Our household is in a sad, squalorous state. Last Saturday I met a significant, if arbitrary, deadline for my book and it was a very productive week — tired and raw at times, but also immersive and good. After I got everything mailed off I said to Lowell, “I feel married to the book now.” But Sunday I rested, and Monday I didn’t write well, and Tuesday either, and now it’s Thursday and I have nothing but a couple notebook pages and I’ve reached that hard, jangling mood that — in flashes of self-awareness — I realize is making me act like the cokehead at the party who no one wants to talk to because he/she is an ***hole. It is one of the most bewildering things about writing (I find), how one can be in the book one week, and then expelled from it the next.
Lowell is under a programming deadline and keeps talking about nervous breakdown. He needs a haircut. There’s a heating bill on the counter that’s been there for a month like a significant presence in the house, and everyone everywhere seems to be ahead of us in getting their taxes started. We’re out of groceries but Lowell can’t go because he’s legitimately working and I can’t go because I need to stay near my computer not writing. This morning a small but pivotal piece of the coffee-maker broke off and our mutual consternation was astounding. Lowell got out a flashlight and was shining it up into the interior of the machine to see if he could re-attach the small, pivotal piece. He couldn’t but found, shining the light up in there, that the interior of the machine is laced with dog hair. Neither of us knows how this happened — the dog generally isn’t allowed up on the kitchen counters. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the cat has had an upset stomach all week and keeps walking to the back door, catching my eye, and throwing up.
(It has taken me two paragraphs to describe this. Yesterday, on Twitter, Hit Song linked to this clip that summarizes the entire domestic mood in just :18 seconds.)
Terry and OGIC have their own terrible deadlines, and so this morning I was thinking I would have to put up a post today that said in effect, “Sorry, I am too busy NOT WRITING to write anything here.” And that reminded me of all of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great writing about not writing, which is incredibly artful and beautiful and often funny, even when the source was painful.
One painful source, of course, was the rupture with Wordsworth, and the letter I’m going to quote was written shortly after it occurred. (If you’re not up on your early Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge originally were to produce Lyrical Ballads together. But then Wordsworth limited Coleridge’s influence on the first edition, refusing to allow “Christabel” to appear in it, and then further boxed him out of the second. All of this sounds comic and arcane as one types it up for the Internet in 2009 but when you read about this period of Coleridge’s life in the Richard Holmes biography, it is like seeing someone get lopped off at the knees or taking some other terrible blow.) Coleridge entirely lost his confidence, and (as Holmes observes — this isn’t my insight) stopped for a time being able to write about anything but not writing. But even these submerged bits of creativity are masterpieces, and here is one:
In my long Illness I had compelled into hours of Delight many a sleepless, painful hour of Darkness by chasing down metaphysical Game — and since then I have continued the Hunt, till I found myself unaware at the Root of Pure Mathematics — and up that tall smooth Tree, whose few poor branches are all at its very summit, am I climbing by pure adhesive strength of arms and thighs — still slipping down, still renewing my ascent. — You would not know me — ! all sounds of similitude keep at such a distance from each other in my mind, that I have forgotten how to make a rhyme — I look at the Mountains (that visible God Almighty that looks in at all my windows) I look at the Mountains only for the Curves of their outlines; the Stars, as I behold them, form themselves into Triangles — and my hands are scarred with scratches from a Cat, whose back I was rubbing in the Dark in order to see whether the sparks were refrangible by a Prism. The Poet is dead in me — my imagination (or rather the Somewhat that had been imaginative) lies, like a Cold Snuff on the circular Rim of a Brass Candle-stick, without even a stink of Tallow to remind you that it was once cloathed and mitred with Flame. That is past by! — I was once a Volume of Gold Leaf, rising & riding on every breath of Fancy — but I have beaten myself back into weight and density, & now I sink in quicksilver, yea, remain squat & square on the earth amid the hurricane, that makes Oaks and Straws join in one Dance, fifty yards high in the Element.