Lines Lost Among the Trees
by Billy Collins
These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.
They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic
I devised to hold them in place -
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house
with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.
So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,
and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.
This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem-
not out into the world of strangers' eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,
home to lost epics,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,
which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.
All artists have books, or poems, or paintings, or projects that are never made manifest, ideas burning brightly in imagination that never transition into the physical world for all kinds of reasons: the timing isn't right; the pen isn't at hand; we are too busy, or ill, or fearful, or lazy; we don't have the space, the tools, the confidence needed to craft inspiration into tangible form. For whatever reason, we lose them. A story outline grows stale on us, the spark of a painting idea dims and goes out. So often there's a sense of shame attached to these never-mades and incompletes: the manuscripts stalled at Chapter Two, the illustrations planned but never finished, the projects discussed but never organized, the poems, like Billy's, lost among the trees....
But I prefer to think of these unformed artworks with gratitude, not shame. I imagine them all dwelling deep inside me. Yes, in one sense they have been lost: they will not be rendered in physical form. They will never engage in the conversation between writer/artist and reader/viewer that completes a work of art, existing only as scribbles in notebooks and sketch pads, slowly disappearing from memory. In the timeless realm of the soul, however, nothing is ever lost completely. I believe that each creative impulse nestles down in the dark loam of the psyche at levels much deeper than conscious thought. They are the compost that nurtures the roots of every story and painting we create today. And I bless them all.
Billy Collin's poem is from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998). The poem in the picture caption is mine; I've posted it here before, but it seemed to lend itself to re-use in today's context. The lovely drawings are "Miss Birch" and "Tree Nymph" by Virginia Lee. All rights reserved by the authors and artist.