A Question Of Need

We walk the Shawano streets. His quiet hands
as silver as the moonlight filtered down
through maple, oak, black walnut, summac leaves.
The elms are dead; the oaks diseased. But peace
is palpable along the small town streets,
a feeling made poetic by the night.

Jim stalks across the sidewalk, dark, compact,
his rhythmic breathing pacing me past houses
stained black by shadows made intense by night.

At last he glances back into my face.

"The arts can’t grow in these small towns," he says.

"Why not?" I ask. "There’s beauty here, and peace.
The artist needs security to work--
and time to get perspective in his thought."

"Security!" he snorts. His footsteps echo soft
against the night’s dark silence. "Artists need
to live! To breathe! In Shawano tongues make art
out of the dabblings of a Sunday afternoon.
And then around the dabblings politics
spring up to sting the fool who’d try to birth
some different way of crafting tales or verse."

"There’s always politics in art," I say.
"Milwaukee’s Sculpture Project did you in
back in the Forties. Just remember back."

"My memory’s not so senile yet," he barks.
He stops, then plunges on into the dark.
"Big city politics are always rough.
One orthodoxy climbs up on the ruins
of other orthodoxies criticized to ruin.
But still, there’s politics and politics.
These small town politics destroy good art.
The politics of art result in art."

I walk beside him, wondering what to say.
His house shines through its windows at the dark.
We stop, the night our bond.

"You’ve said," I say.
"That art has got to get its meanings straight."

"That’s true," he says, a question in his voice.

"Those meanings, then, consist of what?" I ask.

"Of life," he says without a moment’s pause.
"Of difficulties born of circumstance.
Of parties, conversations, friendships, pain. . ."

His voice trails off. I look up at the moon.
Half full, its light diffuse, poetic to extremes,
it still effects me, making me alive
to night and stars and pools of window light.
I start reciting "Letter to An American Poet".

I have waited for the prodigal son to arrive, looking across the line of hills each day, hoping to see his cherub-like face again. But they say he is still in a distant land throwing away his inheritance, living a debauched life. For he has no real needs, they say-- not like the Russians Pasternak, Ginsburg, Yevtushenko, Solzhenitsyn. . .
I pause. He stares at me.

"That’s Ethel’s poem,"
he says. "It has the rhythms of her voice.

"A part of it," I say. I look at him.
"You think she’s right? About the needs, I mean."

He looks away from me into the stars.

"The artist has to have an ego strength," he says.
"But ego’s not enough. Ego has to have its roots,
the reasons that have made it ego-strong."

"Can’t needs be found along a small town’s streets?"
I ask.

He laughs. "Your ego’s strong enough,"
he says. "You like to web your arguments
into a dozen unrelated thoughts."

"The question’s one of right, not personality,"
I say. "Is Ethel right or wrong? Is art
best born by need? Or is it better born
of strivings after art or personality?"

"She sees that strivings cause debauchery?"
he asks.

"I’m not so sure," I say. "I know
she thinks that struggling leads to need which leads
to art. I doubt that striving after art
or personality can cause debauchery."

"She may be right," he says. "We have our needs.
But still, they’re not the needs of awful want.
Our needs are more desire than any want.
Perhaps art needs a hardened edge to reach
the depths that strike an universal chord."

"You’re philosophical tonight," I say.

"The arts don’t grow in these small towns," he says.
"There’s too much moon and star tranquillity."

I look at how the silver moonlight stains
his face into a mask of shadow-hills,
then laugh.

"Let’s go inside," I say. "I’m sure
our wives would like to see their night-struck men."

"Come on," he says.

We walk toward the house.