On Craft

Living Twice: Thoughts about Poetry

from Margie Review

Lived once, the events we experience come and go, in disorder and confusion. But as poets we have the luck of living twice, the second time when we recall through our work what happened to us, learning in this way the event's true meaning.

A poem depends on reticence and smallness. It consists of just a few sentences grouped around an insight. Left without fanfare in the silence of a page, it is discovered by a solitary reader who finds it important enough to pass on to a friend who may also benefit from it. The new reader perhaps makes a copy of it to pin on his wall, then hands it on to another, who learns it by heart. By this slow process, the little poem eventually finds its way to a community of appreciation, acquiring a scale and an authority that in the beginning might have been unsuspected.

In a nation like ours that honors the big, the noisy and the quick, the poem has no supporting mythology. But since the poem's strength arises from precisely what this mythology rejects, its power continues, even here, undiminished and unabated.

I attend a writers conference billed as one of the largest in America among whole classes of area high school students attending with their teachers, poetry enthusiasts from all over the country, and of course poets, those who write regularly and those who want to write more. The many panels about the craft feature poets with brand names and meet concomitantly to discuss the writing process, methods of revision, publishing, and the writer's development. "If you had known who I was when I began as a poet, you would not believe a person such as I could be here occupying this chair," says one at her panel. There are so many poets at one afternoon reading, they must be listed on two sides of a program. There are so many listeners, all scanning their programs to pick out their favorites, the faces of the poets must be presented on giant TV screens as they read from their work. Every poem draws applause. In an old joke, a man who prays to God asks Him for a way to gain entrance into a church that will not let him in. "Don't worry," God says, "I've never been in that church myself." Who could object to building this huge church for poetry, which, unlike the church of the joke, welcomes all who wish to enter? So why, in the middle of my own enthusiasm and applause, do I miss poetry?

Places where poetry is invoked and may not come: a presentation by a guest poet during National Poetry Month in an auditorium full of students, with teachers patrolling the aisles; a bookstore reading beginning with what the poet terms "a long sequence of poems"; weekend workshops in poetry writing called "Finding Your Voice."

Still, developing a speaking voice, which happens over time rather than through the seven-step program of the workshop, is crucial to engaging an audience, and not only for writers. The jazz musician Lester Young, who learned how to "speak" with his tenor sax, turned public performance on the band stand into the cadences and tones of an intimate conversation. Then there was Sigmund Freud, who in his early work in psychoanalysis sought to engage the deeper consciousness of his patients through a technique derived from his experiments with hypnosis, speaking from a chair behind the patient lying on a couch, "seeing him," as Freud wrote in an intriguing passage of his autobiography, "but not seen myself."

Again and again in her poems Elizabeth Bishop finds just the right tone of voice to take the reader into her confidence. There is nothing more pleasurable in her work than that tone, her unique contribution to poetry. "Somebody loves us all," she famously writes in "Filling Station" about the humorous and rather hopeless family who own the station. The confidential tone with which she describes them, loving as it is, seems by itself to suggest what she means.

How much do fellow writers love the new book of poetry? The inevitable blurbs on the back cover, ever multiplying, explain. Not so long ago, collections seemed obliged to include one or two blurbs. Now many poetry covers feature three or more. Why so much boasting? What do we have to hide?

And why do the titles of poetry books open with an abstract noun and link it by way of a preposition to another to contrive an atmosphere of portent and profundity: The Authority of Water, The Imperatives of Desire, The Importance of Light, The Uses of Rain? Why do the titles of poetry books so often sound like the titles of poetry books? The back-cover blurbs are similarly abstract and precious, favoring verbs like "nourish" (as in "poems that nourish feelings of") and "informs" (as in "the generosity that informs her vision"); adjectives like "luminous" or "numinous"; and descriptive combinations like "quirky grace" and "harrowingly wise"? For general readers examining the covers of or books in libraries or bookstores, such titles and blurbs are likely to confirm the suspicion they have had all along about poetry: that they will never "get it," and that there might not be much point for them in getting it anyway.

William Wordsworth, speaking to, and about, the reader in the introduction to his book, Lyrical Ballads: "I have wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing, I will interest him."

Without a reader, the life of the poem does not exist. So poets should do their best to be clear. Yet the most memorable insights of poems do not come from direct speech, but from obliqueness and indirection. So poems can also suffer, as they often do today, from being too open to readers, and from an accompanying desire to be liked by them.

But it is no use to suggest, as do the poets asked in a recent issue of a literary journal to write about audience, that poets are not obligated to an audience, only to the truth of their inspiration. There are few writers, poets or otherwise, who have not tried to straighten out a tangled sentence by posing as a reader of their work, rather than the writer if it. There is inspiration, and there is the need to make sense.

At the academic conference, I am struck by the difference between the literary specialist and the writer, who distrusts the abstraction and methodology that the specialist so prizes, and who acquires his objective distance by the deepest subjectivity.

And who is deeply attracted to the excitement of an idea in formation -- the process of thinking, rather than the finished thought, in all its self-satisfaction and complacency.

Looking back on graduate school, I realize that many of my professors, schooled in the approaches of New Critical scholarship, had trouble with alcohol and suffered disappointment in their personal lives. Could this be in part because they had learned a language that kept at arm's length the thing they most loved? I only know that to write poetry I had to unlearn New Criticism -- not only the language of the scholars, but the poetry they wrote, whose objective was, following Eliot's model, "depersonalization." Poetry did not want me to keep my materials at a distance so much as to embrace them.

Yet the Eliot who called for depersonalization in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" also advised that poets should be guided not only by the work of their own generation, but should write with, in his words, "the whole of literature" in their minds. In a lazy period such as ours when so many editors and poets value novelty above all things, Eliot's advice reads like a long-needed call to ambition.

A veteran Maine woodcarver in a radio interview makes this observation with implications for veteran poets: "Sometimes a rut can feel like a groove."

The poet takes a journey that opens his heart in two ways, deepening first his intuitive awareness, from which his poetic insights come, and secondly, his compassion for fellow humans and all the living things with which he shares the planet. Without the development of this second thing, his poems may turn inward and lose contact with the very audience to which poems must be addressed.

The poems that move us most are the most complex in their emotion, containing a counterweight or counteraction of feeling: I am convinced and I can't quite believe; how could he have done this to me and I love him; this beauty is endless and I will die.

I have never found a better place to seek the poem's muse than the side of a quiet pond, whose protean surface, like the imagination, shifts and changes the images of shore and sky and then goes still, like a mind in concentration, lengthening the trees, docks and canoes along its shore by its reflection.

Creative thinking II, lawyers and poets: asked about the process by which he arrives at approaches to legal issues he researches, the professor and lawyer Peter Strauss tells me he always begins with a series of questions --"just as you do, I'd guess."

"As they grow older, do composers, like poets, feel the need to impart whatever wisdom they have to their listeners?" I ask the composer Jon Appleton at a retreat for artists. "I don't know if there is a way to express wisdom in music," he replies. "But what about the feeling that you're up against the ultimates and you want only to speak the truth as you know it?" I ask. "That," he says with his finger in the air -- "that, I have felt and done."

Several years ago I had a residency at a writers retreat in Ireland, becoming acquainted there with the Irish love of language. In an instant, the Irish writers I met could wax articulate about any issue, their opinions leaping fully formed into sentences. Meanwhile, I spoke haltingly or not at all, dazzled and intimidated by their facility. I finally discovered it was not only my ineptitude that made me different from them, but my attitude toward language. While they trusted it utterly to express what they meant, I both trusted and distrusted it, as other American writers tend to do. Our ambivalence toward language gives us a special feeling for free verse, its line-breaks, sentences broken across stanza divisions, and spaces just beyond the lines and stanzas -- all of which bring the not-said into the poem and indicate meanings that exist beyond the power of language to express them.

Which is to say that the very form of free verse calls us to the deepest communication possible in literature: to bring language to the edge of articulation, revealing feelings words cannot express.

There is, however, another way of writing free verse among American poets which conveys its meanings more through what the ear hears than what the eye sees. Those who have written the best free verse for the ear -- Theodore Roethke, say, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, or Donald Hall -- were trained as formalists, learning from their verse in rhyme and meter that the line was a musical unit, self-contained. Is their free verse therefore limited? No more than the free verse of so many eye poets who have followed them, writing for the page and losing more and more of poetry's music.

How long will we poets have readers who know the difference between language for the eye and the ear, or for that matter, care enough to know? According to a recent study of entering high-school students, the average fourteen-year-old in 1949 knew exactly two and a half times as many vocabulary words as the average fourteen-year-old in 1999. In just 50 years, the verbal culture has been stripped away layer by layer by the culture of the screen: TV, movies, videogames, and the Internet.

In a reminiscence about studying to be a writer with other early students at the Iowa Writers workshop in the mid-60s, Robert Lacy writes, "Little did we know that within two decades aspiring to be a famous literary novelist would be, to use Gore Vidal's analogy, comparable to aspiring to be 'a famous ceramicist'" since "the coming triumph of pop culture over the higher varieties would soon become an American way of life." Do we poets and writers forty years later simply hasten the death of "the higher varieties" by drawing our source material from the popular culture, as we often do?

The last words to go if language continues to die among our readers will surely be the "heart-words," as one writer has called them: the words of one or two syllables inherited from primitive German tribes that form the base of English. Referring to these ancient words, the linguist Otto Jespersen once wrote that when we are drowning, we do not cry out "Assistance!" We cry "Help!" In his illustration Jespersen was demonstrating how much closer to our feelings simple Anglo-Saxon words are than the French words of three or four syllables that came into the language after the Norman conquest. Emily Dickinson made expert use of the two kinds of language in her poems, often beginning with heart-words and reserving the ones with multiple syllables for concluding turns that open the mind to larger considerations:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch --
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson on literary celebrity and making poems: "If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her."

There has been a great deal written and said about the influence of one poet's work on another's, but the work that most influences a poet is the poetry he writes himself. Poets grow by choosing challenging material that forces them to do things they have not done before.

Except that other writers can embolden a poet through their writing, and the best ones can help him discover and claim what has all along been inside him waiting to be transformed. The result is called his original work.

Was it Annie Dillard who once said that the best subject matter asks the writer to resolve a contradiction between two contraries that cannot possibly be brought together?

More contraries poets must resolve: the disorder of external events and the poem's interior arc of feeling; the heart's urgency and the denials of the shaping mind; living the life of a right-brain person in a left-brain world.


I. On the best place to think and write:
I write this far from the side of a quiet a pond, in the mess of my study at home in front of a computer screen. The door is wide open; my wife talks nearby on the kitchen phone, lets the whining dog in, then turns on the tap over and over, carrying water to her plants throughout the house. The distraction has its own rhythm, breaking my concentration, though each time it resumes, I am reminded of something new to say.

II. On thoughts about poetry, by Theodore Roethke:
"For poetry, my dear, is not
What other people said & thought..."

III. T.R., on conveying thoughts about poetry:
"He teaches a class like an animal trainer...The cage is open:
you may go."