On "the thing I came for"

Friday, May 21, 2010

The title of my blog, of course, comes from Adrienne Rich's achingly beautiful poem Diving Into the Wreck, which has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in Introduction to Literature during my first year of college.  I'm not a poetry expert, by any means, and I can honestly say that of the four main genres of literature, poetry is the one I'm the least comfortable teaching and discussing.  But there's something about this poem that has always spoken to me, as a writer, as a reader, and as a traveler.  In fact, my first attempt at blogging, the travel blog I started (and abandoned) a few years ago, was also called "Diving into the Wreck."  After two days of debating what to call this new blog--Should I use a pithy quote? Should I just use my name?  Should writing be in the title?--I reread Rich's poem and realized no other name would ever fit quite as well.

In her review of Rich's book, Margaret Atwood (one of my all-time favorite writers) says, "The wreck she is diving into...is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women." Rich's quest is "the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the 'I' and the 'You,' the He and the She, or more generally...about the powerless and the powerful." In many ways, this is always the writer's quest.  If, as Horace stated, the purpose of poetry is to "educate and delight," it most certainly is also to discover truth.  Perhaps not capital 'T' Truth, but those small truths that we all take for granted, that it can take a writer to reveal to us.  Those are the moments many readers read for, those little turns of phrase that suddenly enlighten our understanding of some matter, that make us better understand what it means to be human.    

For a long time, my favorite lines in this poem were "I came to explore the wreck./ The words are purposes./  The words are maps."  This was how I saw the writing process, the importance of words on the page.  But my focus on these lines perhaps caused me to underestimate the power of the next stanza:  "the thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth."  The wreck is what separates great writers from great storytellers.  Bookstores are full of books by fantastic storytellers who cannot be called great writers because their stories simply "delight," without revealing any essential truth.  The world needs both, of course.  But what Rich's poem reveals is that as writers, we cannot be afraid to go there.  We cannot be so wrapped up in creating myth and story that we forget the thing itself, what the story is really all about.

And what is it all about?

Rich's poem (and Atwood's review) reveals this as well, although it's something we've known all along--the writer's journey is about men and women, about the powerful and the powerless; it is, in effect, about being human, with all the flaws that come with that designation.

Rich finishes the poem by describing one of the fundamental parts of writing, the process of becoming the character, of becoming the hero of the myth, "the mermaid whose dark hair/ streams black, the merman in his armored body," just as all writers must do, must become the characters, the people who inhabit our stories.  As we are discovering these characters, however, as we are letting them share with us their lives and their truths, we simultaneously must come to terms with the realization that these are not our stories--we have merely been privileged enough to have a small share in them, in these lives and in these myths, "in which/ our names do not appear."


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