Six lines

by James Somers, February 13, 2011

When I was younger, I would occasionally sit down to my computer thinking I was about to compose a masterpiece, something that would all but earn my place in the canon. I would have a peculiar feeling brewing, that I was on the cusp of a radical insight, that I was about to see the soul of man. It was an epiphanic mood: everything I was seeing, I was seeing as crucial and human and connected to some secret the substance of which sat wonderfully unarticulated in the canny shadows of my mind. I had but to write it down and claim my prize.

I wouldn’t need much. Ezra Pound said, “If a man writes six good lines he is immortal.” A single stanza would do. Maybe a sonnet.

The mistake I was making was simple: looking at a blank page, thinking of myself as an above-average writer, a sensitive thinker, I felt like nothing material stood in the way of me and my six lines. It wasn’t like I was trying to run a four-minute mile or prove the Collatz conjecture, where it would take years just to get the tools, the mechanics, the muscles, to level with the problem. All I had to do was type the right words.

But the page isn’t blank, and my brain isn’t the Library of Babel. There are only so many things I can think.

Insights—the kind that Shakespeare had; the kind that Joyce had—aren’t just “in the air.” They’re the fruit of a lifelong process: seeds looked for and lucked upon, grown with steady care, seized when they ripen. I may never have one.