I’m spending National Poetry Month at the Millay Colony, former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay. My colleague and friend, poet and writer Jen Fitzgerald, will be writing the Mixtape column this month—and we are all lucky for it. Enjoy Jen’s robust selections and I’ll see you in May.
The only thing poets enjoy more than talking about themselves is talking about poetry and the creative impulse. And thank God for that. Have you ever heard poets talking about the well-spring of creativity and pulling at the strings of an idea until it has unraveled on the page? Have you been in the room when a conversation about the hymnal prosody of Emily Dickinson bursts onto Elizabeth Bishop in a hospital waiting room or the mustard gas trenches of WWI? It’s enough to make you say “I’ve wasted my life” or “Why isn’t Poetry our national language?!”
- Writing the Australian Crawl by William Stafford
I recommend this craft book to writers of all genres. The title essay is a must-read. While Stafford does discuss poetry, he focuses more wholly on the act of writing, which he describes as “a dizzying struggle with the nowness of experience.” He advocates for a sort of inner quiet that allows for the tiniest strokes of the pen—a phrase, a statement that eventually leads to a paragraph, a stanza. He warns against analyzing and critiquing what has been created; poems exist on an in-between plain and will unravel if picked apart. Every writer would benefit from being encouraged to trust the process, the art, and themselves.
- Poets on Painters edited by J.D. McClatchy
Who said it better than O’Hara when he contemplated ORANGES and SARDINES? We are image-makers. Poetry is more like painting than writing—we have the ear where they have the eye. With essays by some greats, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams, this collection enlivens the discussion of the two-dimensional in the way only poets can.
- The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young
This book always gets my synapses firing, no matter how many times I revisit the text. It is wild and unrelenting, it is daring and grounding. If I were to choose a thesis for this book, it would be “Purposelessness is not meaninglessness.” Young spends the entire book respecting the reader’s creativity, elevating it to the highest status, starting and ending with the primitive need for expression.
“The primary urge to make poems is connected to our most exorbitant claims of our power and divinity, as well as our being part of the animal, mineral world. We are prisoners of raindrops set free by our own flames.”
- The Human Eye by Adrienne Rich
The slow and steady hand of Adrienne Rich leads the reader through personal art as social and political art. What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to see, and what does it mean to show? She does not oversimplify the notion of “political” but instead places her words alongside other artists in recent history—each piece of lasting writing knows what came before it and understands what should follow it. Rich places her ideas after those of Muriel Rukeyser with this quote from The Life of Poetry:
“A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world.”
- Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
In a series of letters to “Continuum,” Tallie answers necessary questions that seemingly come from the ether. But they are not formless, they were born of real concerns, inquiries, and recurring feelings that something was missing from the contemporary conversation about poetry. Yes, she speaks to craft and revision but what she truly seeks to communicate is the need for a poet to figure out who they want to be in the world, what they want their poetry to do, and then treat their writing as a constant movement toward those ideas. In bettering ourselves we better our writing. In bettering our writing, we touch those who read our words, and just maybe that means we can create the world in which we want to live.
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