A Fable for Young PoetsLindsay Polak
A Brief Note on the Short, Brilliant Career of John George
There once was a young man named John George who had grown up in a quiet pleasant town, had been quietly mediocre in most things he'd tried, and even had a nice quiet family business waiting for him when he came of age. When he turned twenty-one and reflected on his life thus far, he was highly disappointed, for John's one really serious desire in life was to become a great poet, and great poetry is not borne of quiet and pleasant lives. So John went to his mentor, a professor at a very small college nearby, and explained his problem. "I want to write great poetry, poetry filled with passion, poetry made of light and air, poetry that evokes a sense of the eternal void within us all, and the eternal light within that void."
"Good," said the professor.
"But nothing interesting has ever happened to me," John continued.
His mentor suggested that he try falling in love. "Falling in love," said John's mentor, "is one of the most interesting experiences life has to offer." Pausing for a moment, his brow furrowed, the professor added, "Or so I've heard."
John took his mentor's advice to heart, and traveled to a large city not too far from his town, and began looking for a girl. He went to shows, to clubs, to parties, to coffeehouses. After an entire week of searching, John saw a girl sitting at the table next to his at the all-night diner, and fell in love. He introduced himself, read the girl a few of his least wretched poems, and soon the two were gazing dreamily into each other's eyes across the sticky fiberglass tabletop.
John married the girl---her name was Susan--within a month. Surprisingly, they were fabulously happy. Susan was thrilled by John's mediocre poetry, and impressed by his single-minded determination to become a great writer. John, for his part, had never had a girl of his own before, and was utterly smitten with Susan and her breathless admiration. John was so enormously happy that he felt compelled to write about it, about his enchanted life and glowing contentment. He filled notebook after notebook with exuberant, radiant poetry---it was very happy poetry, but it was not good poetry. It was not filled with passion; it was not made of light and air; it did not evoke a sense of the eternal void within us all, or of the eternal light within that void.
And so John went back to his mentor, complaining that he had fallen in love, and was married and fabulously happy, and had many things to write about, but still his poetry lacked passion, light and air, etc. "I'm so happy," explained John, "that all I can write about is how giddily, dizzyingly happy I am, and it always comes out sounding silly."
His mentor declared that what John needed was to obtain some poetic distance, and advised him to leave his wife. "That," the professor predicted, "is an excellent way to obtain perspective on such things."
John took his mentor's advice, and left Susan. "Only for awhile," he explained, "to see what it's like." Susan, who had great respect for John's artistic muse, agreed that it was the only thing to do. She was nevertheless tearful and regretful at their parting, and a very excellent emotional scene ensued, just the thing with which one might begin a career of passionate poetry.
John, living alone in the house he and Susan had shared, was inspired. He wrote notebook after notebook of poetry about what it was like to lose his lovely wife, and what it was like to live alone in the house they had shared, and what it was like to write poetry about a lost love. His poetry, though not yet great, was tinged with hints of passion; it sometimes contained elements of pure air and light; it even made vague gestures concerning the eternal void, and the eternal light.
John was enthusiastic about the quality of his work, and wrote feverishly for several weeks, until the date set for his reunion with his wife arrived. At first he found her affection and her heightened admiration for his new work to be irritating distractions, but soon he found himself settling into contented domestic life once more. The fiery muse which had filled his poetry with vitality left him, and he could only write about what it was like to be reunited with his lovely wife. However, John was still very happy, as he did have his wife back, and very many of his new poems had been accepted for publication.
One day Susan returned to their house after a trip to the market, and saw on the dining room table an envelope with her name on it written in John's hand. Opening it, she found a note:
Great poetry, I have discovered, is about loss. It is the
unobtainable, the ever-sought, the drop of liquid fire at the center
of the ruby. When I lost you, when I dreamt of you every night, I
wrote poetry that was almost great.
Therefore, I have decided to go in search of the ultimate loss. I
have lived a life filled with love, and happiness, and contentment;
I have loved my life even more than I have loved you. Truthfully,
I am not sure what will happen now, but if there is an afterlife, I
will be the greatest poet Heaven has ever known. (Or Hell---poetry
being both torture and bliss, it will make very little difference.)
I will achieve in death what I could not achieve in life, because
for me life was too happy to allow for great poetry.
I know you will understand; you have always known how important this
one goal has been to me. I love you very much, and I know that you
love me, and so you will obey this last request: please, please do
not come upstairs. There will be a mess, and it will be an
unnecessary unpleasantness for you, as it will certainly be too
With love and apologies,
Copyright ©2003 Lindsay Polak. All Rights Reserved.
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