David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Art of Communion


There comes a time in the process of writing a poem when you find yourself putting the reader’s interests and desires ahead of your own as the poet. Not that the reader is a potted plant, I mean. Because the reader is sometimes hostile, other times skeptical, and still other times easily moved, or hopeful, or open, or predisposed, willing to be carried forth. The reader is someone who wants to have a communal relationship with a poem, and by extension, with the maker of the poem.

Many poets want to find places where our writing — and the reading of our writing — enacts some kind of transcendency, of, I guess I’ll call it one-ness, or concurrence, or affiliation with a reader.

Because reading is an lived experience and a secluded experience between writer and reader, readers want to feel unified with the poet in that private space. Which is to say, readers want to disappear. Which is to say, poets want the reader to disappear inside the poem.

Isn’t it also the case, then, that a poet must disappear somewhat as the writer in the writing of the poem? If we want the reader to do anything, we must put the reader’s needs ahead of ours. At some crucial point in the process of writing the poem, I mean, we must put the reader’s interests ahead of ours.

Take a poem like Yusef Kommunyakka’s “Facing It.” One of its consequences is it inspires you to participate in this very action. It makes your experience as a reader paramount:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

The reader’s interests are in the foreground in the opening when we witness the image of the speaker come out of the stone. It’s in the foreground as stone and flesh dissolve. It’s in the foreground as the white vet cannot see the black vet, and the African American experience of invisibility is dramatized. And it’s in the foreground when the woman touches a name on the wall and that body becomes a living, small boy.

This is bringing a reader to action in a poem. Action in the mind. Action in the spirit. This is the art of communion in a poem.

Try this thought experiment: Try to picture what you want your reader to do when reading your poem. By do, I mean feel, think, wonder. You may find that the decisions and revisions of your poem become more clarified for you. I mean, you don’t write alone. There, for one thing, are all the other poets talking to each other.

To write one poem is to be invested in a community in conversation — in community with your poetry world, your civic world, your domestic world, your inner world. And then, there’s all the readers who are actively participating in those worlds with us, too. Us poets, I mean. When you aim for communion, you’re appreciating the idea that literary experience is quite un-solitary. It’s noisy. It’s crowded. There is a lot of talking back and forth, and you’re trying to get somebody’s ear.

As much as we, at least I, value solitude as a writer — quiet time to think and fashion poems — I have never written a poem, for example, in which my idea of John Keats is not present. Keats is so important to me that I want to communicate, to have communion with him, and the entirety of the art of poetry that precedes me, and the contemporary moment of poetry right every time I write a poem — as well as with the individual reader who might be holding one of my poems.

But turn it around the other way. Thing is, as a reader, when I read John Keats, I probably now know “Ode to a Nightingale” better than Keats did. I’ve read it more times than he did. I’ve read it for more years than he did. I’ve lived with it longer than he did. He had “Ode to a Nightingale” from 1819-1821. I’ve had it from 1979 until today. At this point, the communion is so intense, that “Ode to a Nightingale” is actually my poem.

Or, consider this. Ask yourself: What is the very least thing you want your reader to experience when she reads your writing? For me, I never want a reader to think I sound like someone else.

And this question: What do you most want your reader to experience when he reads your writing?

For me, I want the reader to lose track of time and to experience timelessness (as I do, as a reader, when I read “Ode to a Nightingale”). That is the kind of communion I can get behind. When the reader isn’t lost in the writing but is experiencing a sense of being found in the writing, of finding location of self and other, of recovering or discovering the organic and the invented, form and identification, the inner and the outer landscapes of consciousness. For a poet, finding communion is to to have found content that enacts faith in being for the time being that someone else, a reader, can also fully experience.

And yet it’s a time-based connection and it isn’t permanent. Because to create as a poet and to receive as a reader the sort of communion that I’m describing is to exist in a state of uncertainty. It mean to accept the tenuous, to be in the tenuous. Like floating on the surface of the water, face down, drifting with the tide, watching the little schools of blue fish twitter by. It means to have a cry of pain and a cry of praise simultaneously.

Problem is, when you think of yourself as a reader, the minute you examine the cries of pain or cries of joy, or feel certainty about the fish, about the water, about the tenuousness, about the time being, about the content, about the inner and the outer physical existences, about identifying the identification, and forms, and invented aesthetics, and the paradox of the organic in a fashioned literary form (after all, a poem is not of nature, it’s a made thing), and then you become aware of your own body sitting and reading and that of the writer writing, as depicted in a photograph on the book jacket, staring into the camera right into your own eyes, like, what (well, you know what) like the next Great American Poet or whatever, the very minute you begin to dance with certainty, the communion is gone. You are no longer receptive as a reader.

And, as writer? When you too have become preoccupied with the nature and the craft and the how-to of all of that, you, too, are going to struggle with giving. The communion will be hard to make. Let’s be clear here too. You may never witness the communion I’m speaking of, a communion where the reader finds him or herself in the experience of reading you, where the reader comes to live what has become their experience, their new experience. You may never witness the communion you are seeking to engender.

I envision communion, I guess, as both noun and verb. To seek communion as a poet is to value sharing. It’s both the exchange and exchanging of a poem. It’s something to be given and to be received. And yes, a writer needs some form of communion with his or her material in the first place. And yes, a reader needs some understanding of her role to be open to communion, as well. The art of communion is a participatory ceremony, as much as it is an actual transference and transcendence.

Communion between poet and poem, and poem and reader, is the offer and the act of the offering. It is subject to chance. It depends upon contingency. It is most alive between two people, between the writer and reader. As with any relationship, it is uncertain. It can be fleeting.

Perhaps this whole idea is troubling to you. Tell us what you think below.

I find the notion comforting. Communion is what one strives for as a poet and hopes for as a reader. But communion is not an unchanging thing that can cling to you forever as a reader. You must reenter the offer of communion each time you read the thing you feel has changed you. I mean, communion is change itself. To feel communion with a poet and with a poem is to accept that you have been altered, dialed back, fine tuned, re-calibrated, and transmuted.

David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →