David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 7


In the previous installment of the Poet’s Journey, I wrote about the urgency for a poet to be alert to the unexpected and to embrace it when it comes. This essay wonders what happens when a poet refuses to embrace the unexpected.

There are times as a poet when the unforeseen, the unintentional, and the unsuspected drop right in your lap and yet you do not respond. Sometimes even you refuse to respond. You turn away from your own mind, your own imagination, and your own material.

When you do not allow yourself to follow your impulses, it’s not that you are eluding or destroying those impulses. Instead, you’re converting what was potentially necessary to your imagination into something darker, less stable, and more insidious. Avoidance destroys your creative imagination. Avoidance destroys your ability to write.

The result of dismissing your imagination and the unforeseen impulses of your mind and your experiences — and the result of not finding, in modern life, metaphors to excite your creative self — is that you risk seeing the whole enterprise of living alertly as a poet and living a life organized around writing poems as meaningless.

And this one behavior — avoiding your impulses — can lead you to become negatively fatalistic about your calling to write.

For that matter, the same holds when you believe others succeed where you don’t. Feelings of envy, ill will, prejudice, and resentment are nasty little emotions that can befall you as a poet when you refuse to respond to what arouses your own imagination and focus your mind there, and not begrudge or mock what arouses someone else’s imagination. When you compare the success of others to yourself, you risk fostering an imagination of despair.

And, just as when you refuse the unexpected, you engage in the hideous process of devising aesthetic cages that prevent you from breaking into your own poem-making consciousness.

Even if you can forge some elaborate escape from the cage of this negating aspect of your creative self, you may struggle to leave the chains behind. That’s calamitous for a poet because it can cause emotional deterioration. Experience this kind of emotional deterioration, and your imagination crumbles and folds. The consequence is like a literary near-death — you find yourself overly-focused on the outcomes of writing (like the brilliant allures of awards, connections, gossip, networking, notice, publication) and not on the discoveries you can make as a writer that you share, as a form of communion, with readers.

When you’ve corroded yourself in this way, the path leads only to poetic disintegration, fragmentation, and demoralization.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” Winston Churchill says. Ignoring or avoiding your impulses as a writer is the same as refusing them.

What causes you to ignore your impulses? Existing in a caged sanctuary of certainty is often the culprit. When you are bounded by an unctuous form of self-satisfaction, your imagination hardens into credence and staunchness. You develop ossified certainties.

That is a place no poetry can survive.

RuanJiRuan Ji, who wrote poems in 3rd century China, offers a passage from Chanting My Thoughts, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, that demonstrates the excessive pain that comes from eluding or dismissing your impulses:

At night I can’t fall asleep,
get up and sit to play my zither.
Through thin curtains I see bright moon
as light breeze flaps my garment.
A lonely wild goose shrieks from far wilderness;
gliding birds call in the Northern Woods.
I pace my room hoping to see what?
Alone, longing, sorrow hurts my heart.

When you ignore the impulses of your imagination, you become a disoriented poet. Disorientation can be brutal for a poet. It can be defeating (“sorrow hurts my heart”), even deathly, because you may find you have trouble with or even simply cannot depart from modernity for the imaginative realms of writing new poems that foster discovery and originality.

Even if you can escape, you may find yourself in an exit-less creative passageway (“I pace my room hoping to see what?”). Cherishing your now frozen habits and most calcified poetic forms and holding fast to your incompliant psyche is the route to destroying your imagination as a poet.

And in service of what? Fulfilling some un-mysterious assumptions about life you fixed on so long ago?

That’s why, when you are disoriented, you desperately try to compensate: you repeat imaginative steps you have taken in the past and you recross your poetic routes over and over again.

This is the pathway to imaginative ossification. To ossify as a writer is to find that you can discover nothing new.

Fixating on what you already know, obsessing over what you have already overcome, hitting the nail so hard — so often, so repeatedly, so sharply, and so assuredly — that you do not notice how you dent the wood, that’s how you find yourself in a place where you refuse or turn from the impulses of your imagination.

vallejoJust as the Peruvian poet César Vallejo suggests near the conclusion of his poem, “The Black Heralds,” when the call comes like a “slap on the shoulder,” in Rebecca Seiferle’s translation, a poet must be ready to answer the summons:

Y el hombre . . . Pobre . . . pobre! Vuelve los ojos, como
cuando por sobre el hombro nos llama una palmada;
vuelve los ojo locos, y todo lo vivido
se empoza, como charco de culpa, en la mirada.

And man … Poor … poor man! He turns his eyes, as
when a slap on the shoulder calls us by name;
he turns his crazed eyes, and everything he’s lived
wells up, like a pool of guilt, in his gaze.

When, as a poet, you abandon the unintentional in order to serve the intentional, you are not writing toward discovery or recovery. Instead, you are denying wonder a place to flourish. You are patting your own ideals on the head. You are relapsing into lifeless terrain you know not by heart but heartlessly.

To write a poem that does not involve your seeking out new knowledge is to foster — no, really, is to submit to— a soul-killing and sanctimonious imagination.

That’s how you destroy your ability to become a poet.

And then you see your imagination as poor, you condemn it to its most helplessly infantile state, you become terrified and full of self-sanction, you are not able to speak from life or to life, you are not able to enter the mysteries of curiosity, you are not able to become reborn with new knowledge that you relate to the modern world, and you fail to write poems of discovery which are necessary to the future of the art.

However, to write poetry is to understand that you get more than one chance to respond to your impulses. You can be released from your own pattern of denial. The impulse can be revealed to you afresh, even as a recognition that your longing to create has a connection to the “lonely wild goose shrieks from far wilderness” or in the very “charco de culpa.”

“This today is all that we can tell you: / what we are not, what we do not want,” writes Eugenio Montale in Jonathan Galassi’s translation of the last two lines of “(Don’t Ask Us for the Word).” To become a poet means integrating your avoidance with your alertness. It means reshaping avoidance and destructiveness into your writing consciousness.

Becoming a poet means seeing failure as a seedbed and not a mud hole.

Become a poet means reshaping destruction into playfulness.

Avoidance is natural. Acceptance is necessary. What you are able to achieve as a poet when you first avoid and then accept is a trust in introspection — because becoming a poet means not studying yourself but that which you pass through. Writing through avoidance toward a place of acceptance is one of the ways an ambitious poet transfigures modernity.

Your aim then as a poet becomes to resolve the terms of your avoidance and acceptance, and then to reinterpret your discovered resolutions into poems.

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 →