blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Windows and Walls

Recently I heard a Slovenian poet draw a distinction between two kinds of writers: those who write facing a wall and those who write facing a window. His point being: the writer who faces a wall engages in a tête-à-tête with the imagination, whereas a window gazer performs the diligent, all too loyal office of copying down the visible world. Clearly, this poet preferred—and considered himself a member of—the wall-facing variety.

Maybe I lack imagination, since I tend to set my desk beside a window and when the weather permits, I carry my materials outside, pace Proust. I like the life out there and desire not to describe it in minutiae but to lift from it a few details it has disclosed, and fold them into my daybook.

Dichotomies like the above strike me as being useful yet untrue. Of course there is the afterwork; the world out the window won’t pose for the picture; the imagination always has to absorb those objects in the offing. It’s healthy to look, I think, just as, after a time, it becomes critical to draw the curtains.

Jack Gilbert’s “Bartleby at the Wall” provides insight into what I am trying to get at. Here are a few lines—the real crux of the poem—that appear at its center:

I’ve been at this all month.
Trying to see the rope.
The wall.
Carefully looking
at the bricks.
Seeing they are
umber and soot
and the color of melts.
Even counting them.
But it’s like Poussin.
Too clear.
The way things aren’t.
So I try not staring.

Poussin privileged the logic of line over color, public theme over intimate mysteries. Here, as I see it, Gilbert shows commitment to line,color and that mysterious something a bit beyond the frame, the wall and the window in it, the imagination and the eye. Without the umber, the poem would lose vibrancy. Too much of them, and the poem would devolve into description or, worse, calculation. Not what a poem strives for importantly. Not vision.   end