"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

05 July 2018


No one tell you how best to make the writing happen.  For one poet at least, short naps have proved helpful; for him, leaving consciousness for a brief time is an invitation to the inner, “poetic” voice.  For myself, walking works in a similar way. I walk slowly and not to get anywhere in particular, but because motion somehow helps the poem to begin. I end up, usually, standing still, writing something down in the small notebook I always have with me.

For yourself, neither napping nor walking has to be the answer.  But, something is. The point is to try various activities or arrangements until you find out what works for you.

Especially when writers are just starting out, the emphasis should be not only upon what they write, but equally on the process of writing.  A successful class is a class where no one feels that “writer’s block” is a high-priority subject.

Said William Blake, “I am not ashamed, afraid, or averse to tell you what Ought to be Told.  That I am under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily & Nightly.”

Early in my life I determined not to teach because I like teaching very much.   Thought if I was going to be a real poet -- that is, write the best poetry I possibly could -- I would have to guard my time and energy for its production, and thus I should not, as a daily occupation, do anything else that was interesting.  Of necessity I worked for many years at many occupations. None of them, in keeping with my promise, was interesting.

Among the things I learned in those years were two of special interest to poets.  First, that one can rise early in the morning and have time to write (or, even, to take a walk and then write) before the world’s work schedule begins.  Also, that one can live simply and honorably on just about enough money to keep a chicken alive. And do so cheerfully.

This I have always known -- that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and mortal regret.

John Cage in a New York Times interview talked about the composer Arthur Schoenberg, with whom he had studied.  Said Cage, “He (Schoenberg) gave his students little comfort. When we followed the rules in writing counterpoint, he would say, “Why don’t you take a little liberty?”  And when we took liberties, he would say, “Don’t you know the rules?”

I cherish two sentences and keep them close to my desk.  The first is by Flaubert. I came upon it among van Gogh’s letters.  It says, simply, “Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”

Put aside for a moment what Flaubert is not talking about -- the impulse toward writing, the inspiration and the mystery -- and instead look at what he does say: “patience” is necessary, and “an effort of will,” and “intense observation.”  What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them.  What Flaubert is talking about are skills, after all. You can attend to them, you can do better, and then even better -- until the sweet taste of improvement is in your mouth.

When people ask me if I do not take pleasure in poems I have written I am astonished.  What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will -- how to see better, and write better.

The second statement comes from Emerson’s journals.  In the context, it is written in past tense; changing the verb to present tense it reads: The poem is a confession of faith.

Which is to say, the poem is not an exercise.  It is not “word play.” Whatever skill or beauty it has, it contains something beyond language devices, and has a purpose other than itself.  And it is a part of the sensibility of the writer. I don’t mean in any “confessional” way, but that it reflects from the writer’s point of view -- his or her perspectives -- out of all the sum of his or her experience and thought.

Athletes take care of their bodies.  Writers must similarily take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems.  There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies -- in holiness and in mirth.  It is in honest hands-on labor also; I don’t mean to indicate a preference for the scholarly life.  And it is in the green world -- among people, and animals, and trees. A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.  Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision -- a faith, to use an old fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  Yes, indeed.

Mary Oliver, from A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry

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