imitating yourself

January 4, 2020

When you sit down to write a poem, you really don’t know where you’re going. If you know where you’re going, the poem stinks, you probably already wrote it, and you’re imitating yourself. You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn’t expect to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, ‘That is truly what I felt.’ That is truly what I saw.

Philip Levine
So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews

something we once knew

March 28, 2019

It was language I loved, not meaning. I liked poetry better when I wasn’t sure what it meant. Eliot has said that the meaning of the poem is provided to keep the mind busy while the poem gets on with its work — like the bone thrown to the dog by the robber so he can get on with his work…Is beauty a reminder of something we once knew, with poetry one of its vehicles? Does it give us a brief vision of that ‘rarely glimpsed bright face behind / the apparency of things’? Here, I suppose,  we ought to try the impossible task of defining poetry. No one definition will do. But I must admit to a liking for the words of Thomas Fuller, who said: ‘Poetry is a dangerous honey. I advise thee only to taste it with the Tip of thy finger and not to live upon it.  If thou do’st, it will disorder thy Head and give thee dangerous Vertigos.

P.K. Page
The Filled Pen: Selected Non-Fiction

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

To write is to discover

January 22, 2019

I have never started a poem whose end I knew. Writing the poem is discovering.

Robert Frost
New York Times, 7 Nov. 1955

For us, eating and being eaten belong to the terrible secret of love. We love only the person we can eat. The person we hate we ‘can’t swallow.’ That one makes us vomit. Even our friends are inedible. If we were asked to dig into our friend’s flesh we would be disgusted. The person we love we dream only of eating. That is, we slide down that razor’s edge of ambivalence. The story of torment itself is a very beautiful one. Because loving is wanting and being able to eat up and yet to stop at the boundary. And there, at the tiniest beat between springing and stopping, in rushes fear. The spring is already in mid-air. The heart stops. The heart takes off again.

Poetry takes as its purview what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns. A poet uses language as a painter uses colour, a primary material out of which to make art. But language that is used all the time and all around us — in sound bites, advertisements, political rhetoric, newsprint — needs to be rinsed free so that it can be used as the stuff of art.

Meena Alexander
What Use Is Poetry?

If the poem is not born “now,” then when will it be born? And if it’s to be born later, what value has it “now”? A question both easy and difficult, in need of a complex answer, like being permitted to say, for example, that a poem may be born in a certain place, in a certain language and body, but that it does not reach throat and paper. An innocent question, needing an innocent answer, except that — in this company — it is filled with the desire to assassinate the poet who dares to announce he is writing his silence.

Mahmoud Darwish
Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982

drifting between worlds

December 18, 2018

There was a poem written for me on my comb; written very small with the nib of a pen used for mapping. And when we drifted in the punt, late, in the backwater, I combed my hair, and I was Orlando, I was not man nor girl, and I was Ariel, drifting between worlds, and a poem in my hair.

Anna Kavan
Sleep Has His House

silently weeping

November 4, 2018

In the novel they say omit nothing, harvest the entire goddamn world
In memoir they say the self is silently weeping, give it a tissue
In poetry they say the arrow may be blown off course by storm and returned by miracle

Alice Ostriker
The Liberal Arts

Rewrite, rewrite

October 21, 2018

Think of an archaeologist who brushes the dirt away. Rewrite, rewrite, until you reach what’s under the surface. Or put differently, the sense you have at the beginning is similar to standing in a dark corridor. You can not see it, but you know there is an end to the corridor. The essential element of the poem exists ahead of time, and you have to keep working to reach it.

Wyatt Prunty
Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism

Lions at rest

A poem comes from the heart of the poet’s experience, but it can go to the heart of any of our experiences. The underground connections that poetry makes come not merely from the way language is formed and shaped on the page and through the spoken voice, but also from the heart of human experience, which I believe is translatable –sometimes with difficulty but often with power.

Herbert Kohl
A Grain of Poetry