Sunday, August 31, 2008

rain in august

When I lived in Seattle, I biked like a demon through its jagged topography. I couldn't afford a car, and the stereotype is true that most of the year Seattle is moist, its roads unamenable to braking. I purchased instead a Gore-Tex (TM) jacket, and received free with my purchase a long-sleeved T-shirt that bore the opening stanza from Robert Creeley's "Rain":

All night the sound
had come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

Over the next two years, I wore that shirt to some of the most beautiful places I could imagine. I wore it while playing frisbee in Volunteer Park, a hill in the center of the city with a 360 degree view of mountains on a clear day. On most days it was a bath of mud, and I would throw myself horizontal in air to catch frisbees that some gust had suspended at the last moment, so that they and I were weightless, and snatching one was like picking a blackberry. I wore it hiking on Mt. Rainier, to the meadows at 9000 feet that only reveal themselves a month of every year. I wore it to alpine lakes, and I wore it while playing "Risk" in the city's coffeeshops, because there's nothing like cotton comfort when rolling a few armies into Irkutsk.

Naturally, Creeley's stanza worked its way into each of these moments. I would look out the window, or sit on the sidelines, or break for a drink, and the lines would come back to me, for in the same way the words invoke the soft repetition of rain (You don't believe? Listen for the n's...), the actual rain for me came to conjure the words, so that long before I read the whole of the poem, I was hearing Creeley everywhere.

Great poetry for me is more than an experience of reading. It is a process of remembering. It's a little like Goethe's Faust, who longed for a moment that would be so beautiful that he would wish to suspend time. If I find language striking, it works in me, and I feel joy at its unexpected resurfacing. I want it to linger. It's not just that there's this poem out there, "Rain," by Robert Creeley, that will yield itself to close reading -- and let me emphasize that I also enjoy the line-by-line parsing of poetry -- it's that there is a "Rain" that I carry around, a rain in august, that shapes the way I encounter the world.

If reading is that idiosyncratic, it's hard to have a debate. It's hard to say that I've really understood the poem, or that I get what is happening. It's entirely possible that I have missed the point entirely. And yet I think such connections and miscues are essential to what happens when I read. Part of the power of poetry is its capacity to be endlessly misunderstood. I could meet another person, April, who lived in a desert and whose life with Creeley was on of intense longing and a sense of never being totally fulfilled. We would agree about what the words say, but rain in april would seem to be a different work.

Or even the august I describe here seems a bit foreign to the person who is now writing this post, a decade after the Seattle sojourn, with the T-shirt in question long since donated in some clothing drive. In this way, my wholly individual, partisan, twisted view of the first stanza of rain raises an important question, one that I will probably mull for decades:

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon,
so often? ...

It is in this way that I know that Creeley has written a perfect poem.