There is that famous and oft-quoted line of T.S. Eliot's in which he writes, “immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.” By no means am I accusing myself of some lofty poetic maturity, but there is a line of the poet Charles Wright's that I have been stealing and quoting for quite some time.
As a student at the University of Virginia, I have the highly anticipatory and anxiety-inducing privilege of sometimes running into nationally acclaimed writers on campus; for instance, I might stand behind Greg Orr in line at the water fountain, eat chocolate in Lisa Russ Spaar's office, share an elevator with Rita Dove, or hold the door open for Charles Wright.
Mr. Wright actually visited one of my poetry classes, and somewhere in the midst of my flurry to notate every word he said, the soft-spoken poet dropped a line that has been haunting my work and informing the way I view others' ever since. “All landscape is autobiography,” he said simply, in answer to a question about his prolific preoccupation with landscape in his own work.
What does this mean? It means we see ourselves in landscape. We project our own imbalances, thoughts, emotions, turmoils, and satisfactions onto what we see around us. This can apply to more than just the physical geography of the land, since as humans we aren't exactly biased in how we project ourselves. But landscape, be it weather conditions or just what meets the eye at a glance out the window, is particularly apt to resemble us because of its mutability, the sudden fluctuations we might see in cloud cover, in light, in moisture, in what is hidden in shadow or plainly visible. Or perhaps we find resemblance in what never changes, in the outline of the hills etched into each passing dusk, or the sure, winterlong presence of the pines in the backyard.
Wright's work is multifaceted in subject, but a few of his sustained interests are time, transience, irony, and mortality, his tone often bordering on a kind of listlessness but never quite succumbing. In the last lines of “Black Zodiac,” a poem obsessed with the transient as well as the finely blurred edges between the visible and invisible, the tangible and intangible, Wright writes:
All afternoon the rain has rained down in the mind,
And in the gardens and dwarf orchard.
The lexicon of late summer has turned its pages
under the rain,
Abstracting the necessary word.
Autumn's upon us.
The rain fills our narrow beds.
Description's an element, like air or water.
That's the word.*
See how he uses the landscape? In this case, he refers more specifically to the weather, using the rain in the tangible, physical sense: it is raining “all afternoon.” But he also writes the rain into the metaphorical realm “down in the mind,” which is a place to be inhabited just as realistically as “the gardens and dwarf orchard.”
Perhaps what we can draw from this is the truth that we find the most insight into ourselves by looking outward. And this more interestingly, more accessibly, informs our writing: our internal experiences become that much more relevant because they are part of a shared world.
When you look outside, what do you see? And what does that say about you?
*Wright, Charles. Black Zodiac. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Print.