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Personal Essay

"The Work is Play
For Mortal Stakes:"

Working, Playing, and Writing

By Earl J. Wilcox

          "The Work is Play For Mortal Stakes:"*
          Working, Playing, and Writing

        A young friend of mine was first a seminarian, then a liberal arts student, then – in no particular order – a banker, a department store worker, a fixer-upper, and in between all these jobs he had others which I can't recall. What he was actually doing when he kept switching jobs, and that he loved, was – writing!

        For many men, no matter the age, background, cultural DNA, it's a familiar pattern, this lifestyle of denying that writing is what one hankers to do, but can't bring one's self to just do it— perhaps believing they must do something else. We recall the biography of dozens of famous writers who tried their hands (sometimes literally) at other tasks before surrendering to their muses: Frost, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Jack London, Steinbeck. The list is long (We could compile an equally impressive list of notable women writers, too, but for this essay we'll use the term ‘men' generically and let the principle stand for all writers whose real work began when they started writing. Perhaps it was when they were allowed to have a room of their own?).

        So the unspoken but deeply felt notion was that some other job / work / career ought to be our vocation, even though writing is a first and only true love. A person might feel a genuine high-calling to preach or be a missionary, or have the constant urge to listen to the call of capitalism, to earn money, at least enough to keep the big bad wolf from the credit card company away from the door. But still. Still. There is this powerful story which itches to take shape from one's keyboard to screen to publisher. A play or poem may be edging its way to the surface, bothering the hell out of the writer until he satisfies the hunger and sits down to write. Alas, and as it turns out, when one story or poem is finished, yet another is fast behind. The writer's work is never done.

        One doesn't need a powerful imagination to create the truth of how would-be writers, working in one world but living in another during the Victorian era, for example, dealt with their angst. Simply put, many almost starved (not as far fetched as it might seem to some who don't read literary biography – see Frost and London, for instance), gave up family and careers, or found ways to compromise their affection for the imagination and the realities of this shadow-like existence we call mortality.

        Of course, what these writers eventually did was locate the world of the imagination and fire it up with the reality all around them. In such a cauldron might have been brewed the amazing poetry of Frost, the early fiction of London, even the ultimate poetry of one who would become an insurance executive or a physician (An important cavil is offered here, as I do not know how the imagination shapes those ideas / urges / moments into art. Not in others, least of all in myself!).

        I worked as a farm boy during the first two decades of my life. I lived in rural Arkansas, a quarter of a mile from the nearest mailbox and probably ten miles from an incorporated town. In this small village during World War II, I knew the restrictions and hardships of rationing, the poverty of entertainment, and the longing for ways to find more books to read. In those days, mobile libraries did not exist in my world. Today, more than a half century later, rural images sometimes dominate my dreams, and poems often emerge from those experiences and the dreams I still have about my life as a country boy. However, since leaving that past I have traveled all corners of the USA, lectured in England and Greece, done research at the Library of Congress, the British Library, Oxford University, and other exotic places in Greece.

        Despite the contrast between my early experiences and my life as a scholar/teacher, my aim has always been – whether articulated or not – to be productive and happy at the same time. Long before I became acquainted with Frost's tramp in his wonderful poem, Two Tramps in Mud Time (1934), I think my ambition was the same as that articulated by the speaker:

                "My object in living is to unite
                My avocation and my vocation
                As my two eyes make one in sight.
                Only where love and need are one,
                And the work is play for mortal stakes,
                Is the deed ever really done
                For Heaven and the future's sakes."

        The key phrase in this thoroughly evocative poem seems to be "the work is play." Frost himself got into a great deal of unhappiness because, while he considered his writing poetry early in his life as "work," his family had little sympathy, and no doubt at times considered the poet's writing apprenticeship as play, in the literal sense. And so it is with many writers still, and in particular, those of us who late in life discover the playfulness in the work of creating poems. We are now learning, through much research and life experiences, that older persons may avoid some forms of senility and even the ultimate decline into Alzheimer's by exercising certain brain cells rarely used.

        A recent poem of mine describes such a person, Aunt Emma, whose estate sale provided an occasion for one of her grandchildren to recall how she worked and played to remain mentally healthy.

Postponing the Slippery Slopes

The usual stuff was up for sale:
an incomplete set of frazzled napkins,
bleach-spotted and stained placemats,
cracked, cut glass candy dishes.

On a table that wobbled
like Aunt Emma the last time I saw her
were yellowed thank you notes,
a half-full bottle of VicksŪ, boxed hankies.

In the room where Aunt Emma was seldom at home
– the kitchen –
someone had hastily stacked
her bedraggled pots and pans,

the way she would have piled them up
in a rush to return to a romance
or a thriller. Aunt Emma neglected
almost everyone except us – and books,

her two passions.
She read to remain spry and sassy.
If we did not want to talk books,
we stayed away from her messy house, her sharp mind.

Mismatched cups and saucers, chipped china
– even undercooked spaghetti –
were signs Aunt Emma
prepared for our visits.

She endured Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket
to engage us in verbal jousts.
At her estate sale, we felt sure
we glimpsed her

soaring through the house,
off to play goalie in Monday's Quidditch match,
to take the game,
avoid the slippery slopes of the forgetful mind.

        Such playfulness as Aunt Emma experienced – in staying young through reading and interacting with her grandchildren – seems to be at the heart of ways in which work and play intersect. In this important sense, one's work is never done. "Gramps," described in this next poem, belongs to the same school of research, as he seems to have kept his mind keen through the ordinary work (or play) in doing crossword puzzles:

Five Across, Two Down

Dear Gramps,

At the estate sale today, I saved the chair you
always sat in to work your daily crossword puzzle.
You poured over the paper every morning since
I have been big enough to pull up to your knee.
One morning I quietly stole downstairs, took a
quick turn toward the kitchen, where you sat in that
rickety chair wearing that same cruddy robe, trying
to match five across with two down. You had
nothing on under that robe. Nothing – legs spread,
eyes squinting intently at the paper, you tapped
a Mozart beat with your pencil. I wish you had spied
me first that day – then I wouldn't have seen your
slingshot balls, swaying idly like a pair of old church
bell clappers. I could have lived a long & happy life
without ever seeing them, dear Gramps.

        Contemporary therapists tell us that sometimes simply talking with others keeps the brain active, and many retirement communities and nursing facilities now provide sessions whereby older citizens articulate their deepest longings and satisfy some unspoken needs by having conversations with others. The two elderly men in my poem, Two at Talking, seem to be exploring ways in which they may continue to be mentally healthy through regularly meeting up with each other.

Two at Talking

George, a tall, slightly stooped man in his aging burly coat,
        walks his dachshund.
Much shorter and with his basset hound, Calvin meets George
        each morning at the bagel
bakery on Parson's Street, a quiet place, where dogs are treated
        to day-old goodies, and two
old men share thoughts about jogging, Pynchon, and politics.

Long ago they might have talked war, as they both served
in the Navy, each still at the ready to recall adventures at sea.

Today, Calvin tells a tame tale, thinking it slightly raunchy,
        even for George,
who retaliates with a limerick he learned from an Irish sailor,
        somewhere long ago.
When the crisp, autumn breeze causes both men to zip up their
        coats and their lips,
they whisk the dogs up gently, stroll off briskly into the morning.

        Probably the most familiar intersection of work/play among the elderly is through games, in particular, card games such as bridge. Keeping the mind agile has a direct correlation with keeping the body physically fit. Or so it seems. Octogenarians everywhere swear to the therapeutic effect of regular bridge playing. Such work/play keeps the mind sharp, helps engage and prolong one's sense of humor, even triggers memories one thought had long ago fled. Two such ladies are up to this kind of happiness in my poem:

Kings, Jacks, and a Few Jokers

As classmates in college the two women took up bridge
instead of boys, while Hitler played chess in his bunker.

For years they played the game, even as they were being
courted, if not by kings at least by jacks and a few jokers.

As their lives took different turns – when husbands,
children, and life happened – they kept the game going.

Today, after playing more than a half-century, the women
sit at a bridge table, one barely able to note a club from

a spade, the other pausing in mid-bid to chuckle about a sex
escapade when she made a grand slam while on her back.

        Could one deny that these two have found a way in which their "work and need" are one?

        Wordsworth was right on target in exploring ways in which he might activate recollections from early childhood to create a new kind of poetry: the uses of memory to invent poems. Though he was much younger than I am today, as I recollect from childhood and invent poetry which I never knew existed until I began to write it, I can claim that such a reservoir exists in some mystical place which I have only recently begun to tap. I cannot lay claim to a gyre or having an "automatic writer" guiding me to write, but still the process is as mystifying to me as if Yeats himself were looking over my shoulder. How else, I ask myself, each time I playfully work through a heart-wrenching memory such as the one embodied in:

A Sonnet to Easter, 1947

That Sunday we no doubt heard a sermon on sin
and salvation, wrapped in a hot Baptist blanket
of hymns hallowing the resurrection and an altar call.
As my sister and I strolled solemnly from church,
down a well-traveled byway in the rural South – now
more than a half century ago – a man (not an ox)
was in the ditch, dead as the one in the sermon. Stabbed,
not by Romans but by nefarious nabobs, our corpse
lay on his back, arms splayed, eyes glinting in the noonday
sun, body long cold from a knife or some
blade that cut his gut, where blood once oozed but
now caked dry on his country clothes. Appalled,
we stared at the body long enough to know we did
not know him, raced each other in a hectic heat home.

        In looking through the inventory of more than 150 poems written during the past two years or less, I am struck by the alternation of poems reflecting early childhood and contemporary events. Interests in politics, the arts, sports, bridge, and other areas frequently intersect with such topics from more than six decades ago. The work and play configurations complement rather than collide. The concern among the elderly about short-term vs. long-term memory is a constituent part of the way I find myself exploring how a poem comes into being; creative work or play evolves from emotional content.

        Whether a poem is about the war in Iraq, my granddaughter's diabetes, the death of a son, the ageing process as I see it coming on in my seventh decade, or even about a bird building nests on my light fixture, I declare the innate joy of the playful element in working out the nuances of the poem that ultimately surfaces.

                                                                                        ~ By Earl J. Wilcox

*From Robert Frost's Two Tramps in Mud Time.

Earl J. Wilcox is The Centrifugal Eye's Featured Interview Poet for Summer 2007.
Read more about Earl on his Poems page.

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