Notes toward an understanding of poetic imagination
When I was a student in Iowa City, Stanley Bomgarten and I used to drink at a place called George’s a few blocks from campus. One morning we were celebrating Stanley getting fired from his job as assistant pastor at the local Baptist Church when a young man walked in and sat at the bar. He was tall and thin with short greasy hair. His eyes shone with wild intensity behind thick black-rimmed lenses. His cheeks were flushed as if he had a fever.
“Is your name Mark?” he asked. “No it’s Mike,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said, “God gave me a poem to give to you. You can publish it under your own name if you want.”
From memory he wrote these lines on a paper napkin:
When a man has tried his soul
as if it were open to loss or win
and felt the better for his trial
or felt he has traveled far
from accustomed ways
becomes a source of joy, concrete
is comforting to walk upon and churches
have their stained glass lighted.
Then he acquires acquiescence
and the wind is cool on his cheek
and he neither laughs nor cries
but looks upon things about him.
He is in the infinite heart
where the air is cool numinescence
in the sky. He begins to think
of the face he has seen
and his eyes begin searching
for the stars.
He handed me the napkin, got up, and walked out of the bar without ordering anything.
I asked Stanley what he thought of the guy. Stanley said he believed God really had given him the poem. I laughed, but when I realized Stanley was serious, I ordered another beer. We sat for a long time without saying anything. Then Stanley said his life was going to Hell.
It’s been thirty years since I heard Stanley moved back to his parents’ farm. Thirty years since I finished my degree and began wandering in my self-made wilderness. As for the odd young man with the poem, I never learned his name and I never saw him again.