The Cruelest Month: On Being a Failed Poet

For one afternoon long ago, Jonathan Gourlay was a poetic genius.


Photo courtesy of brewbooks

I almost became a poet or was a poet or was going to be a poet or maybe I am a poet. It depends upon how you define poet — the definition is fluid in a way that, say, “auto mechanic” is not. Any reasonably intelligent human being over the age of three can write a poem, whereas most of us have trouble fixing a transmission. I am certainly not a successful poet if you measure the number of poems I have written or had published and adored by the public. The difference between you and me, perhaps, is that I desperately wanted these things.

No. Strike that. I assumed these things would just fall upon me without my trying terribly hard. In retrospect, this was the mistaken perception.

I wrote a lot of poetry between the ages of eight and 28. I am glad I did. As a non-athletic, B-grade student, it was the thing I could do. It wasn’t much, but it got me noticed. Certain girls were interested where, were I not a poet, they would not have been. Other guys learned guitar, did comedic impressions, or wore a spiked mo-hawk (it was the ‘80s). I wrote poems. It was all the plumage I could muster.

My wife remembers first meeting me in college, twenty-some years ago, because I was the big poet on campus at the time and editor of the literary review. Why should I remember meeting her? She was just some cute sophomore. I was in full feather then and very busy being deep. When we started dating, decades later, I guess that to her I was still that colorful and important guy. So poetry has really served me well, just not in the specific way I had imagined (e.g. being a poet that gave readings, published books, and hooked up with fawning co-eds in college-town Holiday Inns).

Being a poet gave me a way of being smart that wasn’t related to actually knowing anything. Some kids are book-smart, some are street-smart, I was simile-smart. In touch with the barbaric yawp of my own thoughts, I mined my short life for surprising images to bring before the court of youth, to declaim to my cohorts: here I am, good for something, better than you at this one thing. I slaked my teeming brain for whatever stray teeth it vomited up and by that I mean that I discovered sex and found it to be interestingly complicated and reported on this fact in poetic form.

Because I am not writing a poem, I can just tell you that. Otherwise you would be stuck holding vomitous brain teeth.

In 1993 I got a phone call at the front desk of the dormitory where I lived at Guangxi Teachers’ College in Guilin, China. On the other side of a sliding glass door of the front lobby of the GTC foreigner’s dorm was a white-tiled pond. In this pond was a thick rat, drowning in two feet of dirty water. I mention this because I wrote a fairly decent poem about the rat, its desperation, its bloated corpse, some girl I loved, and maybe the moonlight jailed like a cancer in its black, black eyes.

Anyway, my friend and communist party informer, Ma Ping, handed me the phone. On the other end was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham informing me that I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Getting into the Workshop, as I will now call it because I fucking earned it with my fresh and interesting similes, was like a big bowl of awesome. (I used to be better at it. I am an aging ballerina of figurative language.) I shall never forget the moment I got into the Workshop because it remains my greatest accomplishment as a poet.

The Workshop started in 1936 before there was an MFA industrial-complex spewing forth failed poets upon the landscape. In the past 77 years, a literary who’s who has studied or taught at Iowa — too many to list here. Writers both famous and not have written blistering Iowa tell-alls. It’s tempting, of course, to rag on the conceited, back-biting, dramatic atmosphere engendered by the insecure poets and fiction writers who ran the place. Who doesn’t want to see a bloviating narcissist taken down a peg or two? Or get back at the now semi-famous author who rejected your advances years ago? But, you know, it was two years to take myself seriously as an artist and live on loans and stipends. Who am I to belittle that time? Or become bitter because the world did not burst through my door demanding more double-sonnets? For the great majority of my graduating class, those two years are the sum total of the time of our lives that we could be focused on writing. I will never see that time — two years to write! — again.

The Workshop accepts twenty or so writers every year and out of that group maybe as many as four go on to a career as a writer, one or two claim the semi-fame of the celebrated literary novelist or poet. So the fact remains that most who attend the Workshop will end up in the human slush pile of “adjunct community college composition teacher.” Gradually their souls collapse under the weight of shitty five-paragraph essays and they go insane or find something else to do with their lives.

I was a poet then, and young. I was dedicated to spending the mornings, sometimes all the way to eleven in the morning, writing poems. Following that was the hanging-out and drinking phase of the day. Fiction writers tended to be more reclusive; they didn’t exit their hovels until happy hour.

In the evenings, we all worked on our drunken legacy. Whenever we halfheartedly punched each other or groped somebody’s girlfriend/boyfriend or urinated in the front seat of a Chrysler, we did it for our future biographers. We hadn’t fully understood the wisdom that only Hemingway can be Hemingway, the rest of us are just drunks.

We worked too. Perhaps it seems easy to you to cough up some bit of nonsense once a week for the poetry packet at the Workshop — but we were serious writers writing seriously. I don’t mean that facetiously. I was trying to get somewhere true with my poems. I was wallowing in the great cosmic swirl emanating from the green shag rug of my studio apartment hoping to reach a place of real beauty. An ego-less place of pure awareness. Once, I almost thought I had gotten there when I wrote a poem about a fighter jet taking off from a carrier and, basically, raping the clouds. It was about America, almost exactly like Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman are about America. This poem is what I brought to Jorie Graham for my individual conference.

First, Jorie had me fetch her a coffee from an old vending machine three floors below her office. I carried her hot coffee (in a poker-themed paper cup) up the riot-proof, trippy stairs to her office. The Workshop was, at that time, in a depressing, nearly windowless, 1960’s-era, Brutalist-style building. Jorie, just off her New Yorker feature spread and looking like Stevie Nicks but, if anything, more spangly and impressive, graciously received my ridiculous poem and her vending machine coffee. She took her time with the poem while I waited patiently for her verdict. With a toss of her wizardy, long hair and a shake of her many golden bracelets — a move that reminded me of traditional Indian dancing — she faced me, a mere mortal, a coffee-toter. She peered at me in the way a lioness with a full belly considers a young impala. She placed her electric hand upon my knee. She whispered, “Jonathan, this is genius.”

I cannot record what I said in return. I remember a thrill of blood and heat — like it must feel when the light that precedes an angel falls upon you. I floated away, down the riot-proof stairs, straight to Dave’s Fox Head bar where I eagerly awaited the chance to casually drop the fact that I was now a genius to my friends.

A few cheap PBRs into the evening, I related the pronouncement of the sage. I was a genius who wrote genius poems. I was ready to take up permanent residence on Parnassus with maybe just one or two muses for roommates. Apollo himself would come to me for advice on lyre-tuning and the proper way to phrase his paeans.

“Really? Um… She called me a genius too,” quoth a fellow poet.

“Oh yeah, she calls everyone a genius,” added another.

I had climbed Mount Parnassus only to discover that I was not even atop Hawkeye Point, the highest point in Iowa. No, I was one in a long line of poets-in-residence in the corner booth of the Fox Head bar, the lowest point in Iowa.

I stopped writing poetry about five years later.

Here is how I failed as a poet: I always wrote poems as a way of being seen, not a way of being. My whole turn at poetry was about attracting the world to me but, there is no less cheesy way of saying this, I had never been to me. My entire poetic project was plumage for a non-existent bird.

I reached an age, the age of children and divorces and deaths and real jobs, where it was no longer so important to me to be a pretty, pretty bird that was fawned over for his genius. I was, and am, content to be the common house finch I always was. I write in plain prose these days. I understand that there is, ironically, more beauty in the house finch than the peacock. The boring finch sings better songs too. So, suck it, peacocks and peahens.

I hope, though it remains to be seen, that this turn for the finch is not a sad giving-up — the way the budding musician fails once or twice and then resigns himself to noodling in the basement on the weekends and sinking into a swamp of what-ifs until he dies, unfulfilled, unremarked, unremembered. I hope it’s not that, though it is my greatest fear. I am living the gamble of the failed poet: give up and just be. Just be awake to your common finchyness. Take non-metaphorical walks in the woods. Be an observer of the world. Report upon it if you wish or simply babble your short life into the forest, the silent walls of the house, the distant, deaf heavens. Fall in love. Take care of something. Live.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.