David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 3


A poem comes into being out of the violent energy of havoc.

The havoc might be internalized and represented by the poet’s psyche. It might be externalized and arise from the poet’s domestic realms such as in relationship to family or friends, to labor or love. The havoc might be a result of historic or political obstacles or opportunities from gender to geography, from economics to an epidemic, from race to war.

The poet’s voice speaks in opposition to this havoc, whether the havoc is mildly aggressive, menacing, or sinister. The concussive impulses of havoc out of which a poem is born creates an environment for a poet to exist in his or her poem. When a poet speaks from this place of havoc, her poem becomes a message to the world, and the poem seeks to redeem the havoc.

In this sense, you can see your writing of poetry as a shining form of deliverance. Your poem releases both you and a reader, temporarily, from the havoc. Your poem is a cry, a song, a yawp.

Of course, the havoc is larger than the poet. And the poet must submit to it just as he would to other greater entities — faith, spirit, nature, time, history, and so on. And, of course, too, more havoc is contained in those considerations.

As a submission to something larger than himself, Theodore Roethke’s opening to “Journey to the Interior” conveys this passage from havoc to identity. Here’s the opening:

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
— Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.

Roethke is identifying some of the obstacles to finding a path from the interior of havoc to the interior of identity. When you’re writing a poem and when you’re encountering existence, you’re encountering the obstacles to release your psyche from the havoc that gave rise to the poem — from the length of the journey to the detours and raw places, from dangerous edges to the veers and turns, from the consequences of disruption to the world’s detachment.

Is this idea of treating every poem as a passage from havoc to identity some kind of liberation theory of poetry? Yes. Only the birth of a new vision of existence in a poem can redeem the havoc of being a “swamp alive with quicksand.”

A return to traditional forms alone will not accomplish this. Experimentation with form alone will not accomplish this. Any species of poetics alone will not accomplish this. But birth of a new vision of life can redeem the havoc.

Creating this new birth is your challenge as a poet in every poem.

All the same, the havoc never disappears entirely. Just as humanity does not suddenly exterminate war and hunger, illness and death, a poem does not suddenly exterminate the causes to write a poem. Only a new poem can bring rebirth over the havoc.

And then, another poem after that. And another after that.

Adrienne Rich in “Diving into the Wreck” identifies this continuous descent and ascent from the chaotic to the self as a means to order the psyche’s difficulties. As in the passage by Roethke, Rich’s path resembles the poet’s journey from chaos to clarity:

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

These lines present and represent the poet’s burden: to wipe out the havoc, to break through to direct experience, to vivify both what is distorted and undistorted, and to designate what is chaotic.

As Rich indicates in “Diving into the Wreck,” a poet may have to be crippled on behalf of her discovery. But when a poem attributes, discriminates, and ordains all that can be known, then the discovery is able to heal the distress.

The ritual of poetic discovery is a reanimation of the whole metaphor of human dream and reason, irrationality and rationality, the ancient and the contemporary, the organic and the artifice.

Wrestling with the havoc in a poem reconnects both poet and reader with the earliest states of human consciousness and provides an opportunity to reattach — across lived time and also literary time — the tethers of mankind.

No matter the nearby rivers, no matter the nearby mountains, no matter the political or sociological dramas of a given poet’s geography, a poet’s descent into the havoc of the imagination — the descent and also the ascent — fully engages the shared images and metaphors of human thought and imagination. And fully appreciates their significance, too.

As Adrienne Rich says: “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.”

Simultaneously, a poem is an individuated utterance tied to an occasion and a shared inheritance of human experience across time and space. A poet is called on to have ambition to slip off the limited robes of one’s contemporary period — the fads and imitations and styles of the moment — in order to validate what is at the root of human feeling and human thought.

Isn’t this why we think of poets as the pure singers of time? Isn’t this what Adrienne Rich is asking you to seek in “Diving into the Wreck,” to locate the source of poetic consciousness and put it in service of calming the havoc?

Yes. So when you do this — and you can do this — you become a poet who transfigures in your poems and through your poems what is original, what is shared, and what is eternal.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →