A Short Subject
The University of Nebraska Press has recently published a book about my life and my writing, and I’ve been asked by several people what I think about it. Well, I feel like the artificial giant I once peered down upon in a glass-lidded case in the back of a carnival trailer. There’s honor in being a thing that someone would pay to look at, even if it’s made of chicken wire and paper mache and coated with mud to make it look authentic.
I’ve had a happy life in which it seems that very little happened. I’m grateful for what happened, and grateful for what did not. I grew up in a town in Iowa, I wanted to be a poet, I worked at that and I succeeded. It was what I wanted to do with my life and I’m glad I did it.
I live outside a town in Nebraska, about three hundred miles from the town where I started. I have a lot of friends, a handful of people who love me, and when I have enemies they’re mostly drive-bys with BB guns, putting a few dents in the mailbox. But I do warn visitors to be wary of approaching literary critics, who often drift across the centerline.
I’ll be turning 75 this coming April, and I’ve lately been puzzling over why it feels as if my life has been so brief, given all those years I’ve passed across — hop, skip and jump — and I think I’ve come up with an answer: If the past is the sum of our memories, and each separate memory is like a very brief video clip — a couple of minutes out of 1946, say, another thirty seconds out of 1947 — then, when we patch all those memories together, it takes no more than ten or twelve minutes to watch the whole life, what moviegoers used to call a “Short Subject,” the news from somewhere else, thrown on the flickering screen between the two halves of the double feature.
And, too, my life has been mostly the news from somewhere else — the Great Plains — a short subject between the two main features of America, the east and the west. Where I live there’s no snorkeling among the corals, brushed by a rainbow of fish, no breathtaking peaks to take one’s breath either in climbing or in skiing down, no elaborately embroidered costumes for the locals to wear while they wait on the wharf with their baskets of carved wooden locals. This place offers fence-to-fence, road-to-road row crops — corn and beans and milo — all the way out to the vanishing point. And a sky like a tarp being pulled across a faded car to keep it from fading further. I love it here.
Poetry comes from wherever the poet happens to be, and almost every poem carries at least a whiff of the place from which it originated. I don’t see any shame in being thought of as a regional writer because that’s just what I am. A still-life painter picks a few objects from what’s in her studio, arranges them on a piece of cloth she’s used a hundred times, and paints a picture. It might be a great still life like those of Morandi, or one that winds up in a stack in a side aisle in a thrift shop. But it’s what the painter was trying to do. As for poetry, I might write a poem about a rusty bucket or a woman leaning on a cane, for those are within easy reach. And there’s so much within my reach that I’ll never run out of things to write about. But were I living in Akron or Baltimore or Seattle, I’d be writing about what I found around me there. A poet’s region is what he or she participates in, up to the eyebrows.
Do I like being honored by having a book written about me, a story about my life? Yes, I do. When I was a little boy I wanted to be honored, and when I was a young man, too. All through my middle years I wanted to be honored and now and then I was. And as an old man I am being honored, and I enjoy it thoroughly. I love the people I live among and I’m happy that at least a few of them love me in return. To earn the love of just about anyone is as high an honor as we are permitted in this life, though nothing is ever quite so fine as to offer somebody a poem that they look at for a minute or two, then fold into a pocket and carry away.