I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," by William Butler Yeats, captures every writer's dream of escaping to some simple place where one can, simply, write. (The American, Thoreau, was more serious about farming than Yeats, planting seven miles of bean rows around Walden; what is it about these beans?) But probably this dream appeals to everyone, from artists to bus drivers to salesmen to teachers to housewives and househusbands: Wherever we actually are, it's always too busy, too noisy, too crowded — too little time to be creative or, as Whitman put it, to loaf and invite our souls. The French have always understood this, counting extensive state-sponsored vacation time as part of their intrinsic "liberté." Life is for living, not just for "making" a living. Americans, on the other hand get less "off-time" than the other developed countries — and we don't live as long, either.
Over the course of my writing career, I've noticed that the closer one looks at writers and artists, the more they seem like everyone else. As soon as someone says artists or musicians are more sensitive than anybody, you run into a bricklayer weeping over a dead robin, a Tupperware saleswoman writing surreal sestinas or a defensive tackle reading to a small child. Conversely, you can meet poets so obtuse and greedy for attention, it's hard to imagine them as having hearts at all, in the normal sense of the word.
For 12 years now we've been spending our breakaway time at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. The fishermen's shacks we stay in aren't made of wattles ("whatles"?), but of weather-beaten cedar shingles with steep-sloped rooftops. The rooms are small and plain. Restful. No television, no telephone, no radio, no fax machines. Of course we cheat, silently, working on our computers, where we can get e-mail and news. A contemporary virtue: Computers are quieter than typewriters. Our bare walls support one large wooden bookshelf, mostly empty — I'm reading Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, and Jeanne's reading Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, both thought-provoking, well-written books. We hang our calendar with Jeanne's drawings on a nail by the front door; one time we came without a calendar, and it was too easy to forget what day it was.
This year, I was the commencement speaker at Eckerd College's graduation; we left the morning after, at 4 a.m., and it took us a while to recover from the festivities; but after a few days of resting and walking, we were ready to get back to work.
A breakaway place needs to be restful inside and stimulating outside. At Innisfree, Yeats was inspired by nature, the sounds of the bees, crickets and linnets. In full tourist season, Provincetown can be crazy, but when we go there (in June) it has just the right kind of buzz, like a London coffeehouse or a Paris café. In fact, its narrow, winding and hilly streets, crowded with small houses leaning against one another, remind us of Montmartre, with their tiny and well-tended gardens, like bonsai principles applied to front lawns. The poet Stanley Kunitz — one of the founders of the Center — was a dedicated and famous gardener here, dying last year at age 100.
We walk out of our cottage down Pearl Street toward the harbor, the beach and the boats gleaming below us. Young writers and artists from the Center greet us; they walk faster than we do. We think about that, remembering the eager faces at graduation. Ladders lean against the houses as their owners repair the ravages of winter. No tall cement-and-glass condos here. A kind of picturesque unruliness rules; it feels democratic and, yes, French. The French care less about, say, their bathrooms, which are often scary, than the views from their windows, which are generally charming. They seem to be more fond of aesthetics — eating and drinking well, making love and witty conversation — than of blowing people up and accumulating money, which makes them look effeminate to many Americans. How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Nobody knows: It's never been tried. American joke.
P'town, as it's called, once a thriving coastal fishing village, is still thriving, but as a center for artists in general and a mecca for gays in particular, with a healthy influx of tourists who come each summer to gawk and enjoy the freedom and easy camaraderie (and great food). The atmosphere is a complex mixture of bracing and louche (shaid the drunk, arshly). Shouldn't we all get along this well, shouldn't all our streets be this interesting? In the Tampa Bay area, Roser Park in St. Pete comes closest to this feeling, with Gulfport and Driftwood near it.
For a writer, it's perfect. Perhaps, to most Republicans, P'town's disorganization and permissiveness might seem a little too close to lawlessness. But it draws artists and writers — and as soon as I say this I think that everybody else would like it too, at least for a few weeks in the good weather.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Peter Meinke's most recent book is The Contracted World. Some of its poems were written in Provincetown.