David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 11


What does it mean to triumph as a poet? Doesn’t our poetic awareness sometimes take us to some rock bottom sense of ourselves, on the one hand, and, other times, on the other hand, to some elevated pinnacle of what we understand about ourselves — ourselves and our subjects, our metaphors and our communion with readers? Does it make a difference whether this place is a sanctuary cleansed by ritual or some darker, more remote cave in your mind and your heart?

I’m not sure what the answer is here. I do feel that overcoming the obstacles you face when writing poems helps you become a poet, and that we often triumph in the writing of a poem at the far edges of our awareness. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s early poem, “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children,” as translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, sites his edge of awareness as the headwaters where compassion begins, not in the sanctity of God, but in the sanctity of the female, in particular, the mother:

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first–aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of charity
that Mother handed down to us
so that their happiness may protect us
now and on other days.

Amichai’s material here includes a distant, fatherly God and a mother who is figure of joy. The female in this poem is the epitome of a better, perhaps even a more perfect idea of both life and living — by contrast, God is suspect and capricious.

And yet, still, it’s complicated. Amichai’s cynicism toward God’s treatment of men and women (“they must crawl on all fours / in the burning sand”) must negotiate with the poet’s clutching need for a redemptive divinity (“perhaps he will…have mercy on them and shelter them”). As I say, the female, the mother figure, represents in this one poem the idea of assurance and promise. She “protects” both child and adult. She offers comfort and nourishment. She dwells permanently in the metaphor of infiniteness. Because she is summoned to “protect us / now and on other days,” she is of and also beyond time.

Here I hope you might see that one aspect of your relationship to the material of your imagination is goodness. In “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children,” the mother epitomizes beauty and desire and generosity and integrity and well-being. She is the incarnation of blessedness and euphoria. She is the promise of joy. Ask yourself, what is the goodness in your material as a poet?

The materials in your imagination can also be less benevolent or sympathetic. Your materials may include images and metaphors that are hurtful, severe, and violent. And, to be fair, these figures might also be embodied by what we think of as female. For example, Osip Mandelstam struggles with this more damaging and distressing kind of material in his poem, “And I Was Alive.” Translated below by Christian Wiman, Mandelstam’s poem sees a prejudicial female figure in the natural world:

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

In Mandelstam’s material, Mother Nature’s surface mercifulness also possesses fury and turbulence. In contrast to Amichai’s mother figure, the springtime figure in Mandelstam’s poem is hardly serene. In the Mandelstam poem, blossoming belies a blizzard, new cherries come in a storm-wracked harvest, and stars shatter. These violent materials, while embedded in beauty, are aimed at the most vulnerable parts of the poet’s consciousness. Here, too, flowers are “fleeing.” Blossoms turn to “rupture and “hammer.” The intolerance of the female figure of nature in Mandelstam’s poem rots and then, also, defines time. Then we see the figure mythologized as a kind of living death.

Osip_Mandelstam_Russian_writerThe goodness we encounter in Amichai’s mother figure is unattainable and perhaps even feared in Mandelstam’s poem. Mandelstam’s vision of new life is one of menace. New life acts violently. Desire becomes forbidden, treacherous, and unstable. In Mandelstam’s material, nature’s malevolence is hidden and yet also knowable. It is both “now” and also “not.” Goodness for Mandelstam— even when observed, even when clarified, even when apprehended as true — inspires, not desire, but fear. Now ask yourself, what is the menace in your material as a poet?

What I mean is, Amichai’s material brings him to the pinnacle of understanding existence as protective, while Mandelstam’s material brings him to understanding existence as the nadir of abandonment and waste. I hope you can see that your material is made up of ideas that contain both goodness and depravation, both emotional nourishment and emotional starvation.

Most important is this: your poems have the potential to unite the two.

Becoming a poet means to think about delight and distress with equal poise. Becoming a poet means to embrace the child of your imagination (“Mother handed down to us”) where resentment is understood (“God…has less pity on school children /And on grownups he has no pity at all”). And finally, becoming a poet means embracing your awareness of the human condition with its natural laws (“What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?”) and complicated nature (“Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot. / It is now. It is not.”).

Writing a poem asks you to be fully revelatory about the maximum conditions of human existence. Both the mother figure in Amichai’s poem and the Mother Nature figure in Mandelstam’s poem represent points on the continuum of what we know between, say, grace and mercilessness. When you read these poems, you become like their narrators. You are brought into the knowledge, not of the totality of all things, but the particularity of every thing.

Because, let’s be fair, a poem cannot be a kit-and-kaboodle of all things. But a poem can be a triumph of one thing that reveals the patterns and range of many things. That’s why you want to go beyond your imaginative limitations as a poet so that your materials — whether benign or malevolent — can be released to you and then revealed to others. What you know becomes what you make known.

In other words, to become a poet is to master the metaphors of life that, first, test you and, second, provide you with a crisis of imagination. Two of William Blake’s poems epitomize this kind of mastery. Here is his poem, “Infant Joy”:

infantjoyandsorrowI have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.

Now read Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow”:

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

If, when reading these poems, we do not feel that Blake understands the emotions and situations and humanity of both joy and sorrow of the newborn, then we might come to doubt Blake’s capacity as a poet. But, in both poems, Blake reveals that he does understand, and he demonstrates mastery over the metaphors of modern life. Thus his mastery illustrates all that he has become as a poet.

When you think of your material as an amplification of life’s events (such as the joy or sorrow of infancy), and when you think of the plots and situations in your poems as representing patterns of existence that you reconstruct into the forms and structures of your poems, then you will be ready to realize that all you know and all you don’t know make for the basis of your relationship to your materials and metaphors.

To realize this condition is to realize your limitations, I understand. But it also means that you will come to realize that greater knowledge of existence can be grasped. Like dreams, like hallucinations, your poems transcend both your faiths and your fears.

I know it’s tempting to be willful as a poet. You can easily be lured into wanting to write what you wish life were like. But don’t you want, ultimately, to have your materials and metaphors be in sync with actual reality, with what life is?

If you refuse to see what your materials represent, if you do not admit to yourself whether your materials rise to beneficence or lurk with the opposite, if you protect your imagination from the nature of actual fleshy life, and if you gloss over and seek to vindicate your experiences, then you will struggle to understand your materials. You will struggle to dramatize and interpret your metaphors. And you will struggle to become a poet.

On the other hand, if each time you write a poem you accept both what you are capable of loving and what you are repulsed by both, and both equally as vivid sources of your imagination, then you will be ready to write from an inspired place in your consciousness, a place where you can embrace the enigmas of existence and write the poems that best define your honest view and vision of modern life.

I want to assure you that I’m well aware of the ways some aspects of our psyches do frighten us. I know you can sense when your heart has been stung, and your blood can be drunk with anger. You can feel damned or guilty as if some wrath has been brought upon you. You can feel as if you are drowning in rising waters. And: that something, somewhere, inside your imagination, is toying with you. Sometimes it feels like you will never swim to safety, that you can’t endure any longer the unknown threat, and that the far edges of awareness are just that, too far from your abilities. Still, other times and yet no better, too, the threat is more like a hot provocation, a fire of dread. You feel singed and unworthy. You feel, as in the Amichai poem, that you:

must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first–aid station

In these instances, I understand, you may feel that hardly anything could inspire you to write a poem. You may feel that even poetry can neither release nor rescue you or your imagination. You may feel that the unknown threat can never be explored and that nothing can save you.

But to become a poet means persisting in the face of your fear. Through the writing of new poems, you will find that the aspects of your mind, your animus, your ego, and your true being can find a means to satisfaction. For some, even redemption.

If you’re going to have faith that you can write poems regardless of what may lie in front of you, meaning that you don’t know what will be in the poems you haven’t written yet and what may be in your materials — and meaning too that you can steer close to the far edges of your awareness and then, not surprisingly, those edges move farther away again — then you can learn to rely on your poems to help you find your way. You can gain confidence and assurance from your very materials to protect you as you face your most difficult inward, psychic threats. You can come to understand that the glorious and the grotesque reflect each other both in life and in poetry.

Perhaps, even, they are the same thing, given that they arise from the same source: your imagination.

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 →