Sunday, September 18, 2005

 

I'm Sorry, Mr. Kinnell, I Failed

I think that growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California tends to impart a certain frustration at being really heard. Within the dusty farmland conservatism it's hard to find one's unique voice, and culturally and politically the voice of the Valley is lost to the overwhelming power of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Just growing up in the Valley creates this muted longing for expression with few apparent venues.

About twenty years ago I attended a poetry conference and my poems were critiqued by Galway Kinnell. This was several years before he won the Pulitzer Prize. When I entered the room and sat down, he said, "I see you're another Western poet," with a trace of distaste. He found little good to say about what I'd done and suggested that I read Rilke for some inspiration. I tried, lord I tried to get into Rilke, but it didn't work. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. On the charts I'm a real intelligent guy, but maybe due to growing up a farmboy in the Valley I don't do well with purely intellectual exercises. To me they are akin to masturbating when the real experience of life is on the other side of the door. I can build a house from foundation to finish. I've stood among the rafters at the end of the day after cutting and fitting them precisely because they were to be left exposed and felt pride at what my hands could do. I've kept sneaking back into the shop in the evening to look at a piece of furniture I was making because I wanted to maintain the awe of creating it. I've felt the surge of energy as I've led a group of teenage boys on bicycles to the top of a ten mile long climb and then surveyed the panorama. I've been deep into the backcountry of the Sierra. Rilke couldn't speak to that, all-up-in-his-head as he was, speculating, speculating about the nature of life. If possible, I would say to him, "It's just this," and point to a piece of walnut or oak.

Building houses and crafting tables have taught me more about everything, and my daughter is a chief beneficiary of the changes this knowledge has wrought in me. I write poems about my grandfather and San Joaquin Valley peaches, about hawks circling and Skilsaws spewing wood dust. I'm sorry Mr. Kinnell, but I failed. Failed miserably, thank God. The Valley spirit still guides the way, now with a voice.


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