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The difference between "western" alchemy and Chinese alchemy is that the Chinese quest involves a recipe for an elixir of immortality as opposed to a search for a way to make lead into gold. In both cases it was the foolish kings and emperors who threw mountains of their own money toward the alchemists and were ultimately disappointed. They had little understanding of metaphor and their literal minds knew no other way to look for riches or longevity. There were, of course, many alchemists who were happy to produce foul-tasting potions to please the emperors and to ride the money train until the rulers got impatient and lopped their heads off. The western alchemists, too, worked like modern pharmaceutical "researchers", always on the verge of a "cure" for AIDS or cancer but never quite making the lead shine.
For some of us, writing is that kind of a search (though without either the funding or the pressure of kings). I don't mean that the focus of writing is the achievement of immortality. In the way that the Holy Grail myth was about the quest rather than the goal, I think that writing is more about process than product. I suppose I'm less interested in the question of what makes a writer decide to stop tinkering with a given piece (many of us do it endlessly. Steven Heighton spends huge sums of money making changes to his final page proofs just before the plates hit the ink; Earle Birney rewrote and republished versions of poems decades apart) than I am in the question of when the poem itself ends. The communication that writing is doesn't happen until a reader invents the poem they read. If it's a good poem the memory of it might even stay with that reader for a while, and if the reader is also a writer they may echo a line or an idea somewhere in their own work so that some essence of the poem gets passed along like a baton in a relay. If the poem lives, even the author might come back to it in later days or years and read it as something new; transformed by experience, the poem will be something they hadn't known it was.
This is the kind of LA-TE-DA that I've heard people talk about before:
poets looking for "immortality" through their work. Being a conduit
for the poems of others is as important as writing for me. I'm not talking
about fame here. If a minor Canadian poet in the late twentieth century has
delusions of great fame and fortune then I think we're in trouble. But I
think of that Bugs Bunny cartoon where the guy from the future finds a
singing frog in a can. I'd like that guy or girl to find a poem of mine when
they're on an archeological dig, and to take some pleasure from the noise
it makes. It might be that they won't get the poem to sing for their emperor
but it might shine a little. If it means something to them, the poem will
hang on a little longer and take another breath.
June 15, 1996
Jay Ruzesky's works copyright © to the author.