David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 10


When you’re writing a poem you will certainly face obstacles, and these obstacles will likely be fluid. In these moments it may be wise to allow the dynamism to become attractive and of great interest to you so that your poem can become a means to illustrate, dramatize, mythologize, and still the motion of that disruption — if only for the time it takes to read the poem.

I say this because I believe that the poetic imagination is a state of mind that prefers mutability over permanence, and that poets — across the centuries and across languages and across styles — have come to understand that to write a poem is to favor change over constancy.

Charles Olson illustrates this general idea in his poem, “The Kingfishers,” when it begins:

What does not change
is the will to change

Similarly, Robert Duncan in his poem, “The Song of the Borderguard,” acknowledges the supremacy of mutability in these opening lines:

The man with his lion under the shed of wars
sheds his belief as if he sheds tears.
The sound of words waits —
a barbarian host at the borderline of sense.

Olson and Duncan’s openings portray a foundational assumption about writing poetry. First, by writing a new poem, you are siding with a faith that poets have in transition and unrest — that these qualities mark the very nature of both life and art. Robert Hass suggests that this faith resides even at the level of the word. He asserts in “Meditation at Lagunitas” that “each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea.” He goes on to clarify that:

because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

In addition, I see the opening lines of your poems, for example, as serving as the threshold into your creative imagination and its capacity to understand and dramatize change. The opening lines of your poems assert your preferences and predispositions — and also function as the illustration of your acceptance, even desire, for imaginative resilience over imaginative rigidity. Second, at the same time, poets tend to be, more often than not, to one degree or another, in accord with the notion that you are not alone when you write a poem, that all of poetry supports your effort to write a poem, and that each opening of a poem is a moment of affirmation of this solidarity.

Denise Levertov seems to show awareness of both these assumptions in the first three lines of her poem, “Merritt Parkway”:

As if it were
forever that they move, that we
keep moving —

Levertov’s quicksilver opening implicates, as I read it, a dual faith in the mutability of the imagination and a fellowship with the arc of poetry. I see this intention, too, in Philip Lamantia’s “Terror Conduction,” a poem that opens with a similar sense of life, like poetry, bending toward fluctuation breaking over and again into ever more fluctuations:

The menacing machine turns on and off

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” opens, most famously, in this spirit of modification and variation:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

These examples suggest to me that the essence of mutability in poetry — in particular in a poem’s initiating lines when the poem is first framing its take on existence and experience — includes forms of both creation and destruction. The way you open your poems introduces your reader into your imagination’s “borderlines.” There you are likely to convey a “burning” for “connection” to what is fluid as well as an openness to disruption. You convey this openness in order to discover more fluidities and more connections among them. The change can even include an eruption of creation and destruction that happens simultaneously — and, also, can include an acknowledgement that that eruption might very well continue to cascade and cascade again.

It’s not just American poets who are conditioned toward poetry’s trust in this kind of metamorphosis. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s “Piano Solo” opens with the idea that God is the central force of flux in human experience, in William Carlos Williams’ translation, as follows:

Since man’s life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance,
A bit of foam shining inside a glass;
Since trees are nothing but moving tees;
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion;
Since we ourselves are nothing but beings
(As the godhead itself is nothing but God)

Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet, opens his poem, “The Fly,” in Ian Milner and George Theiner’s translation, with a similar interest in perpetual motion:

She sat on a willow-trunk
part of the battle of Crecy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the tramping and the tumbling.

You can see the “tramping and tumbling” of the world at the beginning of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem, 1935-1940.” In Stanley Kunitz’s translation from the Russian, we see Akhmatova’s feel for the condition of change as it recurs in the patterns of human aspiration:

No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.

When you accept an attraction to mutability as a foundation for poetic experience, you accept your own capacity to welcome what John Keats refers to as the “trial” of your “Powers of Imagination,” and what Walter Jackson Bate, Keats’ great biographer, characterizes as a poet’s “Trial of Invention.”

Robert Creeley’s “The Warning,” even as an eight-line poem in its entirety, locates this idea as a necessary condition for a poem’s existence:

For love — I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

But it’s not that you’re only writing toward change and disruption. The same poem might also soothe the disruption — such as at the end of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem that opens with extremity and concludes with a loving consecration:

I’m with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep
I’m with you in Rockland
where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to
drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary
walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

langston_hughesOr here, at the end of Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” when Hughes defines his identity as an utterance of reconciliation:

As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me —
although you’re older — and white —
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Or here, too, at the end of Wallace Stevens’ masterful poem, “The Plain Sense of Things,” in which he extols the preeminence of the mutable imagination’s life-saving force:

The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

And, finally, here in the last lines of the Tenth Elegy of Rainier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, as translated by Stephen Mitchell:

And we, who have always thought
of happiness as rising, would feel
the emotion that almost overwhelms us
whenever a happy thing falls

You become a poet when you navigate your poem’s labyrinths of mutability, not to a point of stasis, but to a point where your discoveries blossom into ecstasy, intoxication, even beatitude — or, to downplay that bit of grandiosity, into clarity, insight, judgment, understanding, private vision.

For sure, what exists in the tangles and convolutions of your imagination and in your poems, what exists in the knots and riddles and webs, will be difficulties. Difficulties in dramatic composition. Difficulties in metaphor and imagination. Difficulties in identity and voice. But the difficulties, too, are in flux. They change. They too dramatize mutability. In this way: Becoming a poet means locating what images and symbols, what argument and figuration, are best suited to convey the aspects of change you most want to reveal through your writing. Ask yourself, what are the changes in existence that matter to you?

Put another way, the end of your poem should be different from the beginning of your poem. You are becoming a poet when you see that some change takes place through the composition of your poems — a change in you as the poet, a change in the poem that is the projection of your poetic imagination, and again, finally, through your effort to find communion with a reader so that a change takes place in a reader’s understanding of existence, too.

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 →