November 07, 2005

Too Much to Set Aside

We wish God had commanded us to do something, but He hasn’t.

I once knew a man who commanded himself to write a sonnet every day for a year. He liked to say that God told him to. For a long time he wouldn’t show his sacred verses to anyone. At last he put them in a book and gave a reading, and I bought a copy.

The poems were skillfully done and showed a hard-earned knowledge of technique. They were full of smart soundplay and allusion and showed great sensitivity to the insensitivity of being male. He wrote about how strong his father was and how his wife had hurt him and how weak his father was and what a coarse, innocent teenager he had been. He wrote about eBay and iPod in meters Dryden had known. Every poem made me feel I had to tell him how good it was.

But of course there was something missing and he knew it. No need for anyone to say it. It wasn’t anything I could advise him to put in. To do that, I would have had to know where to find it. It was – let me try to think – it was that these were the poems any American man our age would have written if he could write poems. And while it was nice to see those things said with assonance and alliteration and half-rhyme and flexible rhythm, none of the lines was more beautiful than we had a right to ask. Which is, of course, what we have a right to ask.

He had been given just enough of a gift so that he couldn’t set it aside.

It turned out he was a character, not a writer – a creature, not a creator -- and reading his poems made me feel ashamed, as if I’d glanced at someone standing naked in a window and in the process, standing on the street corner, been stripped bare myself.

So if God discards most of us in the end and keeps only the choicest few, it’s not because we’ve touched something He’s told us to leave alone or haven’t paid Him tribute in the prescribed words. He’s put us here to see what we can come up with, and most of us haven’t come up with enough.