On Craft

On Poets, Poets Teaching, And Poetry:
Notes From A Journal

Ploughshares Magazine

Much has been written about the influence of the academy on the writer who teaches there. But what about the influence a writer may have on the academy? On our way to the airport after her visit at my campus, Lucille Clifton, speaking of poets who teach, asks: "Who else can teach students about the need to serve something larger than themselves?" Later, she remarks on the limits of the academy's approach to education: "It teaches one way of knowing," she says, "and it's the easiest way." Clifton adds she no longer felt ashamed of lacking an academic degree once she realized that having none, she was better able to show students other ways of knowing.

Could it be that creative writing has become so popular in colleges today because of our students' need to reclaim the personal and moral uses of language in a period when advertising has so corrupted it? On some level, the students in my classes feel this need, I think. Consequently, I take satisfaction from the main lesson in language they learn there: telling the truth.

"I don't know how to fill up all those pages," says one of my best student poets, now taking a fiction class. Time will tell whether she's too much a poet to to be shown the ways of fiction, as a few students seem to be. But it is clear that poets think differently than do fiction writers. They see what they see in a flash--a sudden insight that gathers a cluster of associations--and their thinking, unlike the episodic and linear thought of the story writer, is kaleidescopic, concentric.

How, then, to write the narrative poem? Best to find an action that may be explored in a variety of ways as it unfolds, so that what happens in the poem has the sense of being simultaneous, as in, say, Rich's "Diving into the Wreck," or Bishop's "The Moose." Best to combine the narrative and the lyric.

Elizabeth Bishop, while still a student at Vassar and trying to find a way to describe the poetry she writes and wants to write, says in a letter there are two kinds of poems--those "at rest" and "in action"--and adds that she favors the latter kind. To explain what she means by "action," she refers in this instructive passage to her models, the writers of Baroque prose: Their purpose was was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking...They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth.

How different Elizabeth Bishop is from the poet who must work for a living. I teach and then return home to grade papers. Bishop writes a letter to say she's thinking of buying a clavicord--then buys one, taking lessons on it because she feels this will help her poetry.

How does one respond to the maddening complaint of students that poetry which touches on sorrow is "depressing," when it is clear they speak for the American culture that made them?

I am told that a Russian does not, like the American, say "Fine" when asked how he is. He uses the time-honored gesture of the hand that says "So-so" or "It could be worse." The response suggests an awareness of life's difficulties, which we as human beings know well, wherever we may live. It does not insist on happy endings or the need to provide them; it suggests that things do not always come out well, that life includes not only affirmation but tragedy. It is not mythic; it is realistic.

Can anyone deny how dangerous our compulsion to affirm is to the affairs of the nation? Unable to address our complex social problems--the widening gap between rich and poor, the racial troubles, the murderous acceleration of American life--with a confident smile, we tend to deny them, insisting that "we're number one" in the great country of happy outcomes, whether that country exists or not.

The student who finds poetry that is grim or sorrowful "depressing" must be shown the impoverishment of his American mythology--perhaps by introducing him to his own national tradition in literature, including novelists from Melville to Faulkner, playwrights from O'Neill to Williams, and poets from Dickinson to Rich--developing early and late a tragic vision that might mature the nation.      

Or show the student through his writing itself--how his truest work comes from dealing with the flawed world as he really knows it, beyond the cliches of American happiness.

I tell my fiction students if anyone says or does something I can use in a story, it's mine, with no apologies, says Sharon Sheehe Stark, and she's right to tell them so. We are all obligated to give our stories and our poems what they need to live. One must decide whether one wants to be polite or to be a writer.

Here is Galway Kinnell seated among students, yet several states and countries away from them, in his own time zone, as he observes the young man asking the question. In his own time, from his own time zone, he responds.      

In the car on the way up from the airport he is closer, though still, and I sense always, apart. We have a lively conversation about the tired syntax of contemporary American poetry--that generic sentence that begins with a declarative and follows up with qualifiers, often participial phrases or verb complements or objects in a series, direct or prepositional. We agree that Dickinson and Frost offer fine models of the delayed verb, and of a less predictable syntax in general.      

As we near my house at the end of our trip, Kinnell speaks of his seaarch for a way to refer to Frost at his upcoming investiture as Vermont's Poet Laureate, and I suggest he read Frost's short poem, "On Being Chosen Poet of Vermont," which he does not know. Standing in my kitchen to read the poem for the first time out of my Frost Collected, he nods and smiles, in the time zone of his delight.

Galway Kinnell does as Frost used to do: delivers his poems from memory. Patricia Smith does the same, insisting that whewn poets adfdress their audiences directly, saying their poems and not reading them, they make a stronger impact. Yet the page has its value as a prop. In moving his eyes from page to audience and back again, the poet is demonstrating that his reading is about more than the exchange between him and the audience--that the reading also has to do with words written down as a private act, now being made public, an act that requires time and care and love.

An essay seeks to tell. A poem seeks to, in Frost's words, "tell how it can," all emphasis on the "how." An essayist must get to the point; the poet must avoid getting to the point, leaving the point to the reader. The essay is a statement; the poem is a riddle.

Except that essays are often poetic, and poems, essay-like. Though the prevailing esthetic insists that poems should show rather than tell and above all avoid the didactic, we have the great poetry of Whitman and the Psalms to prove that poems may also declare and instruct. We poets must be careful, given our obligation to pass on to our fellow humans whatever vision we have, not to let the prevailing esthetic take our voices away and reduce our poetry to fragments.

At the academic gathering, I relearn that the academic most wants to take things apart; I, on the other hand, want to put things together--prefer my frog alive rather than dissected. In presentation after presentation, we are proudly offered pieces of the frog. Applause follows. Nobody mentions the stink.

In the creative writing class as it is too often taught, the instructor abdicates his role as authority and guide, either because he does not know how to say what works in student writing, or because he doesn't have the will to deal with student egos. The subject shifts from what is effective and what isn't to what feelings the author had when writing it, and what similar feelings the class can "share." Sharing by all members, including the abdicating professor, is at a premium, as it is in the counseling group, this class's true model. And in an age when personal feeling and sincerity make us all, from movie star to president, authentic, the students take it for granted they're doing real work.

In a letter John Keats likens the schoolroom to life's circumstances, adding that the hornbook of the schoolroom is the heart--and that learning to read that hornbook, we develop our souls. This was before the schoolroom came to be known by poets as the workshop.

During the afternoon before his reading on campus, I try this proposition on William Stafford: that American poets today tend to work on the model of the creative writing seminar, conducting workshops through the mail by sending their poems to poet friends who send the poems back with suggested revisions. Check the acknowledgments page of the standard collection today, I tell him, and you'll find who the seminar members are, adding that my friend Jane Kenyon jokingly calls her group "The Committee."

The whole idea flabbergasts Stafford. "Not even my wife makes suggestions about my work," he says. Later on, he comes back to the subject, asking what other "committees" I know of, and who is on my own committee. By the end of his visit The Committee has taken on a Bolshevik connotation, the sense of an institution out to subvert and control poetry itself. When I defend what seems to me the reasonable practice of testing new work out on friends, Stafford only replies, "We live in an occupied country."

...Stafford repeats the remark when the name of a certain well-known poet and judge of poetry contests comes up in our conversation. He likens the poet-judge to a fish inspector expert in determining which fish should be kept as they pass before him and which should be tossed aside. The trouble is, he adds, that something might pass that's well worth keeping, just isn't a fish.

Straightforward in his response to The Committee, Stafford is more often, like his poems themselves, oblique. In the two-and-a-half days I host him between Maine readings, he seldom answers a question directly, preferring indirection; so he responds with another question, or with an anecdote (like his story about the fish inspector), or by quoting what someone else once said when asked a question similar to my own. Critics liken Stafford to Frost, meaning he also writes "popular" poetry. I'd liken him to Frost in the conditional way he writes and talks, never quite telling you where he stands, or all he means.

Someone once remarked that what drives every piece of writing is a question. The difficulty for the poet is how not quite to answer the question, placing it in the mind of the reader.

Poetry is the art of disclosure. As the poem moves, it must not only reveal but conceal, saving itself for its final unfolding, which must also give the sense of things witheld. In this process, the timing of image and awareness is essential. Nothing must be disclosed too soon or too late.

The poem must have something fast and something slow.

In an age when awards for achievement are handed out to brand-new writers left and right, it is important to remember that the writer of true work builds slowly. He will be lucky if one day, long after the awards are handed out, a certain mist clears, and observers notice a building all intact, where there had not been one before.

Though his small size may make us overlook him, the rat, Emily Dickinson shows in poem #1356, has great power precisely because he is "concise" and "reticent," and so he can set up housekeeping wherever he wants to without the need to pay rent, having his thoughts--his "schemes"--all to himself. Dickinson's rat is of course a version of herself, the poet who made her writing life apart from the literary establishment through concise and reticent and very powerful poems. The rat also reminds me of Linda Pastan, whose poems I read in quantity before hosting her here. Given the noise and the big gestures of her generation of American poets, you might not notice her at first, off by herself, intent on the schemes of her verse. And then you discover what she's written--poems which, though they may lack Dickinson's range of language and grammar, are similarly small, with their own power to overwhelm.

The novelist is a carpenter. His gift is seen in the dimensions of his creation. To appreciate what he has done, we must stand back. The poet is a jeweler, whose gift is in smallness. To appreciate his creation, the work of a magnified eye, we must look closely.

The process of poems is braille-like, allowing the reader entry by touch, so that what forms in the mind and heart forms first in the hand. In writing a poem, we must find the right thing--familiar and yet mysterious to the touch--to place in the reader's hand.

Philip Levine does not shake your hand so much as press it, as if to place a token in it, something between the two of you that you may take away and later on, ponder the meaning of Straightforward and even blunt in his speech, he is at the same time tender and interior. It is a manner I come to associate with the poems from What Work Is, which he reads from during his visit here--poems that are direct, just as the poems of Not This Pig were, but that replace the muscular assertion of his earlier work with a tone that is delicate and interrogative.

How deep in Levine is the narrative impulse. He himself speaks about it on the way to a discussion with students, drawing a contrast between himself and Charles Wright, who was astonished to discover the older poet "thought in stories" since he, Wright, didn't even dream in stories. I start the discussion by asking Levine if he has any advice for student writers, and he begins a long narrative about his development as a writer and poet at Wayne University in Detroit and afterward, finishing by summarizing the story's lessons....Levine's storytelling includes dirty jokes, one of which he tells me at our final lunch with the timing of a master.

Apart from what I must have learned about storytelling from the dirty jokes I first told as an adolescent--the arrangement of details, the timing of the narration--I learned, I see now, how to "speak American" from them. There is a vernacular roughness in the telling that embodies the age-old American irreverence toward polite society. Also, since dirty jokes are meant to be shared apart from polite society, there's a subversiveness in the language, and a delight in the subversiveness. Yet there's a delicacy, too, a way the teller must have of taking the reader into his confidence for the private moment in which the joke is shared. All of these ways of speaking are helpful in the creation of an American voice.

The dirty joke also gave me and I'm sure many others the first exposure to surrealism: the man who had his penis lengthened by the addition of a baby elephant's trunk, and was embarrassed at the cocktail party when the hostess passed out peanuts. After such jokes, Magritte seems tame.

So here is Randy the small engines man trying to tell me how to troubleshoot my failed lawn tractor over the phone. Never mind that the steps he gives are hard to follow and even out of order. Listen to the accent and rhythm of his speech, rehearsed for this conversation all his life; here is the true order, in which there is not one mistake. Forget how he is supposed to say it and listen to how he says it.

Lore Segal, on our campus as a Woodrow Wilson Writing Fellow, tells me about her graduate student who claims free verse is a hoax--its linebreaks, which have replaced rhyme, merely arbitrary. Yet linebreaks are the most natural thing in the world. In fact, when we speak thoughtfully about things that matter to us, we all use them. Thinking the sentence, as one does in free verse, requires it. When we hear someone who does not speak in linebreaks or does so in a programmatic way, we know we are listening to a commercial or a political speech, and we suspect lieing. So the linebreaks of human speech also have to do with telling the truth.

Shaping the free verse poem, then, we imitate the process of thoughtful and truthful conversation, our linebreaks indicating the stresses of our meditation as we say our sentences.

What is in that space the sentence of the free verse poem takes into itself as it goes down the page from line to line, becoming more poetic as it moves? It is a wordlessness which the lines touch against and make expressive, claiming it, too, as part of the poem. It is also the image of thought itself as it snaps from one line to the next, so as the poem moves we glimpse at the edge of the right margin the mind at work making the poem.

Maxine Kumin, a witty concluder of poems, writes that the most satisfactory ending in a poem resembles a bolt sliding into the doorlatch. Still, I prefer my door just ajar.

At the conclusion of a poem he wrote after the moon landing in the late 1960's Philip Booth implored Americans to "come to your senses." In the electronic 90's, as we continue to deify technological advances and the mechanical understanding they represent, Booth's words should appear on banners in every city and town. Now as always, the true knowledge is the knowledge of the heart, and true human advancement results from events as small as the lightness a poet might feel on discovering a new way of thinking and feeling. No one will ever televise such an event, nor will it deposit a man on the moon. But it may help us to come to our senses.

Reading Gerald Stern's Selected Poems before his appearance on campus, I find those few beautifully complete poems on which his reputation mainly rests. Most of them are about animals victimized by technology, through which he reflects on the affliction of our own animal selves, so dominated by the civilization we have made that we can't hear their cries. Of these poems, "The Dog" is the most wonderful. Then there are his poems about the city, which reveal again the suffering of the deeper self (the instinctual, intuitive, sniffing, howling core of us), overwhelmed by the technology of the metropolis. Oh, the blasted cityscapes of Stern, their sorrow!

I spend time with Charles Simic before my reading for graduate students at the University of New Hampshire and rediscover his splendid humor, the humor of the damned, delivered out of the side of his mouth in a way that reminds me of the gangsters of old movies or the thugs of old comics. It says we are all in on the joke of Truth and Justice, and happy as a result to be outlaws in a club of outlaws. In his company I am a thug poet, pleased to be in the gang whose boss is Simic, and whose truth is poetry.

"Unconscious," my fifth and sixth-grade teachers called me, and the two of them once fell into step behind me as I walked home for lunch to taunt me with the word. At home, my mother named me "Stubborn." Yet it was only by being both of these things that I became a poet.

A friend asks, partly in fun, If you could change something that happened in your life, what would it be? It occurs to me to say, surprising even myself with my seriousness, that because my life has given me the only materials I have as a poet, my objective must not be to change my life, but to accept it exactly as I have lived it.

Yet accepting what his life has brought is difficult for Donald Hall. I sit with him three months after Jane Kenyon's death at a memorial reading for her in the Frost barn in Derry, New Hampshire. As others read her poems, he sometimes makes comments to himself as if no one else were there: "Ah, Gus!" he says aloud, listening to her description of their dog. At the end of the event, he stands and tells the audience about the volume he and Jane worked on from February until her death-the book called Otherwise. Then, in this period he calls "the long day of three months," he takes up the manuscript of that book to read the new poems, his voice unsteady on the occasional passage that refers to him. Reading from that black notebook, his hair uncut and tangled, his feelings tangled too, he sustains himself for one more hour, the two of them still together in poetry.

For the writer and the reader, poetry is dangerous. It asks that we be connected with our feelings, and it asks that we try to be whole, against every impulse to compartmentalize and deny.

The wholeness poetry seeks is also dangerous to the classroom as we seem to have it--a place that defines intelligence according to the ability to rehearse and perform left-brain skills, like the sad schoolroom Philip Levine describes in his poem "Milkweed,"

     where students experience
     the long day
     after day of the History of History
     or the tables of numbers and order
     as the clock slowly [pays] out the moments.

Given his education in such a place, it's no wonder that at the conclusion of this poemLevine's narrator ends up walking "the empty woods, bent over,/ crunching through oak leaves." But then "a froth of seeds" from a milkweed drifts by, engaging his memory and his heart, reminding him of the childhood world he knew before school stamped the life out of it. The difficult and subversive challenge for teachers of poetry and poetry writing is to find a spot indoors, among numbers, order and the clock, where such seeds might grow.