David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 8


The wisdom of poetry is a ladder to the underground. The wisdom of poetry is a rope dropped out of the skies. The wisdom of poetry is a passage past the rocks of doubt. The wisdom of poetry is the full receipt of both ancient and contemporary poetic forms.

Accepting the impulse to write a poem means entering a realm of your imagination where you are not alone but instead, fortunately, are guided by two complimentary forces. The first is the unanticipated happenstances of life (discussed in chapter 6 and chapter 7). The second is the wisdom of the entire history of the art of poetry.

To navigate this second force of special wisdom when you are writing a poem (and the same goes for when you are reading a poem) is to accept reassurance that is offered to you from other poets throughout time and across languages and styles. Because every time you write a poem not only are you transfiguring modernity but also you are ensuring that the art of poetry is not lost. You are ensuring that the art of poetry remains continuously present as a vibrant contemporary experience. To do that takes support from the wisdom of the past so that you go, as Zbigniew Herbert, as translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, reminds you, “where those others went to the dark boundary.”

When you trust the wisdom from the art of poetry as a guide to writing your new poems, you put your writing in service of something larger than your own ambitions and impulses. You find that all of poetry, in every language, from every period, in all styles, is at your side — not as a gladiatorial collision of poets and poetics but as a mutual congregation that spans the four directions of the earth and, in the words of Walt Whitman, bestows “on every object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less.”

Charles Wright seems to face this crisis in every one of his poems, as here in the middle of “California Dreaming”:

Some nights, when the rock-and-roll band next door has quit playing,
And the last helicopter has thwonked back to the Marine base,
And the dark lets all its weight down
_______________________to within a half inch of the ground,
I sit outside in the gold lamé of the moon
______________________________as the town sleeps and the country sleeps
Like flung confetti around me,
And wonder just what in the hell I’m doing out here
So many thousands of miles away from what I know best.
And what I know best
___________________________has nothing to do with Point Conception
And Avalon and the long erasure of ocean
Out there where the landscape ends.
What I know best is a little thing.
It sits on the far side of the simile,
______________________________________the like that’s like the like.

Wright’s wondering “just what in the hell I’m doing out here / So many thousands of miles away from what I know best” is a fantastic example of integrating (as discussed in chapter 7) avoidance with impulse. Wright also reminds you that responding to modernity — same goes for natural landscapes (the poem is set near Laguna Beach) — is nothing without the support of the art of poetry. The means to write poetry, as Wright dramatizes, always “sits on the far side of the simile, / the like that’s like the like.” To become a poet is to understand that the art of poetry aids the act of poetry.

When you are standing at the dreamy river of poetry each and every time you begin to speak your new poem, your new poem becomes the newest waters in the currents of the river of the whole art of poetry. That’s a timeless place to be as a poet, to know that you belong to something larger and dynamic and to know, too, that your distinctiveness is blending into the poetry of all time and across every language and style. Because doesn’t becoming a poet mean existing simultaneously both in the current moment and in the historical currents of the art of poetry? When you are writing a poem, when the going is going well, you may find that you are simply speaking on behalf of the art as much as you are speaking on behalf of your own imagination. You may find that your utterance is supplied to you because you accepted the ladder or the rope, or you dodged the rocks with the support of an ancient or contemporary poetic form that sufficed. To write poetry is to embrace your abilities and limitations. Seeking guidance is necessary to becoming a poet.

Most poets find their poet-guides early on, and then seek out new guides as one comes to need new guidance. Just as John Keats first sought out Spencer and later Shakespeare. As Robert Lowell sought out John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. As Elizabeth Bishop sought out Marianne Moore. As T. S. Eliot sought out John Donne. As Dante sought out Virgil.

William Dunbar tips his hat to his poet-guides in “Lament for the Makeris”

I see that makaris amang the lave
Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
Sparit is nocht their facultie: —
_____Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Your poet-guide helps conduct you to new passageways in your imagination and to new poetic forms in which to frame your poems. Emily Dickinson tips her hat to the guidance of “the Art” of poetry itself in “I Would not paint — a picture —” (348):

Nor would I be a Poet —
It’s finer — Own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts — of Melody!

W. S. Merwin tips his hat to John Berryman in “Berryman”:

. . . he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally . . .

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Too, your guide may not be poetry or even a poet. It may be ideas or faiths or political persuasions or historical events, music or sport, commerce or art or nature. In W. S. Di Piero’s “Nocturne,” the poet-guide is something primitively urban:

Where are you now,
my poems,
my sleepwalkers?
No mumbles tonight?
Where are you, thirst,
fever, humming tedium?
The sodium streetlights
burr outside my window,
steadfast, unreachable,
little astonishments
lighting the way uphill.
Where are you now,
when I need you most?
________________It’s late. I’m old.
___________________________Come soon, you feral cats
_______________________________________among the dahlias.

T. S. Eliot has spoken clearly of the need to listen to the guidance of the past: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”

Langston Hughes, writing about jazz as well as poetry, reminds you, by analogy, that, in Eliot’s words, “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present be directed by the past”: “You can start anywhere—Jazz as Communication — since it’s a circle, and you yourself are the dot in the middle. You, me. For example, I’ll start with the Blues. I’m not a Southerner. I never worked on a levee. I hardly ever saw a cotton field except from the highway. But women behave the same on Park Avenue as they do on a levee: when you’ve got hold of one part of them the other part escapes you. That’s the Blues!”

Walt_WhitmanWalt Whitman in his great and still essential preface to Leaves of Grass first argues that the “American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions.” And then Whitman arrives at a place where poetry accepts its influences as a means to transfigure the present and create the future: “The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today. If he does not flood himself with the immediate age as with vast oceanic tides . . . and if he does not attract his own land body and soul to himself and hang on its neck with incomparable love and plunge his semitic muscle into its merits and demerits . . . and if he be not himself the age transfigured . . . and if to him is not opened the eternity which gives similitude to all periods and locations and processes and animate and inanimate forms, and which is the bond of time, and rises up from its inconceivable vagueness and infiniteness in the swimming shape of today, and is held by the ductile anchors of life, and makes the present spot the passage from what was to what shall be, and commits itself to the representation of this wave of an hour and this one of the sixty beautiful children of the wave—let him merge in the general run and wait his development. . . . Still the final test of poems or any character or work remains . . . . The prescient poet projects himself centuries ahead and judges performer or performance after the changes of time.”

William Hazlitt reminds you that the poetic impulse always requires deeper wisdom in order to be ordered into poetry: “Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination.”

You know these “heightenings” by embracing the guidance. Accepting influence upon yourself as a poet is meant as a benign form of cultivation. But, like a great teacher, a guide (or guidance generally) leads you to new challenges and trials. Eliot again: “Some one said: “’The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’” Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Isn’t it worth asking, as you sit down to write and rewrite your next poems, what is the nature of your influences?

Know this: your guide is both model and means. It represents clarity and ambiguity. It is parental and divine. It is male and female. It is both welcoming and inscrutable. You never enter the writing of your poems alone. The sagacity of the art of poetry is always nearby to offer you direction and disposition, proposition and provision, advocacy and admonition, caution and counsel, forewarning and favor, and cure and comfort.

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 →