On this day, in 1851, Moby Dick was published. We were required to read this book in high school, but I confess that I never finished it. I wanted to finish, just so that I could say I had done it. Oh, how I wanted to finish. But how little I wanted to read it.
As I remember, most of my high school class hated it, didn't attempt it, and read the Cliff's Notes. One encounter that motivated me to keep slogging through it was that one of our punk rockers waxed so enthusiastic about the book, going so far as to say it was the best book he'd ever read. Then, as now, I paid attention to what people were reading, and I knew that this guy read widely and some fairly deep stuff. And out of everything he'd ever read, he declared Moby Dick the best? What was I missing?
Now that I'm older, I understand how and why Moby Dick has spoken to readers through these 160 years that it's been around. That idea that we can go off (to a new town! to the sea! to anyplace where people don't know us!) and reinvent ourselves--how much that still speaks to us, at least Western readers. The idea of that quest, which seems both heroic and dizzyingly stupid at the same time--how much that seems like a valid metaphor for so many of our life situations at midlife and beyond! That cataloging of so many elements of whaling life! That mixing of cultures on the ship!
When I think of Moby Dick, I think back to a time when I was commuting twice a week to the University of Miami, a commute that involved a trip to the train station and two different transit systems, neither of which ever ran on time. I always lugged numerous books with me because Kindles didn't exist then, and I didn't want to face a multi-hour commute without books.
Again, I always paid attention to what my fellow commuters read. And for several weeks, I watched a young man's progress through Moby Dick.
This reader looked like the kind of hipster who should have spent late hours in jazz clubs playing saxaphone. Instead, he got off at the stop that took people to a sprawling hospital complex, so I suspect that his real life was very different than my imagined life for him. Perhaps he was a med student. Or maybe an orderly. Or maybe something totally different, since he wore regular clothes, not scrubs.
He also read the Bible on a regular basis. One time, a homeless guy approached us asking for money for the train. The Moby Dick reader gave the guy his transit card. I asked him how many trips had been left on it, and he said three.
I was impressed with that approach to panhandling, that ability to help the downtrodden without having to give away cash, cash that might not be used for train fare.
I've tried to create a poem out of the above details, with no luck. There's much there that should work when woven together into a poem: long train rides, long American classics, futile voyages, a quest which might kill us. Feel free to play!
I find it interesting how these ideas migrate across genres as I write. A failed poem becomes a blog post. Once after seeing a priest smudge ash crosses on the foreheads of unconscious patients in the ICU where my mother-in-law slumbered, I sat down at the computer fully intending to write a poem. Out came a grammar exercise for my Composition students. Only later did that exercise become a poem.
Ah, all these elusive whales, all these long sea journeys . . . or perhaps I metaphorically overreach.
Speaking of whales, I've been exploring Nic Sebastian's Whale Sound site, and I've enjoyed the poems very much. This morning I mustered up the courage to submit a poem.
While there, I noticed that she's about to launch into chapbooks. Audio chapbooks. What an intriguing idea. But instead of sending a manuscript I've already assembled, I want to spend some time thinking about my poems. Are there poems in my ocean of work that really need to be on paper? Are there poems that work better spoken than read? Hmm. Let me think a bit.
So, today, may your quests be fruitful, may the search not kill you or capsize those around you!
A Weekend at Chautauqua
3 weeks ago