Bridgeman Images 

I knew a poet who could only write his poems with a stub of a pencil. Nothing else worked for him as well. His family and friends bought him fountain pens, ballpoints, typewriters, and laptops, but he kept away from them. “It’s like giving a dog a wristwatch for Christmas,” his wife said. Only lead pencils would get him excited. “How come?” friends asked him. Because, he explained, one can chew a pencil all the way down to a stub while thinking what to write next. He also had no use for writing pads, notebooks, and fine stationery. He preferred envelopes of old bills and the backs of leaflets passed out in the streets of New York that advertised quick loans, massage parlors, fortune tellers, and fire sales, though a restaurant menu or a bank deposit slip could serve him just as well.

*

There was one more thing! He liked to write his poems in the kitchen while his wife cooked. Setting him up in a room with a terrace on French Riviera or in a chalet in Swiss Alps was a waste of money, since too much natural beauty tended to make him sleepy. The moment, however, he heard his wife mincing garlic or chopping parsley in the kitchen, the Muse came calling. Thick homemade soups, beef stews, baked hams, and grilled sausages did the trick. A lyric poem is like haute cuisine. It requires a discerning nose and a delicate touch with the spices. The aromas floating in the air made his mouth water, his eyes shed tears, so he’d go running for a pencil and for something to write on, both of which he kept in a kitchen drawer together with an ample supply of toothpicks. He’d then pour himself a glass of red wine and sit down. One or two glasses sipped slowly is all he required. He avoided drinking a whole bottle because it would make him sentimental, and instead of writing poetry, he’d want to sing show tunes and Italian opera.

*

What he loved about writing with a stub is that it made his scribble mostly illegible. That way, he never felt embarrassed by what he had written. He’d look at it, and look at it, afterward, while trying to guess what in the name of God he had said. If he had no luck, he asked his wife for help. She surprised him again and again by coming up with things that sounded better than anything he’d had in his head. A marriage of real and imagined, isn’t that what poetry is? As the years passed, he could no longer recall what was his, what his wife’s, and what belonged to all those divine concotions of hers simmering on the stove, some of which, the truth to be told, were as much the authors of his poems as he was. It was a collaboration, he told himself. The two of us working closely together like a couple of mad scientists in a horror movie, fussing over their test tubes in the laboratory and shouting at their dog Igor to stop barking and let the mailman leave that handful of rejection slips from poetry magazines in the mailbox.

*

Who is this idiot? You are probably thinking. It’s me, of course. “Could you describe your writing process?” They keep nagging writers and artists these days. Does anyone ask the world hotdog-eating champion how he trains? They probably do. You are known the world over for your sculptures carved out of butter, sir, turning out masterpieces that are attracting the attention of leading museums in this country and the world: Did you churn your own butter when you sculpted your famous Weeping Madonna, or did you buy it at the local supermarket? If he says he makes his own, they want to meet the cow from which the milk came and take a photograph of the two of them standing next to the sculpture.

*

Since poets, if they are honest, rarely know where their poems come from or remember how exactly they were put together, they are forced to concoct explanations out of their biography, literary jargon, and psychobabble in the air to please their audiences. They didn’t always have to do that. Nobody asked T.S. Eliot or Robert Frost such questions. I recall a famous poet in my youth, sitting in a chair surrounded by kneeling students who watched him in total absorption as he cleaned his nails with a toothpick, thoroughly and in complete silence.

*

When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I confessed to her that I still did, she stared at me dumbfounded. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and rolled her eyes, probably thinking to herself, This son of mine has always had a screw loose. It made me recall how, when I was young, she used to tell our neighbors how her no-good son is always scribbling something in secret. She’d try to peek over my shoulder—other members of the family did, too—so I’d crawl into bed and cover my head. When they asked me what I was doing there, I kept quiet or shouted, Nothing! Once, she searched my bed when I was in school and found a stub of a pencil under my pillow. The other times she looked, there was nothing there at all.

I have no memory of anything like that and no idea of what she was talking about.

*

In an age of computers and smartphones when pencils are becoming extinct, be sure to be kind and considerate should you happen to come across a stub dropped in some public library or a butcher’s shop condemned to be shut down. You can be sure that it has a history. (They all do.) If you feel like a Good Samaritan, bring it home and leave it in a safe place in your room, so that one day when you are idle and you bring it out of its hiding, it may begin to tell you the story of its life as you hold it gently in your hand.

LEAVE A REPLY