either destitute hermits or aristocratic lunatics, and they wrote only to communicate with the already dead or the unborn, or for no one at all. They had never heard of the marketplace, they were arcane and antisocial. Though they might have lamented their lives—which were marked by solitude and sadness—they lived and breathed in the sacred realm of literature. They wrote drama and poetry and philosophy and tragedy, and each form was more devastating than the last. Their books, when they wrote them, reached their audience posthumously and by the most tortuous routes. Their thoughts and stories were terrible to look upon, like the bones of animals that had ceased to exist.
Later, there came another wave of writers, who lived in the forests below the mountains, and while they still dreamt of the heights, they needed to live closer to the towns at the edge of the forest, into which they ventured every now and again to do a turn in the public square. They gathered crowds and excited minds and caused scandals and partook in politics and engaged in duels and instigated revolutions. At times, they left for prolonged trips back to the mountains, and when they returned, the people trembled at their new pronouncements. The writers had become heroes, gilded, bold and pompous. And some of the loiterers around the public square started to think: I quite like that! I have half a notion to try that myself.
Soon, writers began to take flats in the town, and took jobs—indeed, whole cities were settled and occupied by writers. They pontificated on every subject under the sun, granted interviews, and published in the local press, St Mountain Books. Some even made a living from their sales, and, when those sales dwindled, they taught about writing at Olympia City College, and when the college stopped hiring in the humanities, they wrote memoirs about ‘mountain living’. They became savvy in publicity, because it became evident that the publishing industry was an arm of the publicity industry, and the smart ones worked first in advertising, which was a good place to hone the craft. And the writers began to outnumber their public, and, it became apparent, the public was only a hallucination after all, just as the importance of writing was mostly a hallucination.
Now you sit at your desk, dreaming of Literature, skimming the Wikipedia page about the ‘Novel’ as you snack on salty treats and watch cat and dog videos on your phone. You post to your blog, and you tweet the most profound things you can think to tweet, you labour over a comment about a trending topic, trying to make it meaningful. You whisper the names like a devotional, Kafka, Lautréamont, Bataille, Duras, hoping to conjure the ghost of something you scarcely understand, something preposterous and obsolete that nevertheless preoccupies your every living day. And you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself, laughing helplessly at yourself, laughing to the verge of tears. You click ‘new document’ and sit there, shaking, staring at your computer screen, and you wonder what in the world you can possibly write now.
This week’s poem is by Weldon Kees, a poet who disappeared in July of 1955, never to be heard from again. His poetry is almost always dark, always haunted. The poem below the fold, even when life affirming at the end, anticipates the brambles of forest just beyond sight. For this poet in America at midcentury, the forest was not a place of inspiration, but of fear.
And the traveller
stumbles in darkness, hearing
beasts in the forest, fearing
the pitfalls, pitch-black ditches,
the brambles. Dread
in his heart: and the air
and his breath strangled.
But along the path:
a torch! The soaked pine
blazes, blinding the night.
The grateful seizing, and he feels
the fear half-gone, and sees
the pathway clear. And then at last
the sun’s slow rise from night:
cold fragile light that streaks
across the timber. And the way
uncertain still. All night
he’d known that they were there:
knew they were waiting there:
waiting for him. But then at dawn,
emerging from the forest,
he felt his heart at peace.
The day! Alive with brightness!
Wonderful to be alive!
Then he thought of the other forests beyond…