I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight. I have been writing since I was a very little boy, and have always been struggling with the same things, with the idea of poetry as a thing entirely removed from such accomplishments as ‘word-painting,’ and the setting down of delicate but usual emotions in a few, well-chosen words. There must be no compromise; there is always only the one right word: use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations; I used ‘double-crossed’ because it was what I meant. It is part of a poet’s job to take a debauched and prostituted word, like the beautiful word, ‘blond,’ and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin. Neuburg blabs of some unsectarian region in the clouds where poetry reaches its highest level. He ruins the truth of that by saying that the artist must, of necessity, preach socialism. There is no necessity for the artist to do anything. There is no necessity. He is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. He has only one limitation, and that is the widest of all: the limitation of form. Poetry finds its own form; form should never be superimposed; the structure should rise out of the words and the expression of them. I do not want to express only what other people have felt; I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen. Because of the twist in myself I will never be a very good poet: only treading the first waves, putting my hands in deeper and then taking them out again.

Dylan Thomas
Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson 15th October 1933

keepers of the unsayable

March 31, 2019

If poets are the keepers of the unsayable, then silence, not language, is a poet’s natural element, the realm where the unsayable lives. Poets fetishize silence as much as words; they are disturbed and comforted by the sounds that interrupt it. This is what John Keats means by Negative Capability, his notion of a poet’s basic qualification, the need for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ This a fancy way of describing ambivalence, also a basic qualification for a poet, the ability to passionately hold two opposing feelings at once. Poets need ambivalence in order to acknowledge the unsayable and speak nonetheless. The hidden subject of all poems is the silence that surrounds them, the things that can’t be, that will never be said; a real poem points to everything beyond it.

Craig Morgan Teicher
Ars Poetica: Origin Stories

writing imaginative material

February 23, 2019

Find your own writing time. Everybody will have a slightly different time of day, I have yet to meet the person who thinks the early afternoon is good, but I expect there is someone out there who thinks that that’s a good idea.

For me it’s very early in the morning, partly because the house is quiet and partly because I feel I’m stealing a march on things and that makes me feel good.

I think there might be some kind of hook up between what happens in our minds when we’re asleep and writing imaginative material. I think good poems get written, as no doubt good paintings get painted, as a result of these two things coming together in an appropriate way.

Andrew Motion
Top 10 tips for being a successful poet

the rhyme changed my life

February 23, 2019

When I was 12, I wrote a poem that concluded in a very simple rhyme. The poem was nothing special but the rhyme changed my life. My parents were string quartet violinists; when I made that rhyme, I thought, This is my music…

I pretty much write all the time and don’t follow any particular routine or practice. I almost always write the first draft (or two or three) in longhand and move to a computer later; this is true for novels, as well as for poems. I write in spiral notebooks – grabbing whichever comes to hand, which means the same notebook may hold paragraphs from different stories and lines from various poems and a book review or essay. I would so love to be more systematic but I work on a lot of things at once and the result is, paper everywhere, with no way to organize it.

Writing in any form is a “journey of discovery”. Writing poetry is how I think, and learning what one thinks is terrifically exciting: That’s the journey, that’s the illumination. In any given poem, I want to make the idea of it as clear as possible -which is not to say an exposition but an unclouded vision.

I also have a great desire to include all kinds of things in my poetry; that is, to take on, in my poetry, different worlds, as in science, history, language, philosophy, visual art, music, religion, etc. I am interested in all these things, and it seems natural to me to want to write about them.

Kelly Cherry
Interview with Maureen Doallas for tweetspeak

Writing off the Subject

February 21, 2019

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

Richard Hugo
Writing off the Subject
The Triggering Town

never write again

February 17, 2019

When I am locked out of the gates of literature, I despair, brood, obsess. I believe wholeheartedly that I will never write again. I pursue this line of thought to the bitter end. It’s an excruciating process, but there are no shortcuts on the road to writing. I’ve come to consider the atmospheric disturbance that exists at the edges of laying honest sentences across a page to be character-building experiences. After all, writing demands resilience, self-respect, discipline. More exhilarating, perhaps, is the fact that it requires an equal measure of disobedience. It makes little sense, then, to pursue efficiency in lieu of the chaos writing causes when we are at a loss for how to begin the telling. So often, the inability to write is a sign that we are not yet ready to be honest, or reckless in our pursuit of subject matter. In the face of such a tall order, the only thing I know to do is to resign myself to the unpleasant experience of waiting patiently at the gates. To pass the time, and to build up courage, I return to Kafka, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Lispector. Eventually, I’ll read a sentence like, ‘Now I know how, have the know-how, to reverse perspectives…’ Suddenly, I’m reminded of how alien the world feels to me, and, before I know it, I am writing again. All I had to do was suffer long enough to remember that I am only spying on this strange and sublime world momentarily, and that I don’t have any time to waste.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Poets & Writers 2nd August 2018

an artist must feel this

February 9, 2019

A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Jorge Luis Borges
Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983

not just the words

January 31, 2019

What poetry is made of is so old, so familiar, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just the words, but polyrhythmic sounds, speech in its first endeavours (every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome), prismatic meanings lit by each others’ light, stained by each others’ shadows. In the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colours that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.

And all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished.

Adrianne Rich
Someone is writing a poem

Poetry is a forsaken art not for those who write or practice it, but for many others. Yet there is a kind of grace that poetry offers, something that paradoxically is hard to catch with words, an elemental rush that Shelley tries to evoke in his “A Defence of Poetry,” that extraordinary chronicle of the exalted, impossible task of the poet from which we have taken the line for today’s resolution.

Toward the start of his essay, Shelley speaks of beauty and the way by which the intuition of what he calls “this indestructible order” is something granted to the maker of art. Then comes a leap of faith. He argues artists are “the institutors of law, and the founders of civil society” — in short, legislators: what they were called in earlier times.

Now this seems to me to be a leap that could not sustain the body that sought to land, from its free fall, into some possible space of survival. Surely we need to unhook the idea of the intense apprehension of beauty and “this invisible world” from ordinary legislation, our notion of congresses and parliaments, of procedures and plenipotentiary powers.

Meena Alexander
What use is poetry

For the young who want to

January 22, 2019

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favourably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy