When one sends out an essay on Friday and by Monday has received not one, or two, but three (three!) rejection letters, it’s difficult not to feel as though the universe is trying to tell one something.
One perk of being a person with a merely blithe belief that the universe tells one things is the attendant ease with which one can then decide what the universe is saying: in this case, of course, I concluded the universe was (rather harshly) urging me to write about getting rejected three times in forty-eight hours.
Unfortunately, all I have to say about said subject amounts to: Ouch.
Or, if I must elaborate: No matter how deeply, intellectually, I understand that all writers, even famous, brilliant writers, have gotten (still get!) their work (even good work!) rejected lots and lots of times before they get it published, no matter how many times I send work into the world only to have it come back with the literary equivalent of ‘Thanks, but who cares,’ no matter how earnestly I assure myself that it’s inevitable, that rejection is going to happen, and that it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I am (as a person) a failure or (as a writer) failing, it still fucking sucks.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to move on to another, more positive, but, in a sense, equally stifling emotional experience:
As I mentioned, I’ve been making some rather pitiful, highly unusual attempts to write poems. In effort to render said attempts less pitiful, I did what any self-respecting baby poet would do, and took out some library books—including How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch.
“The spirit of poetry is awe,” Hirsch writes.
That line hit home. Indeed, my awe-inspiring surrounding are just what’s jiggered this impulse to write poems, after thirty years in which I’ve done well to avoid it: the thick, towering cottonwood trees in my yard, the snow-covered mountains in the landscape, the way they appear a different shade of stunning below every angle of the sun and formation of clouds.
Of course, merely experiencing that moment of awe isn’t enough; perhaps, I wondered, one reason why it’s so damn difficult to write a good poem is because it is so challenging to animate, or explore, or even share, the experience of awe.
One of my favorite sections in Geoff Dyer’s totally cynical, totally awesome book Out of Sheer Rage is this moment, where he describes regarding the ocean:
The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term ‘awe.’
There is something inherently unsatisfying in the word ‘awe:’ it describes the impact of being struck by something, beauty or brilliance, usually the likes of which we can’t quite comprehend—but does nothing to explain it.
And, being human, we aren’t content to know that something makes us feel awe. We need to know why. It’s that pesky, ineffable need: to narrate, to explain, to create causal relationships.
A paradox of literature, and maybe all art, is that we’re endlessly striving to capture an experience that can’t be captured. Of course, art doesn’t derive its beauty or significance solely from its proximity to truth. And yet, authenticity matters: particularly when it comes to words, often what makes us swoon is recognition—the sensation of yes, I know that, that is me, that feels real.
How, then, to render the truth of something as gauzy, as deeply personal, as, often, inarticulate, as the experience of awe?
But it’s one thing to render awe, and another, quite different thing to actually experience it. In order to even contemplate the former, it seems one had better get good at the latter. And, like many an impatient, progress-driven Americans, I struggle: I can hardly notice a mountain or cloud or sea before I notice my noticing…and it’s hard to observe a moment that hardly has a chance to happen. Like Dyer, I content myself to term the experience “awe”…and then set about trying to describe an experience I’ve barely had.
(Not that I intended to even try and make this cohere, but what the heck. Perhaps that aim of lingering in the awe can be instructive when it comes to managing rejection: there are certain moments in which we must allow ourselves to linger. And others, like when you’re told you’re shitty, that you had best leave right quick.)
But anyway. I guess we’re really talking about the same mental muscle when it comes to experiencing awe, writing poems, and even reading them: the one that allows us to slow down and pay attention. Tomorrow, promise, I’ll start meditating.