Many years ago, my mother took me to the Library of Congress to hear Galway Kinnell read. She had written her Master’s thesis on Kinnell, a thesis I’d read a time or three, so we were looking forward to hearing the living voice.
The living voice said a number of things that day; one of them concerned the use of form, and appropriately enough, it came in the form of a simile. Kinnell compared writing a poem to taking a dog for a walk, and he mentioned that it was important not to let the dog direct the walk. I believe he may have been speaking specifically of how form can nudge us to say things we don’t mean, force us to say something awkward to get the rhyme or the scansion. He may also have been speaking of the kind of poem that runs away from the poet, and the reader, and its own starting point, and is found only days later, covered in ticks and smelling suspiciously of carrion. I’ve since imposed some strictures concerning these perils upon roughly 500 undergraduates of my own, but I was twenty-one then.
Being young , brash, and full of forms, I grilled a long-suffering Kinnell on his simile afterwards: whose walk was it, I asked, his or the dog’s? Didn’t he trust his dog? Couldn’t he trust the poem to “learn by going where it had to go” and not direct it all the time? I didn’t quite ask him if it wasn’t blasphemous to have a plan for a poem and to direct its progress from above, rather than getting giddy on the divine intoxication of it all; but I expect I thought it.
Last November, my spouse and I were adopted by a dog: a seventy-pound rescue of dubious ancestry (certainly some Shar Pei, probably some Rottweiler, but, to quote Mary Adams of ARF, who provided the dog, lots of Traveling Salesman.) Because of his barrel-chested, low-slung profile, a certain party who shall not be named dubbed him Grond, after the ram which breaks the gates of Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.
This dog, I should add, resembles the siege engine in no other particulars than a doglike physiognomy and a battering-ram figure. To extend the Tolkien allusion, the good-natured Grond has been, in some darker periods of a dark year, like Galadriel’s glass—a light when other lights go out. He loves to walk, and it’s very hard to lie in bed wondering if self-mutilation can really be as bad as advertised, when you can give a fellow creature pure joy by getting up, shackling yourself into a sports bra, and taking to the walking paths.
However, love for a sport is no proof of commensurate talent (a consideration which also applies to writing), and walking with Grond has its challenges. At seventy pounds, and blessed with the kind of four-footed stability I’ve never enjoyed, Grond can pull me over with one good yank if my attention wanders. Grond is apparently unaware that cars are anything but a royal chariot to the fabled Dog-King of the Heimskringla and his worthy descendants. Grond likes to decide where to go, and his choices are not hindered by such trivial considerations as traffic, shrubbery, or nests of Lyme-bearing larval deer ticks. The light-when-other-lights-go-out can be, in fact, a tad stubborn, difficult, and disobedient, though generally in an enthusiastic and endearing way. We’re working on the obedience thing, but a transcript of a typical walk still goes something like this.
Grond : walkwalkwalkwalk!
Catherine: hold still, let me clip on your leash. You know we wouldn’t have to do this if I could trust you to come when I called. Or if you didn’t run out in traffic.
Grond: traffic what? Walkwalkwalk! Pausepausepause. Pause. Pause <systematically defiling day lilies>
C: Right, okay, come on. No, come on, these aren’t our day lilies. You just marked the last eight day lilies. The next twelve will be just fine if you don’t mark them. Really. Trust me on this. We’re walking now.
Grond: walkwalkwalk! <charge, galumph>
C <dogtrotting gamely at end of leash>: okay, great, running’s good. Okay, slow down. Running’s good, galloping’s excessive, you’re dragging me, whoa, slow down!
Grond <stopping in abrupt skid-turn to stare with a wild surmise at the unrevealing earth >: what? Something. Something…. <paw lifted in rudimentary point> something? OMG! Mole! Molemolemolemole! <tearing sudden deep divot in soccer field and anointing muzzle with soil>
C <tugging> No. No, no, no, that’s not your yard, you can dig all the moles you want when you get back to our yard! They’ll arrest us if we dig up the soccer field. You’ll be taken away wearing shackles and a muzzle, and I will not spring you.
Grond: mole! <reluctantly abandoning mole, which appears to be in no serious danger> Never let me have fun, LeashMonkey.
C: Yeah, I’m a monster. Want to try that running thing again?
Grond: OMG! Tuft of grass!
C: Dude, we’ve got three miles to go and we’ve covered ninety yards. Are you sure you need to sniff every tuft of grass?
Grond: OMG some more! Stuff in tuft of grass!
C: What is that? Don’t eat that!
Grond: <slobber slobber snorfle crunch>
C: Jesus H. You’re going to get giardia and cryptosporidium, and then I’m going to catch it from you, and then we’ll never go to walk any more.
Grond: grass? That was seconds ago! what’s important is this tuft of grass! and walkwalkwalk!
C: Check. Walk, walk, walk.
<repeat past eight lines twenty to fifty times, with minor variations>
C: good job on the hill, Grond. That van missed you by at least two feet.
Grond: <pantpantpant> Tired. <pausing approximately seventy-three separate times to sniff shrubbery, in indication of tiredness> Tired of leash. Stupid leash.
C: look, it’s not like I love the leash. If I let you off the leash and throw the ball, will you come back?
Grond <soulful eyes>: Absolutely. Love you. Love ball. How could doubt me?
C: okay…you’re free…here’s the ball.
Grond <breaking into scrabbling gallop> : Ball! Ball…? Hunh? Field of grass? Boring grass. Road with big bright fast-moving things quarter mile away! No longer tired. Must go there right now! <galumph galumph>
C: <sotto voce, hastening across field, leash in hand>: apparently I cannot be taught. <Bellowing> Grond! Grond! You stubborn difficult disobedient Light of Eärendil, stop before you’re crushed and melted!
Grond: hunh? Someone say something? drainpipe? <frantically sniffing culvert>
C <crossing street and dragging miraculously spared dog from culvert>: You know, some dogs would just splash into the creek and get muddy, or bring home a dead chicken, or roll on a skunk or something.
Grond : chicken?!
C: Okay, come on—we’re nearly finished here. Come on. Come on.
Grond <head cocked>: something? Something…? Something in underbrushOMGUNDERBRUSH! <plunging down bank into creekside thicket>
C <bracing feet> Look, I spent as much of my childhood in underbrush as the next kid, but you’re going to get that leash wound all through the viburnum, and then I’m going to have to come in and untangle you, and I’m going to get spiderwebs in my eyes and assassin bugs down my shirt and there are going to be ticks and thorns and black mambas.
Grond: Yank. Yankyankyank. Hunh. Stuck. Can’t move. Happened how? LeashMonkey! Come untangle!
C: <mutters non-school-appropriate things during subsequent six minutes spent untangling.>
Grond: You are in underbrush. You like underbrush too! Explore underbrush!
C: no, no, no, no. Look, there’s the car. In the car is a dog biscuit. Hey—biscuit? Remember? Biscuit?
Grond: <pantpantpant> Tired again. Cannot possibly walk further. Must. Not. give up one second of walk!
C: <dragdragdrag> Look, this was a loop because at some point we have to go home. Back where we came from. We can’t ramble endlessly further and further from our starting point. Seriously. I’ve got to go to work.
Grond <finally conceding>: okay. Fun. Walk. Good walk, LeashMonkey?
C: Good walk, Grond.
So you can see how it was, on a certain morning trek, that I remembered a Kinnell simile of twenty-two years gone.
Eerily enough, most of us get older. As we do that, we may edge imperceptibly away from the in-the-moment ecstasies of OMGtuft of grass! toward something a bit more structured: an inexplicable desire to cover some actual ground on our walks, a strange reluctance to waste too long in viburnum thickets. We may even decide that while we adore digging for moles (moles fated to long, serene lives undisturbed by our efforts), everybody winds up lost and covered with spiderslime if we don’t have at least a tentative destination in mind. Eventually we have to gyre back to where we began, and the walk has to be part of a broader life…and even fine dogs may forget that, if a seductive smear of carrion beckons. Some parts of writing are all about the moment, but at some point too we write with the mind as well as the nose. Sometimes the mind has to choose, if the poem’s ever going to be anything approaching public.
Galway Kinnell, it’s taken a couple of decades to fully and consciously appreciate your simile…but with Grond on the business end of the leash, I may be getting there at last.
This is Catherine’s twelfth post as a Guest Blogger.