With this column, Poetry Wire begins a multi-part exploration of how you might become a poet in the modern world. The essays will explore the vital transformations of self that are common to poets throughout the history of poetry, transformations that are shared and essential to the human need to write poems.
Whether you acid-kick your spirit into some trance of the star-stuff of your imagination, or study each of the languages of the seven continents, or hideout for months in city or forest reading the major books of western civilization from the Old Testament to the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, or you fashion new theories about theism or atheism, or refashion the old ones, or hold a newborn in your arms just once in your lifetime and weep with gratitude or raise an entire household of determined children long into their own adulthoods, or from Mondays-Fridays at sundown sharp you lift a jam jar of fine twelve year old whiskey to your lips, and whether you listen to Rimsky-Korsakov or the Ramones, prefer Jackson Pollack or Norman Rockwell, Babe Ruth or Ken Griffey, Jr., Batman or Superman, John, Paul, George, or Ringo, you’re going to find yourself beginning every poem with the same nearly unanswerable questions, questions that get at the nature of being and being a poet.
Those questions are: Who are you when you speak your poem? What is your identity? What is the form of your utterance?
And not just when you begin to write a poem, but not long after you begin to face those questions as a poet you may realize you’re going to want to live in life with those questions, also.
Sure, it’s a chicken and the egg problem. Which came first? Living as a poet in order to write poems? Writing poems to develop a way to live as a poet? But, still and all, you’re going to be faced with these questions and you’re going to seed and seek the answers that are most true to your interests and talent.
At night, when the birds have quieted and the street lamps are humming, these are the questions that can test you and inspire you as a poet. During the day, when you are at your desk, coffee at hand, face to face with the page or the screen, these are the questions that can be your invitation to write.
No matter the language that you write in, likely you already know that trying to answer these difficult questions becomes the inspiration not just for a single poem but for your lifetime of creative imagination. Your answers may change as you change. They may alter as you evolve as both a person and a poet. But, continuously, they will give your writing its blood and breath, its muscle and sinew, its lines and stanzas, its mind and being.
Your answers will be the imprint of your mind and utterance, which are the very factors that distinguish one poet from another and that have always distinguished one poet from another. Paradoxically, they are the very factors that reveal how all poets are similar.
In other words, your poems will be your answers.
Every hour you are awake and every hour you are asleep, the mixture of the sounds and silences of your poems will bubble forth and recede and bubble forth. Your poems will provide you with openings to clarity about life and death, love and longing, politics and prayer.
And: they will lead you astray. And yet: from that dark wood, you may find new utterances, as well.
“Back out of all this now too much for us” begins Robert Frost’s poem of divided identity, “Directive.” It’s a poem that will end, “be whole again beyond confusion.” Can you see that opening line as a metaphor for the act of seeking to become a poet?
There is a place or a time, a back-out-of destination, or destiny, that once existed when time was not “too much for us,” when time was not too much at all, when daily life was not too much, when understanding the modern world’s impact on the inner life was not too much, when hearing the whispers of the inner life was not too much, and when you could even hear the whispers. There is a locale in the creative imagination where some of your answers reside. It may be a place of silence or a place of commotion but, either way, it is “back out of all this.” It is somewhere other, somewhere else. Every time you begin a poem, you are looking for that place.
Or, thinking of the poem’s title, the line may not be a direction at all.
It may not indicate an imaginary place but an imperative, a command. You are commanded to remove or escape from yourself. Or, is it into yourself? To be told to “back out” is to be ordered to step away or to step toward. It is to be told by a guide to go elsewhere and beyond, into and within. That elsewhere may be in the past or in the future or in some other zone of the present, some other facet of the unconscious, or even some other facet of the conscious, living, historical, or modern world. It may be to the future.
And yet: the page remains the page — blank as a dining room table after the guests have left and the dishes cleared and the cloth removed. There you are, alone, with the long wood of the table. And perhaps a few crumbs of pepper.
Frost’s opening in “Directive” tells you something about trying to answer the questions and write poetry. It says that the answers are both a journey and a destination, even a destiny. It’s a suggestion that your true consciousness connects with your imagination and the living world and then connects too with the art of writing poetry: “Back out of all this now too much for us.”
The rub is the word “this,” no? Because “this” is fluid in time. Then and now. Now and later.
But how will you know what your “this” is? How does it change when you put ink to parchment? If you simply backed out of where you are in the present right now (if you could, in your mind, in your creative imagination), where would you go?
Funny as it is to put it this way, these are more of the questions that will keep you going.
What does Frost’s “Directive” say? It says: You go to your utterance. Because in your utterance, in the speech of your self, and in the voice of your poetic identity, you’re able to begin to be “whole again beyond confusion.” Take the steps, or the leaps, to speak from your core utterance is what the poem says.
Frost was in his seventies when he wrote “Directive.” He begins with a walk in some un-beautified woods near a brook that has existed since the ice age. Led by a deceptive guide as your guide — a sort of New England-clad tipsy sort of Virgil, I suppose — we are delivered into both a private and a civic past, a cultural past, where the totems and signs and symbols are larger than our own consciousness. “Directive” directs you to write larger than yourself, to include the world, to be included in the world.
Place yourself into the world that is here, and has been here, and will survive here on earth after your time is finished. Find that place, the poem says:
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
There is no actual place now, is there? Or is it that the place is pure impulse: It’s where you, the poet, are created and recreated in each and every one of your poems. It’s the impulse and the compulsion you have to “find your waters.” It’s the impulse and the compulsion that offers you the opportunities to transform new masks of poetry fashioned from the ancient masks of poetry, new costumes fashioned from the ancient costumes.
You are the guide to the place, and your poems are the place.
Be cautioned: Our critics are quite deft at analyzing what it is we’re all doing as poets. They analyze and re-analyze. They characterize. And they divide. They stimulate debate about differences and seek to determine which style is the one that matters now, which arrangement of images and metaphors and forms has slain the arrangement that dominated previously. I’ve done this myself. It’s a patricidal or matricidal mode of experiencing poetry. One decade, the critics say, we’re formalists. Another decade we’re conceptualists. Another decade we’re imagists. Another decade we’re political partisans or ascetic symbolists or agrarian storytellers. The burdens of the past must be relieved, reviewed, and replaced, the critics say. Even within a single decade, we are told, there are new guards and rear guards. Be cautioned: The critic’s craft is not the poet’s art.
Isn’t it right that the surrealistic energies of Walt Whitman are not all that different from those of his contemporary, Emily Dickinson? Are Wallace Stevens’ conceptual inventions so different from W. C. Williams’ social inventions?
Sure, the poet must contend with the burdens of the past — but only in the spirit of reshaping, reiterating, and refreshing them. To make it new? No. To make it now.
Perhaps that might be a fresh approach to your poems each and every time you begin to write. Because doesn’t each and every one of your utterances and identities have a psychological nest in your relation to all the language, history, morality, and myths of the art of poetry? All at once, and always?
We would be better served sometimes by our critics if they brought new clarity not to what divides the poets of a given time but to what the corresponding similarities in every human imagination are and remain across time and continents.
The critic may reject a unifying set of images inside the arts of poetry. But this would be like rejecting universality in myth. As poets, we are predisposed to accept a unifying set of images and symbols across time and place because our experiences tell us that the patterns of our lives are shared. You begin with some unrecognizable inner dream, and you bring a new — meaning, a renewed — vision and voice to the entire art of poetry every time you write a poem. Both to the art of poetry and to the spirit of living in a modern world.
You can do this. You are asking yourself to do this. You desire to do this. You are compelled by your own psyche and unconscious and living self to do this. Yes, there’s that word again from Frost: “this.” Abide in “this.”
And: whether or not you believe you want to do this, your poems are doing this anyway. They are transcending time and place.
Therefore your understanding of your utterance and identity and who is speaking your poems is only the beginning of your poet’s journey. Your gift as a poet, your addition of new images and music to poetry’s long history of images and utterances, will complement and add a new wire to the voice of poetry.
Your solitary voice reiterates, refreshes, and renews the music of our humanity.
We have been speaking and reading and listening to our voices since Mnemosyne and the muses — Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Erato, and Polyhymnia — first inspired Orpheus. And I am wondering what is it you have discovered about being human that you will now add to our shared poetic chorus?
Who are you when you speak your poem? What is your identity? What is the music of your utterance? What images and shapes of experience do you see?
When you begin to discover answers to these questions, you will begin to become the poet you seek to be.
In the next Poetry Wire…
What paths will you follow into your unconscious self in order to begin to answer the questions about how to become a poet?