After a year or two of keeping my head down and trying to pass myself off as a normal person, I made contact with the five other people at my university who were interested in writing; and through them, and some of my teachers, I discovered that there was a whole subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing that was going on just out of general earshot and sight.
I will pass over my flirtation with journalism as a way of making a living, an idea I dropped when I discovered that in the fifties unlike now female journalists always ended up writing the obituaries and the ladies' page. But how was I to make a living? There was not a roaring market in poetry, there, then. I thought of running away and being a waitress, which I later tried, but got very tired and thin; there's nothing like clearing away other people's mushed-up dinners to make you lose your appetite
The one good thing to be said about announcing yourself as a writer in the colonial Canadian fifties is that nobody told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They simply found the entire proposition ridiculous. Writers were dead and English, or else extremely elderly and American; they were not sixteen years old and Canadian. It would have been worse if I'd been a boy, though. Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I'd read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging. If I'd been male I would probably have had to roll around in the mud, in some boring skirmish over whether or not I was a sissy.
I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that "poetess" was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn't know yet that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me yet the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.
The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house the only other reason for going there but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sinister at the same time. I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don't want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.
I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.
It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off. This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course being also a novelist am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?
Im just as human as you. But its no use asking me for a final statement. As I say, I deal in tactics. Also statistics: for every year of peace there have been four hundred years of war.
In the interests of research I have walked on many battlefields that once were liquid with pulped mens bodies and spangled with exploded shells and splayed bone. All of them have been green again by the time I got there. Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day. Sad marble angels brood like hens over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters, or none that can be finally buried. Finish one off, and circumstances and the radio create another. Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently to God all night and meant it, and been slaughtered anyway. Brutality wins frequently, and large outcomes have turned on the invention of a mechanical device, viz. radar. True, valour sometimes counts for something, as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition, is decided by the winner. Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades and burst like paper bags of guts to save their comrades. I can admire that. But rats and cholera have won many wars. Those, and potatoes, or the absence of them.
Instead of this, I tell what I hope will pass as truth. A blunt thing, not lovely. The truth is seldom welcome, especially at dinner, though I am good at what I do. My trade is courage and atrocities. I look at them and do not condemn. I write things down the way they happened, as near as can be remembered. I dont ask why, because it is mostly the same. Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win.
In general I might agree with you: women should not contemplate war, should not weigh tactics impartially, or evade the word enemy, or view both sides and denounce nothing. Women should march for peace, or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery, spit themselves on bayonets to protect their babies, whose skulls will be split anyway, or, having been raped repeatedly, hang themselves with their own hair. These are the functions that inspire general comfort. That, and the knitting of socks for the troops and a sort of moral cheerleading. Also: mourning the dead. Sons, lovers, and so forth. All the killed children.
If I roll my eyes and mutter, if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene, I do it in private and nobody sees but the bathroom mirror.
There is so much silence between the words, you say. You say, The sensed absence of God and the sensed presence amount to much the same thing, only in reverse. You say, I have too much white clothing. You start to hum. Several hundred years ago this could have been mysticism or heresy. It isnt now. Outside there are sirens. Someones been run over. The century grinds on.
The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends that will make them feel better. History cannot be erased, although we can soothe ourselves by speculating about it.