12 Books: A Poetry Nerd’s Poetics Reading List

I recently finished up leading a poetry workshop at a writers’ retreat at Rosemont College near Philadelphia. During one of the classes, populated mostly by MFA graduate students, I brought in a pile of craft/theory/poetics/rant books. I’m a nerd for books about poetry and interviews with poets (I always turn to the interview section first when a new issue of Rattle arrives). Aside from reading lots and lots of poetry, one of the best ways for me to learn more about poetry is through reading poets talk about their own processes and ideas. Here’s a partial list of books I think should be on every poet’s shelf. I’m offering this list here for the retreat students who didn’t get to write down the names of all the titles they were interested in.

Please add more books in the comments section if you think I’ve left out something important or interesting. There’s no particular order of importance in the way I’ve assembled this list, and I may add more as I find things on my shelves.

Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. Harper Collins.
I came to this, as I do with a lot of craft books, first as a fan of Wallace’s own poetry. This book is an excellent hardcore treatise in the basic principles and how they work within poems. Lots of samples and some writing prompts.

Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck. Ecco.
Here’s a book I love to argue with, which makes the process of reading it fun (and why my copy is so full of scribbled notations). Gluck’s book mixes essays on composition theory with comments of specific poets (Eliot, Oppen, Kunitz). The essay I marked up most is “Against Sincerity.”

Poetry in Person, Twenty-five Years of Conversation with American Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer. Knopf.
This book is mesmerizing. In it you find 23 transcripts of poets talking with teacher Pearl London and her creative writing classes. These aren’t just any poets though—we get to eavesdrop on Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic…

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Norton.
This is a very practical and easy to love book on craft. It’s designed more for people who are new to writing poetry, but it also has plenty of insights for established writers. It would make a great textbook for a creative writing class. Lots of prompts and examples are provided. Engagingly written.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield. Harper Perennial.
I first came to this book, 1) as a fan of Jane Hirshfield’s poems and 2) because I was looking for new ways to think about nature poetry, and Hirshfield suggest I read her essay Two Secrets which is collected here. This book is a mix of theory, craft and philosophy—particularly zen.

The Sound of Poetry by Robert Pinsky. FSG.
Here’s a book that really tries to bring back respect for sound and texture in poetry. Good information, but ironically it’s a bit of a flat read.

Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. St. Martins Press.
This should be required on every new MFA student’s shelf. I particularly like chapter 5: Pacing: The Way a Poem Moves.

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Norton.
Any fan of Richard Hugo’s poems probably already knows about this book. On one level it’s a guide on how to write like Richard Hugo, but it’s much more than that. For the beginning poet, he makes poetry less intimidating and more personal, but for the mature writer, there will also be a lot of shared “ah ha” moments. Get this book.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets of Poetics. edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin.
This is one of my favorites, and I’d love to teach a class with this as the text book. It compiles essays from ancient times (Horace) to contemporary poets, discussing issues of inspiration, craft and poetry culture. Many of the most important essays on poetry are all wedged in here.

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Essays by Stephanie Burt. Graywolf.
This collection, all republished from literary journals, attempts to explain and support the work of what Burt calls the elliptical poets—poets like Rae Armantrout, CD Wright, John Ashbery, Lorine Niedecker and others. Often, for me, the support Burt uses doesn’t hold up, but I appreciate it nonetheless. If you’re a fan on this kind of poetry, you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re not a fan, this book will at least help you understand what they’re trying to do.

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voight. Graywolf.
There are (I think) seven volumes in The Art of series. Of the five I have, this one is my favorite. It offers clear explanations of how sound and texture affect poetry. My other favorite in the series it Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness.

 

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Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

 

The Great MFA Debate Continues

” Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. ”

 

From Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman at The London Review of Books.

Poets on Poetry: Quotes, Mostly

What would we get if accountants and waiters and bowling alley attendants talked about their occupations the way poets do? 

Anyway…

This…

“The realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said.”

Nathaniel Mackey

“Yet the very incapacity of language to match the world allows it to do service as a medium of differentiation.”

Lyn Hejinian

“A poem’s task is to seduce—its readers or listeners must find in it something irresistible, something to which they want to surrender.”

Jane Hirshfield

“For me a poem must go beyond its setting or its particular to say outright or by subtle suggestion something about the human condition. If the gift without the giver is bare, the poem without the concept is emaciated…”

Maxine Kumin

“A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself to, all the way to the reader. The poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.”

Charles Olson

but…

“Concentration on technique can absorb the attention while unacknowledged material enters the language; so technique can facilitate inspiration.”

Donald Hall

and…

“One has to know his tools, so he doesn’t work against himself. Tools make the job easier. More accuracy.”

Yusef Komunyakaa

“For it is not the greatness, the intensity, of the emotion, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

T.S. Eliot

“I caution against communication, because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

Richard Hugo

Ah…

“Whatever else we may think of this world—it is astonishing.”

Wislawa Szymborska

Yes…

“Every good poem asks a question, and every good poet asks every question.”

Kim Addonizio

Finally:

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth… patience is everything.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Most poets write the same poem over and over.

Richard Hugo

Q & A on Writing with Lee Upton

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

In May I was invited to read poems at an art gallery in Hunterton NJ with Lee Upton, Warren Cooper and Upton’s daughter, Theodora Ziolkowski. The reading and venue were both wonderful and I hope to get back there again. I’d read Upton’s poetry before, particularly her book Civilian Histories (University of Georgia Press), but we’d never met. MaryAnn Miller, who curates the reading series, as well as publishes limited edition art & poetry books (Lucia Press), introduced us.

After the reading we chatted and exchanged books. I received a copy of her book Swallowing the Sea (Tupelo Press), a collection of essays about writing and the writing life. The issues discussed in this Q & A are based on that book.

Lee Upton is the author of twelve books, including five collections of poetry, a novella, and four books of literary criticism. Her short stories have also appeared widely. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and the Miami University Novella Award. She is Writer-in-Residence and a professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton Pennsylvania.

You write “Our store of happiness is always in danger of being depleted.” Is a fear of running out of happiness, or running out of places to discover it, a debilitating or an energizing force for the writer? Do writers create in order to find more happiness or does that fear of running out freeze them into inactivity?

I can’t speak for other writers, but I do know that writing—for me—is a source of happiness, even though that happiness is sometimes mixed with frustration and a form of extreme yearning that can’t exactly be called happiness-inducing. The happiness I find in writing has something to do with the heightened state of concentration that writing creates.  Happiness in writing also has to do with the fact that I’m compelled to write; if I weren’t writing regularly unhappiness would be guaranteed for me.  Writing beats back despair, but because writing opens up formerly closed areas of consciousness, the act of writing can prove painful and exhausting. I’m aware of how fortunate any of us are to have writing as not only an exhilarating activity but as a kind of steady companion.  As you can see, I’m struggling here—perhaps because it is a great privilege to be able to write, and yet writing also goes beyond happiness for me.  Writing is larger than happiness and sometimes makes me face what I’d rather not face, and so the happiness writing affords comes with thistles.

I’m fascinated by the section on purity, but I’m still a little confused on what exactly you mean by the word. Can we envision purity and make it impactful on our writing, without a reference standard, something to compare everything else to? What would that standard be? I’m disposed to believe it may be something other than poetry, which of course is a particular problem for the poet.

I think you’re right to be confused by any notion of purity.  Purity is a fantasy, a phantom, a form of extreme and powerful subjectivity that changes form depending on the aspirant. (When talking about purity I’m not talking about food safety of course.)  Absolute purity in ideological terms tends to be colonizing and aggressive, and those who attempt to impose on others their own ideals of purity and its sibling, perfection, prove oppressive. The discussion of purity in Swallowing the Sea attempts to trace some of the difficulties of allowing purity to be one’s guide in writing. At the same time, I tried to give purity its due as an alluring imaginative construct that’s not easily dismissed.  Purity as a conception of the human imagination for some of us determines at least in part the way we revise our work—toward greater compression, toward elimination of anything that interrupts the culminating tensions in the poem, toward an ideal.  Our standards, which may seem instinctive even if they’re learned, threaten to purify the poem out of existence.  But if we simply dismiss the ideal of purity we fail to recognize that the conception has a hold on many of us. Our struggle with purity can be bracing and creative.  The fact that some writers have assailed purity (Neruda, for instance) testifies to the conception’s powerful grip.

In the section Poetry, Defended, Briefly, you write “in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring in an expectation …”   Do you also believe readers have a responsibility to the poet/poetry? If so, then what? And are readers today properly prepared to fulfill that responsibility? Let me make that question more practical—contemporary poets (and poetry) get criticized a lot today, by poets and non-poets alike, for being obscure, difficult, out of touch … as if the state of poetry today is all the poets’ fault. Does the reader share any of that blame?  

swallowingthesea225As a reader I can share that blame—but that’s true in any genre.  As a reader I can be too impatient, giving up on a poem before allowing even the rhythm of the lines to begin to do their work. I try to make allowances for my own impatience by eventually giving some books second and even third chances; it takes a while to know how to appreciate an aesthetic.  Often enough though, some poetry is simply not engaging or illuminating—whether it’s a difficult poem or a seemingly simple and transparent poem.  Then again, there are so many different sorts of poetries available that I tend to find plenty of work that I can respond to immediately. As you mention, it’s true that there are many poems that are difficult and obscure, and sometimes those poems fail (then again, many poems of any sort are doomed to failure).  But some poems that are difficult are haunting and even valiant and perversely lovable and even poignant because they’re so resistant to common ways of perceiving and thinking.  You mention poems that are “out of touch,” and I have to admit a special affection for poems that may be referred to as “out of touch”; those poems speak for realms of experience that are denied in our experience, reaching beyond our lived reality toward something we could never have imagined otherwise.   Then again, I think I know what you mean in certain instances: sometimes the poem that is described as “out of touch” leaves us numb; it’s untouchable not just because it’s treading air out of reach but because the poem doesn’t tug us in any direction whatsoever.  Poetry never should condescend to readers, and so a poet never needs to settle ultimately for possibilities that aren’t exciting, whether those possibilities appear superficially simple or superficially complex.

You can find many of Upton’s books here.

Today’s Poetry Rules

When writing, I keep to a handful of rules, something to guide my work, like a handrail on a woods trail. I also have a tendency to change my rules when they no longer suite me. Here are today’s, which may be different from tomorrow’s:

  1. Don’t be boring. This is a big deal for me, but I assume I don’t live up to it on many occasions. I attend a fair amount of poetry readings and read a couple hours worth of poetry almost every day, so I know something about boring poems. Subject matter can be boring, language can be boring, titles can be boring. Today I’ll try use a lot of “t”s in my poems, because I think “t” is an unboring letter. We had a big storm earlier this week, you may have heard of it. Storms are not boring. The opposite of boring isn’t interesting, it’s just unboring. Mysterious, engaging, sympathetic, sentimental, dangerous, threatening, disturbing… are all unboring.
  1. Be trustworthy. A poem is an invitation to the reader—you want the reader to enter your world, point-of-view, sick mind or private delirium. If you don’t create a sense of trust, the reader won’t be engaged.
  1. Have a reader in mind. My first reader is my imaginary friend, and he’s a lot like me (but thinner and with more money and friends). Keeping a reader in mind leads to writing that is more trustworthy and has a clearer voice. Voice is purpose, and purpose implies audience. If you shout “piss off” into the air, it just floats away without purpose. If you shout “piss off” at your boss, it has purpose and voice. It also gets you fired, so have a backup plan for that.
  1. Always be nice to dogs.
  1. Don’t fear sentimentality. I’m a sap. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December and will until my eyes are donated to science. People love that movie because they’re spineless and easily moved (me too). Work with it.
  1. Don’t try to teach something. You’ll be annoying, and people will think you think you’re smarter than them. Try to learn something instead. I believe poems, the good ones, are not for expressing something; they’re for sorting something(s) out.
  1. Shoot for clarity, but figure you’ll miss a good part of the time. When I’m fly fishing, I always have a spot on the water I try to hit with my casts. I usually miss, but often still catch fish. I also get snagged in a lot of trees. That’s the difference between almost clarity and complete abandonment.
  1. Sleep experts tell us that even complex dreams only last seconds—so poems shouldn’t be long.
  1. Don’t write dream poems. They’re boring, unless Richard Hugo is writing them, and since he isn’t writing them anymore, neither should you. Fiction writer Tana French agrees with me.
  1. If all else fails, throw it away and write another. Poems are cheap.

Musehouse Featured on WHYY Friday Arts

Musehouse, the new writing/literary center in Philadelphia, is being featured this month on WHYY (public television) Friday Arts show. In it director Kathleen Bonanno talks about why she started the center and importance of writing in the community. She shares some of her poems from Slamming Open the Door. You’ll also see cameos from Leonard Gontarek, David Bananno, Amy Small-McKinney and Joanne Leva.

By the way, I teach a class in poetry writing at Musehouse. You can check it out and sign up here.

You can watch the Friday Arts program on TV or check out the video here.

Ted Kooser on Nature and Poetry

UNLPublications and Photography.

Below is a continuation of the Q&As I did with several poets on the connection between poetry and nature/wilderness. The first was with Jane Hirshfield, and if you need to get caught up you can see that one here. These Q&A were all done via email. In this one former U.S. Poet Laureate writes briefly about why corporate/business life plays so small a part in the poetry of people who actually work in business for a living (Kooser worked in insurance before he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world?

No. There are certainly lots of writers using urban life and subjects, and they get a lot of attention, but there is always a steady outflow of poetry and nonfiction about the natural world.

Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed poets’ relationship to it?

I don’t think so.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

Certainly. Despite our habit of complicating our lives, we are still natural beings.

You’re a poet who spent a good portion of his life in a business/office environment, yet that world doesn’t surface in your work as frequently as fields, farms, animals or laborers? In general, opening any poetry journal, it’s much easier to find birds, mountains and rivers than it is to find references to inter-office mail, insertion orders or spreadsheets, yet they are probably a larger part of most people’s (and most poets) daily lives. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

In an office, one’s experiences are often the same experiences day after day after day, whereas in nature there may be epiphanous events, coming as us as complete surprises. I did write some poems about my days in the insurance business, “Four Secretaries” is a good example, but, frankly, I just wasn’t very interested in what happened at the office, and why write about something that doesn’t interest you.

Galway Kinnell has said we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that? Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

I don’t know that quote, or its context, but I think he may have been talking about life in the city, rather than the city. His wonderful long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ….” is rich with human life, which is nature. You can almost smell the people in that poem.

The concepts of bewilderment and wonder—brash and sometimes meditative—seems to be a strong thread connecting nature poetry (from the ancient Chinese writers to present writers like Harry Humes). What role do you believe bewilderment plays in nature poetry? I also believe bewilderment is tied into gratitude. And if not that, then what?

You know, I’ve never thought about that word [bewilderment] and what it means and how it’s constructed to include wild until this very moment, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to give it a lot more thought. Li Po is bewildered, not by nature but by alcohol, and I don’t think of him, or Tu Fu, as being confused by nature in the way that they are confused by their own circumstances.

Ted

You can find Ted Kooser’s latest book, Delights and Shadows, here.

Kooser’s website: American Life in Poetry

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.

Jane Hirshfield on Poetry and Nature

Months ago, in preparation for a workshop I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates, which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.

The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to write a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.

I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?

It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.”  Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention buses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.

In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?

There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.

You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)

I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.

Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that?  Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.

Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?

Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.

Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12, 2012. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.

New Musehouse Workshop

Looking for something literary to do on Wednesday evenings (if you’re in the Philadelphia area)? I’ll be leading a new poetry workshop at the Musehouse Writing Center in Chestnut Hill (down the street from the Chestnut Hill Hotel). This workshop will be for beginner to intermediate poets. Honestly, I don’t know what that means, as I think we’re all a still beginner poets each time we sit down to write, but at least don’t show up planning to get into pedagogical arguments. It’s a six-week class meeting every Wednesday 7-8:30 beginning Dec. 7th. There’s a cost for this workshop, but right now I don’t know what it is. I think it’s $120. When I find out I’ll post it here.

If you want to learn more about the Musehouse Center and its events, go here.

The catalog description is here:

In this session we’ll discuss what makes poems work and where good ideas go off course and where to take risks. Elements including image, sound, line breaks and form will all be addressed. Participants will discuss poetry craft, practice writing prompts and explore techniques for discovering poems in everyday life. A wide variety of poems and poets will be read, and students will write, share and discuss their own poems in class.

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Dreaded Inspiration and the Damned Muse

Apollo and the muses.

I was the featured reader at a bookstore reading series recently, and after the reading, the host asked members of the audience (all two of them, I think) if anyone had any questions for me. One gentleman raised his hand and asked that common, yet dreaded question, “what inspires your poems?”

Wow, that’s both an important and maddening question. I believe most serious poets will agree with me, that inspiration, at least in terms of writing, is a horrible and troubling concept. You might as well ask what inspires me to wake up in the morning. I do it because that’s what needs to be done at that moment.

It’s pretty common for non writers to believe that writers seek out inspiration or wait to get touched by a divine muse. But that doesn’t happen. Not once in any of my creative writing classes did the instructor talk about how to be inspired. Instead we talked about line tension, metaphors, pacing, loading and sometimes whether buffalo or pork sausage was better on pizza (buffalo usually won out).

Perhaps it’s because inspiration is just such a lousy word. What I think the questioner really wanted to know was where I got the ideas for my poems (sort of the same question, but different enough to be important).

Anyway, my answer was words, images, everything. I get excited by words, word images, word sounds and textures and word shadows. When I read poems, I read with a pencil. I check, circle and underline words and phrases that get me excited. Also, things I bump into on a daily and boring basis. Life.

When I talk about poems with other people in my monthly workshop group, we don’t talk about inspiration; we talk about the words–which ones are working for the poem and which ones are working against it.

When I get to Robert Lowell’s line “under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church” I get tingles. The way the consonants first choke up my throat and then the ps stumble out the lips, well that’s just marvelous.

I love William Stafford’s “On the near pine rain hangs / the way I suppose it hangs / on the far” because those words both create a clear little picture for me as well as hold shadows and levels of significance.

And when Jane Hirshfield writes of a redwood tree: “Already the first branch-tips brush at the window. / Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life” I shudder with a little bit of fear for all of us.

Is that inspiration?

To answer his question I referred to one of the poems I’d presented earlier that evening and pointed out one of the words in it: andirons. I have andirons in my fireplace, but it’s not a word I use regularly, or ever. Yet I like the sound of it. It sounds rugged, useful, a little romantic and a little archaic. The simple answer is that I was in a mood to write and I was looking for a word to get me started, so I picked that one. “That word, if you will, was the inspiration,” I told him.

Of course, the poem is not about andirons.

My dog sometimes sleeps in front of the fireplace, so I knew I could put the dog in there someplace. Without wood, there’s no fire, and without forests there’s no wood. From there a logical structure was born, ideas developed, and a poem was built from that.

I had no idea where the poem was going, what, if any, primary theme would emerge or any significant plan, but I had a few words to start, and I let those, along with the sounds and connotative shadows, dictate the words that followed.

That’s not inspiration, that’s process.

When I was in college I lived a couple of years with a painter. Sometimes he’d pass me a canvas and we’d paint together. And once again, the creation was about process, not inspiration. He’d put down a line or shape and let that stroke define the next one.

Sometimes subject matter starts first. I may tell myself I want to write about a specific experience or incident, but I still let process do most of the driving. Rarely do I know what exactly I’m going to write until I’m in the middle of spelling the word. That discovery is a large part of the thrill for me. Even now. Themes and patterns will emerge, sense will come forth, and then you give it more shape in the firming up process of revision.

In his book about writing, The Triggering Town, poet Richard Hugo makes similar suggestions: “Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.”

I’m not sure any of that explanation helped this audience member. I hope it helped him appreciate the poems he was hearing, and maybe helped eliminate the stress he felt in trying to “figure out” what the poem was saying. There is no muse. The truth is a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than that.

 

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