One of our most perceptive critics on the ways that poets develop poems, a career, and a life
Though it seems, at first, like an art of speaking, poetry is an art of listening. The poet trains to hear clearly and, as much as possible, without interruption, the voice of his or her mind, the voice that gathers, packs with meaning, and unpacks the language he or she knows. It can take a long time to learn to let this voice speak without getting in its way. This slow learning, the growth of this habit of inner attentiveness, is poetic development, and it is the substance of the poet’s art. Of course, this growth is rarely steady, never linear, and is sometimes not actually growth but diminishmentthat’s all part of the compelling story of a poet’s way forward.
from the Introduction
“The staggering thing about a life’s work is it takes a lifetime to complete,” Craig Morgan Teicher writes in these luminous essays. We Begin in Gladness considers how poets start out, how they learn to hear themselves, and how some offer us that rare, glittering thing: lasting work. Teicher traces the poetic development of the works of Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, and Francine J. Harris, among others, to illuminate the paths they forgedby dramatic breakthroughs or by slow increments, and always by perseverance. We Begin in Gladness is indispensable for readers curious about the artistic life and for writers wondering how they might light outor even scale the peak of the mountain.
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About the Author
Craig Morgan Teicher is an acclaimed poet and critic. He is the author of three books of poetry, including The Trembling Answers, and regularly writes reviews for the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and The New York Times Book Review. He lives in New Jersey.
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Ars Poetica: Origin Stories
A poem is something that can't otherwise be said addressed to someone who can't otherwise hear it. By this definition, poetry is deeply impractical and deeply necessary. There aren't good words for most things we need to express, and lots of the people we need to say them to are dead or otherwise unavailable. Poets tend to need poems to handle subjects that are complex, subtle, nuanced, even painful, embarrassing, shameful, or simply ridiculous if actually uttered aloud. And so we have always needed poetry, as long as there has been language, and perhaps even before. Language began with poetry, with the idea that this means that, a word, a sound, can conjure a thing, with the fact that we often need our mouths to point to what's beyond the reach of our hands.
So much of life happens inside our heads, where other people can't see. Language is the fundamental bridge between inner and outer worlds, between people, even neighbors, who are always roadblocked by their skulls. Poetry is how we pay attention to that bridge, how we make sure it doesn't fall, how we maintain it, fix it when it gets rickety.
As long as people communicate, there will always be poets. But how and why do people begin to be poets, and what do they themselves gain from poetry? The people who gravitate toward poetry, usually as children or teenagers, love words, learn a kind of conjuring magic from them, find them as entertaining as toys. But I would wager that most poets, in addition to being word fetishists, finally dedicate themselves to poetry — or find themselves helplessly in its thrall — in order to answer for something deeper and perhaps darker than their passion for words.
Though their art is a refined form of speech, poets know more about silence than they do about sound. They are people who, for any number of reasons, cannot, or at one point could not, speak. Perhaps they have something particular to say, but as often, they are people desperately in need of speech itself. The philosopher and aphorist E. M. Cioran claims, "One does not write because one has something to say but because one wants to say something." Poetry seeks to fill the silence to which most poets have a heightened sensitivity. A certain amount of loneliness — an awareness of the unsayable — is a precondition for poetry, or for much poetry. Which is not to suggest most poetry is sad or lonely, just that it must be aware of the space around it, the silence that defines it. This is why poems look the way they do, filling only part of the page. Line breaks and stanza breaks make room for silence, include it in the poem, literally illustrate it.
If poets are the keepers of the unsayable, then silence, not language, is a poet's natural element, the realm where the unsayable lives. Poets fetishize silence as much as words; they are disturbed and comforted by the sounds that interrupt it. This is what John Keats means by Negative Capability, his notion of a poet's basic qualification, the need for "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." This is a fancy way of describing ambivalence, also a basic qualification for a poet, the ability to passionately hold two opposing feelings at once. Poets need ambivalence in order to acknowledge the unsayable and speak nonetheless. The hidden subject of all poems is the silence that surrounds them, the things that can't be, that will never be said; a real poem points to everything beyond it.
Silence is certainly what got me started. I was an only child, almost paralyzingly attached to my mother. I began writing poems at the age of fourteen, just after my mother died. Poetry was an almost instant reaction, as if a symptom of her death. I used to tell her everything, talk to her constantly every day of my life. Poetry was, it is now obvious to me, my response to the shock of suddenly having no one to address everything to. I had nothing in particular to say, but needed to say something, to anyone, to everyone.
So, poetry was a natural fit. And when I began to learn, in my tenth- grade honors English class, of the many people who had devoted their lives to it throughout history, I was hooked. It's a sad origin story, I know, but it has compensated me with a life filled with joy and interest, with a community of brilliant and obsessed people, with objects for my devotion. I think, in broad strokes, mine is a pretty common story of how and why poets begin. My early poems were terrible, but that's beside the point. I was speaking, and that is what mattered, all that matters now. I was speaking out of a silence.
Poets have always loved to write about their beginnings, about what brings them to poetry, about the sense of purpose it gives to their lives. This famous poem by Constantine Cavafy made me proud as a budding teenage poet, and gave me hope:
The First Step
To Theocritus one day the young poet Eumenes was complaining:
"By now two years have passed since I've been writing and I've only done a single idyll so far.
It's the only work that I've completed.
O woe is me, I see how high it is,
Poetry's stairway; very high indeed.
And from where I stand, on this first step,
I shall never ascend. Unhappy me!"
Theocritus replied: "The words you speak are unbecoming; they are blasphemies.
Even if you are on the first step, you ought to be dignified and happy.
To have got this far is no small thing;
what you have done is a glorious honor.
Even that first step, even the first,
is very far removed from the common lot.
In order for you to proceed upon this stair you must claim your right to be a citizen of the city of ideas.
It is difficult, and rare as well,
to be entered into that city's rolls.
In its agora you'll find Legislators whom no mere adventurer can fool.
To have got this far is no small thing;
what you have done is a glorious honor."
— Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn
Poets love to be a little bit haughty about what they do, to make it sound hard. And, of course, it is: time is a harsh judge of poets; it forgets most of them. But what I love about this poem is its sense of camaraderie, of mentorship, of passing the torch. Poets, even, especially, dead ones, mentor each other, as Keats continues to do, teaching the art form to any who wants it. I don't believe poetry is for everyone, that poetry should strive to be more accessible, but I strongly believe that anyone who approaches poetry's gates — and there are gates — will find that they will open after a bit of pushing. What "the young / poet Eumenes" has done, this "glorious honor," is not make great art; he has joined a company of practitioners, a maintenance crew; he has found his calling and his community. He has approached the gates, pushed, and stepped inside a world of bewilderment; he fears it will never become a familiar place. To some extent, it won't — it's the realm of the unfamiliar — but as he develops his negative capability, his comfort in ambivalence, Eumenes will find he's home. That's what Theocritus is trying to explain to him; it's what all good teachers of poetry teach. This is how and why poets begin, to find themselves among others who will listen, who want to listen and talk.
Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, puts this initiating lesson somewhat more harshly:
Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night's quietest hour: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple "I must," then construct your life according to this necessity.
Rilke was nothing if not self-important and at times overdramatic — that's one of the charms of his poetry, and one of its risks (read too much Rilke before writing and you'll find yourself writing bad Rilke). He was also endlessly wise, at least in his best writing. This passage haunted and embarrassed me when I first read it as a teenager, and it bit my conscience for years after. Would I die if I stopped writing poems? At that time, the answer was surely no. But I now think I misunderstood the question. I could have stopped writing and survived, but I could not have stopped speaking, or communicating at least. Words were — and they remain — my lifeline, my way forward, my way of knowing the silence, but not succumbing to it. That is probably true for most people, in some sense. But to be so forgiving and open-ended was not Rilke's style, and it would not have made a good and immortal piece of writing. But poetry should be — no, is — available to all who want it, as long as they are willing to apprentice themselves to its strangeness and endure some confusion and ambivalence. In his depths, I think Rilke believed that too.
A poet's apprenticeship begins when he or she starts to recognize this sense of mission, of necessity, when silence and words can live together. And perhaps Rilke's question — will I die? — is ultimately what drives them to the depths of real poetry. But it is a simple and common need that they are trying to fill: not to be alone.
What I'm talking about here is one of poetry's greatest genres: the ars poetica, in which the poet describes his or her reasons for practicing their art. "The First Step" is certainly such a poem, an origin story, and Letters to a Young Poet could be seen as an ars poetica in prose. The genre dates back at least to the first century BCE, most notably to a poem called "Ars Poetica" by Horace. The American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote a famous "Ars Poetica," and it is very much concerned with silence: "A poem should be wordless / as the flight of birds," he writes, an understatement, a fallacy, that makes me think of the silence, the need to speak, out of which poetry grows. He also says, "A poem should be equal to: / Not true" and "A poem should not mean / But be." He is talking about those things that can't be said that we need to say, and about the way that poetry can bring them into being, make a fact of them. This is a serious way of putting serious stuff, but not all ars poeticas are so serious.
Czeslaw Milosz has a sort of lighthearted poem called "Ars Poetica?" in which he makes some very serious claims for poetry — "poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress" — but uses humor to hold back a bit, to take himself and his art less seriously, to portray his ambivalence:
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking or that I've devised just one more means of praising Art with the help of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
I like to think of poetry as a pasture — rather than Milosz's and Cavafy's cities — where demons can graze, can move around freely, within bounds, munching grass, making mischief and meaning, in a safer place than the streets of my life. Of course, as Milosz points out, they always escape — for Milosz, they were never cordoned off — and make real trouble in the real world. They "work at changing ... destiny for their convenience"; they make us act badly, hurt others and ourselves, make us live out our fears. They are our fears, our feelings, let loose as action. Poetry seeks to help us understand this, perhaps to change or control it, though poetry is not, as Milosz says, psychology, purely intended to help us. He continues:
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
Perhaps poetry is the best forum in which to acknowledge that "the world is different from what it seems to be," that it is, in its wholeness, unseeable, and so unsayable. But for Milosz, there's something a little funny about all of this, as though the poem tacitly asks, "if we can't see or say what's real, why bother?" And yet we do bother, we must. This is Samuel Beckett's central conflict too — "I can't go on. I'll go on." It's the dark comedy that lets us bear "unbearable duress." It's why many poets are funny, why many comedians are sad. Ambivalence — opposites equally true — is at the core of poetry, and comedy.
Marianne Moore's famous poem "Poetry" is a deeply ambivalent justification for the art form she practiced all her life, with which she struggled deeply. The best-known version of this poem is three lines long, distilled from a much longer poem Moore finally turned against. Here is the short version:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Moore may have been the rare poet who was a word fetishist first and foremost, a collector of words and the unlikely bits of information they carried. What she was after may have been something purer than poetry, a place where she could have her words and nothing else. But we must read her as a poet, and ambivalence, "Reading ... with ... contempt," may be the truest sign of love. The "it" in the first line is not poetry as a whole but the esoteric culture that surrounds it, and what people mean when they say, "I just don't understand poetry." (Did Moore's friend Ezra Pound even understand what he meant half the time in the Cantos? Perhaps not.) But what I think she believes in, what she likes, is the discovery that happens at the end of the second line — what "one discovers" is the capacity to communicate, to be understood, to use these precise and sinewy sentences (or other kinds of sentences) to reach another person, to accept the silence and the words. What could be more genuine?
Here is another unconventional ars poetica, an abecedary, meaning each line begins with the next letter of the alphabet, by the contemporary poet Mary Szybist, in which she finds a justification for poetry in a happy conversation between two or more kids:
Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle
Are you sure this blue is the same as the blue over there? This wall's like the bottom of a pool, its color I mean. I need a darker two-piece this summer, the kind with elastic at the waist so it actually fits. I can't find her hands. Where does this gold go? It's like the angel's giving her a little piece of honeycomb to eat.
I don't see why God doesn't just come down and kiss her himself. This is the red of that lipstick we saw at the mall. This piece of her neck could fit into the light part of the sky. I think this is a piece of water. What kind of queen? You mean right here? And are we supposed to believe she can suddenly talk angel? Who thought this stuff up? I wish I had a velvet bikini. That flower's the color of the veins in my grandmother's hands. I wish we could walk into that garden and pick an X-ray to float on.
Yeah. I do too. I'd say a zillion yeses to anyone for that.
The question with which this poem opens is a clear example of the difficulty of communicating. Can I ever be sure that when I say "blue," you think of the same color I do? Not really. It takes description, context, and trust to establish common ground. That's the true work of poetry: to bring the inner out, to give my blue to you. "You mean / right here?" Szybist asks. Where? The place where the words are pointing, the thing — or thought or feeling — to which they refer. Szybist teases us in this poem, reminds us how hard it is to communicate what we mean. We can't see the puzzle, "the red of that / lipstick we saw at the / mall," and so we are forced to imagine it, with the help of the clues provided by the poem. It's my puzzle to work out, and yours, and Szybist's too, and where those puzzles overlap, where one interior meets another, and where inner meets outer, is poetry. Who wouldn't want to "suddenly / talk angel?" To a poet, that's a metaphor for being heard in a big way, by everyone, all the distant listeners who otherwise can't hear. Being understood: I, too, would "say a / zillion yeses to anyone for that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Begin in Gladness"
Copyright © 2018 Craig Morgan Teicher.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: We Begin in Anticipation,
1. BEGINNINGS AND BREAKTHROUGHS,
Ars Poetica: Origin Stories,
Sylvia Plath's Surges,
2. MIDDLES AND MIRRORS,
Influences Illuminated: francine j. harris,
A Long Career: W. S. Merwin,
3. ENDING AND ENDURING,
Rehearsals and Rehashings,
Louise Glück's Steady Growth,