Monday, July 27, 2020

The Evolution of a Poem, Decades Apart

Scenic overlook of Paterson, NJ
Scenic overlook of Paterson, NJ, from Garret Mountain,
with New York City in the distance.

As I rooted through old boxes to clean out my garage during this pandemic lockdown, Neil Young's song "Vacancy" began to play on Sirius XM.

I lifted my head.

I didn't recognize the song... surely, it was new. Yet something about it seemed different than recent Neil Young songs.

His voice was immediate and clear, and the opening riff and beat seemed straight from the mid-1970s, reminding me of his first famous band, Buffalo Springfield.

"That's extraordinary," I thought, given that Neil is now 74 years old... but not entirely surprising, considering his continued passion. Witness this performance of "Mr. Soul" just nine years ago.

Then the DJ explained that "Vacancy" was a song originally recorded in 1975 but released only last month as part of the "Homegrown" album.

How does aging impact creativity?

I admire the art Paul Cezanne produced toward the end of his life. But his career was rare, almost magical.

In the world of music, Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" is a favorite song of mine and my wife, Nancy (just another reason I love her). I think, and Nancy agrees, it's a song he only could have written when he was young. It's about beginnings, an invitation to a journey that can't be replicated later in life.

Could he write a better song now that he's 70? Perhaps, because Bruce is Bruce. Still, it would be a different song by a different Bruce. And, sigh, "different" is different than "better."

Steve Jobs sometimes compared two versions of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" performed by pianist Glenn Gould early in his career in 1955 and as a mature artist in 1981. Jobs considered the later version more nuanced and soulful.

I wonder.


Manuscript found in garage
Found poem.
Cleaning out my garage has been a revelation: Boxes of old photos (see Saturday night's post) and old papers. I found a folder of writing assignments I had submitted many years ago in classes taught by a Notre Dame literature professor, the talented poet Sonia Gernes.

Reading my poems decades later, my writing voice, like Neil's singing voice, seemed more immediate and clear in college. Clumsy too. Much of my early writing seems creepy and obsessive when I was shooting for "tender and evocative." That probably explains a lot about my past love life too. 🙂

I also, apparently, thought I knew everything. Despite helpful and insightful comments made by Professor Gernes, I never (except once) tried to revise my poems.

I will now.

In fact, I have to: I told friends in a local photo-journaling class I would, and I feel I owe it to my social media friend, journalist Laura M. Holson, who has often written about embracing creativity, especially as we age.

Here's a poem titled "Scenic Overlook," in which I tried to describe the arc of a relationship in terms of someone who exited a highway to admire a panoramic view.

You can see my struggles in the "found poem" photo. I didn't have a panoramic view of life when I was 20. The original read like this:

Scenic Overlook

In the distance, in the
break in the clouds on the horizon,
I can see laughter.
A sunset.
I had forgotten about that.

It's an old story --
separating the forest from the trees.
It seems to me now that there are
a lot better places I can be than
standing here, surveying my past,
when the only thing within my reach
are the cold, damp car keys in my hand.

I have a plan.

Don't get me started on the cliches and sloppy language: "separating the forest from the trees... it seems to me now that there are a lot better places I can be..."

However, I still like the idea behind the setup of the poem. I'm not throwing away my shot.

Here's a re-do, written last night during a heatwave in New Jersey:

Revised in 2020

Scenic Overlook

This is a dangerous place to stand.


In the distance,

in the descending dusk on the highway's horizon,

I see a house fly

alight on your thigh.


It's 40 years ago, and you are in bed at my side,

languid and nude.

I didn't pull over for this. Despite all signs,

I find it a dizzying view.


The fly rubs its hands and plots its next move.

A dismissive twitch of your flesh shoos it in a flash. 

Then you disappear too, just like that,

as cars on Route 80 flee to the west.


I look to the east.

Behold this precipice: these wounds, dark and deep.

Alone on this road, alone in my bed,

40 years later,


I still watch you while you sleep.


Finally, trimming a few words, adding a Gatsby reference, and answering the questions, "Why might she be sleeping?" and "How can her lover still watch her if she's disappeared?":

Revised in 2022

Scenic Overlook


This is a dangerous place to stand:

Cliffside in Paterson, in the descending dusk.


Past the highway below,

in the horizon of the city skyline at my feet,

I see a house fly alight on your thigh.


It's 40 years ago, and you are languidly napping in our room.

The road signs pointing here didn’t warn me of this.

I find it a dizzying view.


The fly rubs its hands, obsessed, plotting its next move,

until shooed in a flash by a dismissive twitch of your flesh.

Decades disappear, just as fast, as cars on Route 80 flee to the west.


I look to the east.

Facing this vanished breast of a new world,

I hold my breath on the precipice… these wounds, dark and deep.


40 years later,

I still watch you as you sleep.

            -- Bob Varettoni, 9/2/22

I caught a double rainbow there in 2021.

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