A GREAT RECKONING IN A LITTLE ROOM

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It could have been a little room like this—
four walls, a window, table, chair—tales
tell us he was stabbed and cursing when he died
a much regretted master of blank verse…

but that was long ago and this is now
in this little room, at this window
looking out upon the ruddy repetitions
of a blank brick wall across the way…

I count poetic feet by heart, bemoan
the calling of them, just as that Touchstone
who held a plumb line for The Bard:
“When a man’s verses cannot be read
nor a man’s good wit seconded…
it strikes a man more dead than
a great reckoning in a little room,” he said.

Even the graffitist, wily, undercover,
come by night to paint his colors on the wall
might lurk in shadowy corners come the dawn
to overhear effects of his calligraphies

or the forest with the falling tree and no one
there to hear—does it find the earthy thump
insisted by an inner ear dwelling in thought?

It all comes down to one small room
and looking out the window wondering why
why embark upon an expedition or ambition
surely doomed to disappointment or despair?

Wisdom has said: because it’s there.
Then, too, there is that falling tree…anything
to get out from under it, sound or no sound,
purely by dead reckoning, no guarantee.
.
.
A GREAT RECKONING IN A LITTLE ROOM

55 responses »

  1. This is a good poem for me to read, Cynthia. I have been so discouraged about my writing lately. I work and work, and I get into magazines and literary journals, but I’ve been wondering why I go to all the effort. I keep hoping someone will accept one of the books I’ve been marketing lately, but they ask to see them after a query, and then, inevitably, the rejection slips sooner or later shows up.
    This exactly how I have been feeling:
    “When a man’s verses cannot be read
    nor a man’s good wit seconded…
    it strikes a man more dead than
    a great reckoning in a little room,” he said.
    Your final stanza sums up the poem magnificently. You are such a good poet, and I really appreciate this poem. Well done.

    • Touchstone’s words touch you because you are a poet, Thomas, and Shakespeare himself, who created the character of Touchstone must also have understood the feeling…or dilemma…or problem.

      One reads of many great writers who had to live through hundreds of rejections before their work was finally acknowledged by those who make and break reputations. So it was probably always difficult. But you and I who were raised in a time when there was such a thing as a fine art of literature and those who were the gatekeepers knew it when they saw it, must admit that it has all undergone a sea change—largely because of technology.

      The competition for trade publication is overwhelming when everyone and his dog is a writer….what distinguishes the butterfly stroke from the dog paddle in such a swimming pool? Perhaps no one knows anymore…at least not the trade publishers, who are in business to make money and know they can do it by fostering celebrities and appealing to lowest common denominators. The only tricks left are to seek an indie “publisher” (a euphemism for self-publication…often using the marketing technique of offering all or part of the proceeds to charity) or simply, openly, publish oneself—and assume the headaches of marketing and distribution. We who would rather spend our time actually writing, rather than worrying about it, are in a very strange place, indeed.

      Thank you for your honest and heartfelt comment. As a fellow wanderer, I salute you.

  2. “This is my letter to the world
    That never wrote to me”

    And my, but how her tree was heard when it came thundering down, though self-confined to small spare New England rooms.

    She had her own ‘school of night’ yet spurned venturing too far to be wooed by the wrong crowd. Rather, Emily kept company with verses, feeling content if they would but keep company with her.

    Like you–in your small New England room looking on the dusk-dimming garden searching out the light.

    • “The Soul selects her own Society —
      Then — shuts the Door –…”

      Emily understood that conventional rubbing elbows was the enemy of art, and she was born to be an artist. It seems she chose her lot, but I suspect it chose her, and she could finally acknowledge that. It’s taken me a long time to realize this. And there are still some days when it all seems too difficult and I forget. But never for very long. Then, too, I am lucky to find great consolation in delightful and insightful friends like you, Lance. Such a wonderful comment…

  3. Thanks for summing up where I’m at… which I hate to admit…

    …looking out the window wondering why
    why embark upon an expedition or ambition
    surely doomed to disappointment or despair?

    Yet Marlowe left a legacy, and I’m sure Jobin will… despite the blank brick wall…

    • I think I’ve finally come to the place where I realize that worry about legacy is for younger people, and not for someone like myself who knows she is now old enough to die without anyone’s declaring the event a tragedy. After all, I won’t be here to enjoy a legacy, will I ? !

      The difficult thing is to understand what the motive must be, to continue to write— well beyond the elusive ego gratification of public recognition on an “important” scale of size and time. It’s difficult, yet impossible to ignore. There’s that tree that just might fall on us, so we run like hell and yell “timber!!” Disappointment and despair seem always to be chasing us down. I still hope they don’t win in my case, and certainly not in yours either, my dear friend. Thanks for your kind words.

  4. I believe Thomas Davis has well understood what your beautiful poem means .
    This makes me think of genius such Mozart who ended his life in a deep misery.
    Love ❤
    Michel .

    • Yes, Michel, Thomas Davis is a poet with many fine works you can read on his blog even if he is not known far and wide. And Mozart’s misery is replicated in the stories of so many artists who, during their life time, did not receive the attention we now think they deserve. For the writer, painter, musician—any artist or craftsman— it is a matter of learning to work for love of the work itself, regardless of reward or recognition. And that is a very difficult lesson to learn. ❤

  5. Recognition and acclaim are nice but, I suggest, not entirely necessary even when I have to admit that the writer writes to be read – the two go hand in hand!. I speculate that computers and the internet combined with the increasing population of retirees, who have an abundance of time to write, mean that there are going to be more and more aspiring authors communicating with fewer and fewer publishers. It is a pity that talented poets, such as yourself, don’t get the wide audience which they deserve. I’m glad that I have a link to you in my favorites and am able to listen to your voice even when other demands compete for my time. I’m sure that there are many others like me.

    • Everything you say here is true, Jane. I guess the intensity of effort in some cases, the degree to which one “spends” oneself, when it over-arches the degree to which there is a return, must be where the discouragement comes. Some people seem to have no choice but to take their creative work very seriously and probably find it difficult to be cast with those who are more blasé and hobbyist about it. It’s a conundrum. My years on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Art made me aware of such degrees of difference. A writer needs readers….but probably can indeed find readers without having to conquer the world as a best-seller or go down in literary history. It’s good to stare reality in the face, and realize what are the signs of the times, even if one seems to be living in some forgotten—or not yet seen—era of literary history. It warms the cockles to know I am in your “favorites” file and that you listen to the poems. Thank you!

  6. My goodness it’s hard isn’t it! You and Will together make it very clear! I read your response to Thomas Davis and agree with all you said. I read the writings of some bloggers who call themselves poet, writer or even ‘author’ and am horrified by the standard they adhere to. I read published books that leave me indifferent or incensed and I don’t go anywhere near the pulp fiction categories…….. don’t start me on that! I read a poem from you most evenings as I tuck into my bed and wonder why this book is not found on the shelves of the well stocked University Book Shop that I wander into from time to time. What happened to erudition and culture and tragedy and beauty? They cannot be dead; they must be waiting quietly somewhere for the world to turn again. It will.

    • Whenever I see a blog title with the blogger’s name and the word “author” after it, I am reduced to giggles. It is just my twisted sense of humor enjoying the well of fatuousness in our time. I have to laugh, or else I would cry. Your observations and comments are thoughtful and spot-on as usual, as well as giving me a boost and a laugh. (I am presently enjoying a glass of cabernet with one of your “light catcher” iridescences floating on its surface). Many years ago I watched a TV soap opera called “As The World Turns.” Your confidence that the world will turn again–away from the current craziness—is quite reassuring, and your wisdom is as loving as ever. Thanks, Pauline.

  7. I love that last line. At a certain point, I think many people realize that art is how they process the world. To create in the act of learning is a gift not given to everyone. And bouncing off that world turning comment, I quote your fellow Mainer Gordon Bok–“The world is always turning toward the morning.”

    • Gordon Bok, my fellow Mainer, is a true treasure…”it’s so easy in the cold, to feel the darkness of the year.” but…”the world is always turning toward the morning.”

      I love his original songs, but also his renditions of older hymns and folk songs. One that comes to mind, quite àpropos of the current discussion is: “…through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing…it sounds an echo in my soul…how can I keep from singing…”

      • Yes. And not an old song or one of theirs, but Julian of Norwich, which I was just singing tonight: “All shall be well I’m telling you/let the winters come and go/all shall be well again, I know.” Great songs and Gordon’s still singing. So should we.

        • And now you have me singing it too! “Loud are the bells of Norwich, and the people come and go…..Here by the tower of Julian I tell them what I know….Ring out, bells of Norwich and let the winter come and go…all shall be well again, I know.” I sang those first lines solo with a folk trio many years ago.
          When I had my calligraphy studio I did a large 16×20 piece, painted on canvas, of the text “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every kind of thing shall be well…” There were arguments about whether I should have used “manner” instead of the word ‘kind” but I sided with the translators who used the more anglo-saxon word over the latinate one.
          My partner Mary had that piece hanging on a wall in her bedroom so she could meditate on it every morning. Now that she’s gone I brought it here when I moved a couple of years ago and it hangs on my bedroom wall where I can see it every morning. I don’t know if I have a photo of it, but it’s a lovely work if I do say so myself, and quite full of meaning for me now.

  8. Even after having read–or better yet–having been suffused in your characteristically elegant words, I am unable to commiserate with you and your readers, as I have to beat publishers off with a pointed stick. Sad but true. Modern day mass media has created a mephitic climate for gifted writers, and so I have been able to thrive in that environment (self-deprecation now off).

    • You are forgiven for your inability to commiserate with the rest of us, as we are only humble workers at the literary loom and quite able to rejoice in the success of one formerly of our kind, who has risen to heights we can only dream of. And, as your mephistophelean remarks have a habit of doing, the reference to beating publishers off has me wondering whether my own ennui is due to the fact that the only pointed stick I have to employ is a #2 pencil. I must sharpen it now, and my wits, too, so I can hope someday to keep up with you.

      • I’ve retrieved the Wit-O-Meter from the attic (well, the metaphoric, Mephistophelean attic, as I only have a turret (in light of frequent sieges)–and no attic as such), dusted it off, set it to work with a calculating twist of the wrist, pointed it to your remark about number two pencils, and it registered a whopping 11.5 (10 on the Richter scale)–which is very good indeed. Naturally there is room for you on my coattails, and you may hitch a ride into the wide blue yonder, after being propelled outwardly by this or that literary agent.

          • Be careful what you wish for: to follow in the footsteps of the delusional is a risky proposition, making a possible exception of following those who look like Fidel Castro but lack his bona fides. Now I am nearly certain you are asking yourself how did we get from a nice poem about tables and chairs to communist leaders. You should, needless to say, have heeded my advice in the first place. But I don’t think any less of you for it. In fact, those with beautiful minds are oft susceptible to being entertained with the mental bric-à-brac of charlatans. How else would one explain poetry? And since this poignant dithyramb is destined to be the definitive comment on the subject in hand, I will keep it brief (for your reader’s sake)– there’s little need to dissect the early hours of the 21st century in the hopes of uncovering some small nugget of truth.

  9. I think this may be the first Jobin poem I read early last year before I declared myself a “writer” and took myself off the blogosphere temporarily to take myself seriously. Now I read your poem again and laugh at myself which is another kind of reckoning.

    • I do remember that Susanne. I was shocked at your sudden departure, and glad when you returned a bit later, so full of piss and vinegar. You declared it, and you ARE it.

      • You are always so kind, Cynthia. Truly, I am so embarrassed by my hubris. In fact, ever since I made that foolish declaration I feel like I’ve tied myself in knots or, to stick with the brick wall and small room images, I feel like the walls are closing in. A year later, your poem makes more sense than ever.

        • I think—maybe– I understand. When I saw that photo of you, pointing to your article at the magazine stand, the joy in your face mirrored a similar experience for me. When I actually quit my job to “be a writer” and had my first article published in a magazine, I was ecstatic! The way out of that mental place, forced by circumstance and reality, has been a long hard road of ripening….and diligence. Illusions are disillusioned but that doesn’t take away from the truth, which is….if you love to write, if you MUST write, if you DO write, you are a writer. It chooses you, more than you choose it. And you just may come to the place where others recognize–with accolades and rewards— what you already know. I hope it happens for you.

          • Honestly, Cynthia, ‘d like to be in the place where I’m content with writing for the satisfaction of producing decent work. Accolades and rewards don’t last, nor does euphoria of any kind but being giddy when you write a poem that you like or a story that’s been burbling in your head for a while – that’s satisfying.

  10. It’s the enjoyment and love of creating – learning and challenging ourselves. You have the good fortune Cynthia of many fans throughout the world treasuring your words either by voice, book or written blog post – the richness of our delight I know, fills you up with goodness. You are the writer many aspire too, a professional with a good dose of humor that we are so lucky that you share your gift with us.

    I can relate to much of what you have written, as an artist by heart – certainly not by trade or as they may say “working artist.” But the love of the challenge of doing, creating, having a line of tenacity that runs deep within, and being satisfied that “little o me can produce something from a 2-dimensional surface” is my compensation today.

    • An artist by heart…that’s a nice phrase you invented there, Mary. That’s probably the only kind of true artist, too. You are actually blessed in the way you go about your painting and learning and drawing and learning and openly sharing your trials and successes with the rest of us.

      If you already know how to do the work simply for the work itself, and continue to work so consistently at it, as a regular part of your life, you’ve already discovered what takes some of us a long time to learn. In writing, for example, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of simply wishing “to have written” or “to be a writer” and avoid the work itself because it’s not easy and there is no immediate response. You have little to “show” for it.

      I am only an amateur dabbler in painting and drawing, but I’ve done enough of it to know that even though it can be frustrating when the thing doesn’t come out as you think it should, it seems to dialogue with you, giving you some satisfactory return for your effort, it “speaks to you”. You can point to it as what you have done.

      I don’t find that to be true with writing, so it’s more difficult to get that return unless you find good readers….and finding readers means reaching out beyond the work itself. I am probably beginning to sound muddled, but I think you can understand what I mean, since you are indeed an” artist by heart,” and very wise.

  11. The third stanza of your fine poem reminds me that since I first discovered (as a young man) what it meant , I have believed in the motto MGM displayed around the roaring head of the Lion in its motion picture logo: “ARS GRATIA ARTIS” (“ART FOR ART’S SAKE”). In my opinion, a creative writer MUST believe that, or question your ‘calling.’

    • I agree. If one has a “calling” to something, then it matters not whether approval, response, fame or money come along; one practices one’s art for its’ own sake. How lucky you were to know this as a young man. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says…

      “What I do is me…for that I came.”

  12. This is a wonderfully complex series of thoughts and words, with layers of time and references, then right at the heart of it, the nut – who do we write for, does it matter if we are heard? There are phrases I love – the earthy thump… ruddy repetitions of a blank brick wall… and others. There is indeed ‘no guarantee’. A lovely dense piece. Oh, and I have often wondered about the graffiti artist!

    • The earthy thump and the ruddy repetitions are among my own favorites, because they so felicitously “just happened.” Yes, I wonder about the graffiti artist, too. I once went all around Boston photographing graffiti on walls and parking meters, and sidewalks and park benches, for an academic paper I was writing relative to my work in calligraphy….I believe they really do regard themselves as artists, and most often want a “message” to get across. Of course, you in your current whirl of publication understand the “no guarantee” part….right up to the very end of creating a work, and well beyond!

  13. My beloved second-eldest sister, whom I lost to motor neurone disease, was a Marlowe – ahh, student, I suppose. When she spoke of him it all seemed amazingly complicated: when I listen to your wonderful lines it all seems so simple. XO

    • Hello, hello, hello M-R !!! Where have you bean? What a treat to find your comment here! I don’t know a whole lot about Marlowe beyond what is referred to here…he was a complex figure, I gather, and there are many fabulous tales surrounding his biography, not the least of which involve his being a ghost writer for Shakespeare….or maybe the real Shakespeare. Of course, my lines make it simple….I sort of am a plain and simple kind of person, when all is said and done, but thank you for your kind words…and much love to you, whatever you are up to….

      • Ditto. When I get unpacked (if ever !) I mean to become a person again. Meanwhile I shall now be again in touch with the real people – like you. XO

  14. Pingback: Susanne Fletcher – Eater – redosue

    • Quoting The Bard…reading and pondering the words of The Bard…I never tire of it. And you must be a night owl, to be reading this after midnight in your neck of the woods….

      • I am one but it is not yet after midnight (almost). I am trying to catch up on reading other blogs so snatch a few moments before bedtime to read a couple. I’ll never catch up really but I’m at least trying to get to as many as I can. 🙂

  15. Last I heard “because it’s there”, uttered by George Mallory in the context of climbing Mt. Everest, were considered the most inspiring words in the world of mountaineering. Climbing mountains because you love it. Because you want to do it. That is what, I think, we aspire to.

    • That’s exactly where I got that line, Ankur. You are the first to mention spotting it. I like if for all the reasons you say….it is aspirational, inspirational and does capture that feeling of doing something because internally–rather than externally—you must do it, and you love/want to do it.

  16. Oh, my goodness! You have addressed, summoned, coaxed and compressed the genesis, diagnosis and the prognosis of a poet’s life in those lines. I especially loved the opening to the piece.

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