- “To Read a Fine Thing”:Three Poems Honoring Steinbeck
For several years I have been working on a collection of poems based on the life and writings of John Steinbeck. But another John—John Whiteside, a character prominent in Chapter 11 of Pastures of Heaven—helped inspire the project.
In Pastures, John, a genteel California rancher, has been busy for a good while at his desk. “What in the world are you doing?” his wife Willa asks. Eventually John says, “Listen to this, Willa.” She relaxes, and her husband sheepishly reads to her the poems he’s been writing. Willa gently lets John know that they not very good. Then he explains to her that he has been reading Virgil: “It’s almost impossible to read a fine thing without wanting to do a fine thing.” John’s impulse is to respond to the reading “of a fine thing” by trying to write something fine. To the poet Virgil, to his wife, and to himself, he offers an aesthetic response to what Virgil has written: his own poetry. John Steinbeck allows his character to fail in his attempt to “do a fine thing,” but, at the same time, Steinbeck writes with tenderness and without disdain of the character who responds to Virgil’s poetry by trying to write beautiful poems. Steinbeck seems to suggest that whether or not John Whiteside succeeds in that attempt is irrelevant: he tries. John Whiteside honors Virgil with his weak poetry, and, more importantly, he honors the impulse of all art.
So my idea was that I could honor the art of Steinbeck, that I almost always consider “a fine thing,” not by writing traditional criticism of his work, but by trying to do my own fine thing: writing what it is my inclination to write anyway: poetry, and, in this case, poetry that responds to Steinbeck’s works and life. My collection, still in progress, is entitled Ears, a title that I hope calls to mind Steinbeck’s most distinctive physical feature, his gift for knowing how to listen, his desire to be listened to, and my own desire to “hear” his work not only intellectually, but in an aesthetic way—always as art and not as treatise. Following are three of the collection’s poems. [End Page 185]
Before You Knew
“That man must be very happy now.”—Father Angelo, To A God Unknown
Remember back to before you knew you werethe tree, to before you knew to reach downwith your roots and up with your limbsand your leaves to the clouds and to the godwho made you, back to before you held anotherman or woman or a baby in your boughs,to before your muscled branches twisted in the winter
wind with joy, piercing the ripe, alabaster moon.
Think back to before you knew you werethe sun, to before you knew to grow largeand low in the evening sky, to glow red in the blackhung fog. Remember how you watchedyourself set, without knowing what you saw, howyou slipped under the West without any regretor knowledge of your own slipping, how you slept
through the slow burning of the past in your breast.
Remember the time before you knew you werethe rock, before you’d explored the mountainrange of your body, understood the sadness of itsintractable weight. Think back to when youbelieved you could move or be moved, to the timebefore you imagined you could be fast fixedby the rich, dense moss. Recall how lost you were
in the forest, how unable to make your own shade.
Now remember the time before you knew you werethe rain, before you knew the myth of death,the fallacy of drought, the way the sky would simplyopen up for you and pour you out, back to when
you thought your veins were full of blood and blood
was something other than the rain, other thanthe sap of trees, the trickle of streams, the vaporof space, the fearful, dewy notation of a godling. [End Page 186]
Day After the Party