from American Poetry Review, July/August 2007
During the years I've taught workshops, first mostly in graduate programs, now undergraduate, I think I've probably expended several hundred-thousand words of advice to my students. Almost all of them have been reflections and suggestions offered in the context of individual poems, or in conferences about a student's work. Like all teachers, I like to think I've helped at least a few of these talents that were given to my care, but at the same time, I've realized lately that there are many things, possibly important things, that the context of the workshop doesn't favor ever being said, perhaps because they're too intimate, or too self-revealing.
Over the last few decades a really astonishing amount of commentary has been produced by poets for poets and poet-teachers on the question of how to generate competent or more than just competent poems. Much of this material has come out of writing-programs or summer workshops: craft-lectures, essays, interviews with "professional" poets, and there seem to be countless manuals, with exercises for gathering material for poems and for developing systematic procedures of revision which dutifully pursued will presumably allow the neophyte or frustrated poet to raise his or her level of skill, even to discover as yet umemarked genius.
Although as I remember my own first apprenticeship (I seem to have gone through many, each time I attached to a great poet, but I mean here the very first), just the hint of such a daunting set of procedures would have stopped me cold. More to the point, I think that although all this well-meant advice might be useful in helping both aspiring poets and those who happen to compose some satisfying verse and would like to figure out how they did it, so as to do it again, it seems to me that one important issue is never quite raised, which is not so much how one goes about thinking about the creation of poems, but rather what, when you're trying to write a poem, do you think with, and how?
Though Frost said the poet picks up knowledge in bits, here and there, like burrs, which is probably the case, it might be useful to have some sense of the mind to which such burrs would attach. This might bring up a number of interesting but probably irresolvable problems, such as how to determine the particular cultural and social issues that should involve poets as much as they do anyone else in the making of a satisfactory self. "You must know everything," Isaac Babel's mother said to him, the most apt advice I know for an aspiring writer: ideally the poet would strive for the curiosity of the ethnographer, the precision of the philosopher, the moral flexibility of the social theorist, the scrupulousness of the scientist, plus... Plus what, is the hard question. What are the qualities of the mind of the poet which might enable all those virtuous identities, yet prepare the poet for the very particular and very peculiar act of poetic composition; how does the poet's mind operate in the creation of poems?
I suppose I'm going back to that time when I was struggling to get started in poetry, when I would have liked to know not only how to write poems, but how to think about myself as a poet, and more specifically how to conceive my mind as a poet's mind. I might in fact be talking to the poor self I was in those days, who thrashed about in so many unknowables, not the least of which was how to think about itself, and what to ask of itself, because so much was asked that seemed off the point, and had nothing to do with anything except the host of dull imperatives with which it had been conditioned by its very disorganized education. We're inflicted with many lessons about ourselves in the course of growing up, but most turn out to be not only useless but possibly detrimental to any sort of artistic creation. Much of our education teaches us to do things, and to think about things in order to do them, but poets soon enough come to realize that we can't compel ourselves to be what we're not, and do what we can't; otherwise, we could just read Shakespeare or Milton and say to ourselves: Do that.
I'd like to try to clear a way through at least some of these thickets to consider the actual functioning poetic consciousness and some of the methods that kind of mind might use to enact whatever it is of itself that brings forth poems. Much of what I'm saying here has surely been articulated by other poets in other contexts, and all of it is of course terrifically subjective. Still, I don't think I have to apologize: all this is what I've noticed the times I've tried to understand what I've been doing when I write poems, and how I've done it, mostly so I can then go on to try to write others. Finally, much of what I'm able to analyze about composing poems seems to have to do with all the constraints my character has imposed on the activity, and of how I've wiggled or tunneled ways around or through the impediments that can make writing a poem not only an unlikely but an apparently outright impossible task. In some odd way, it feels as though the most abiding element of all this has something to do with having from time to time given myself and the very problematic mind which is mine permission to make a poem.
I've never tried before to begin to make a systematic list of the ways I've gone about this, and I won't try to now. What I'll offer instead are some observations I've had about my own procedures, and I thought I'd offer these observations as rights, or opportunities, younger poets might consider in dealing with themselves and their writing. While I'm about it, I'll also intrude some obligations related to these rights which it might be useful to consider as well. I certainly wouldn't want any of these observatiohs to be taken as a set of rules or prescriptions—they're thoughts I've had about the poet's task, or plight. Many poets have mentioned having to get out of your own way when you write a poem: if nothing else maybe what I've tried to explore here is what to get out of the way of.
These rights and obligations don't seem to fall into any particular order, so I'll begin with one that might not be most important but which occurs to me first, probably because it was my first experience with the mind being discussed as something in itself, as something to be thought about at all. When I was growing up, my father was much influenced by some inspirational book, the central message of which was that in order to do anything well, one had to concentrate, a bit of wisdom he repeated often, very forcefully when my schoolwork didn't meet his expectations. Now, so far as I can tell, I never, through my childhood and youth and possibly until now, have managed to effect what seems to be indicated by the word "concentration." So, perhaps I thought I'd begin with:
The right to not concentrate, by which I mean the right to allow one's mind to skip and skid away from any prescribed subject without worrying that some aesthetic or moral commandment is being violated. Going along with this are several correlative rights (besides the right occasionally to split infinitives): the first would be the right to understand that the mind, no matter how far and for how long it strays from the theme or idea to which one wishes it would apply itself, will sooner or later return when it is ready and able to do so, and may well be the richer, or wiser, for the diversion and delay. (Bertrand Russell says somewhere that early in his career as a mathematician and philosopher, he realized that if a problem he was interested in was going to take six months or a year to be solved, it would be solved in that length of time, whether he thought about it or not. This allowed him, he reports, to occupy himself with other questions which interested him. Though Russell's insight isn't quite what I'm talking about here, it's a favorite story of mine, so I thought I'd pass it on.)
Along with the right not to concentrate goes a corollary: the right to vacillate, to wobble, to shillyshally, be indecisive in one's labors, and still not suffer from a sense of being irresponsible, indolent, or weak. Poems can take a long time to arrive, and to find their final form, so surely patience is the word here, but it's worth emphasizing that what actually happens doesn't seem to have the maturity and dignity the term patience implies. There's much more flailing about, and hesitating, and clearing the throat; and taking out the trash: we have to have the right to all of this. At the same time, though, there's also an obligation that comes with this circling towards patience, which is to know that at some point you have to make your move, even if you don't feel completely ready, and you have to make it with energy and tenacity and—this might be hardest—spontaneity. It might be asked how spontaneity can he willed? But isn't that one of the very basic issues of art, of being an artist? Isn't it really what revision is all about? Trying a thing again and again until the solution finally arrives that surprises, and embodies the quality of surprise in itself?
Another, related, right: to be wrong, about anything and everything, and to know that even when your line of reflection or imagining might be viewed as absurdly illogical, you should be able to go on to its however provisional conclusion. This obviously has to do with revision, too: knowing that no matter how wrong, or how awful, a first, or second, or fiftieth draft can be, or an idea can be, or a groping towards metaphor or image, there will always be another chance, another hour for another attempt, and nothing in the meantime is lost except a little time, of which we sometimes have more than we know what to do with anyway. The corollary to this would be to realize that the judgment that something is wrong, or imperfect, or unrealized, has a dialectic concealed in it of which one can be unaware, and that working through this dialectic in itself can be fruitful. We should be able to regard our inner existence, the part anyway that's raw material for poetry, as a laboratory, in which mental and emotional phenomena are valued according to their potential usefulness, and considered harmless unless they demand to be concretized in malignant actions. (It should probably be kept in mind that the ultimate purpose of this sort of reflection isn't action, but self-knowledge. Action—creation—comes later.)
From this follows the right of the mind to be able to remark in itself and not repress, or at least not too quickly, anything that comes to it, even such ostensibly inadmissible emotions as, to mention just a few, lust, greed, envy, anger, even rancor, even genres of otherwise unutterable prejudice. We should be able to entertain anything the mind casts up as potentially useful for a poem, while at the same time forgiving ourselves for such after all private matters, and this should be a forgiveness that arrives in a short enough time so that any shame or guilt arising from such scary glimpses within will be productive rather than debilitating for the germination of poems. We have, for poetry, to have as accurate an awareness as we can of the quality of our ethical consciousness, but we also need a firm sense of the difference between sins of the heart and sins of the hand: the mind has a life of its own which cares little for the parameters culture and society propose for it, and it is often this inner awareness which is most potentially interesting as aspects of a poem. At the same time, though, we should probably refuse ourselves in our poems too ready an access to a transformative vision of such matters: evil must be perceived as evil even in one's self, and emotions which might threaten to be acted upon, like arrogance, cruelty, contempt, and ungrounded anger, should leave one nauseous, revolted, aghast. We have the obligation to discipline ourselves and our poems morally, to the point of apparent cruelty, but this should be done only for very convincing reasons. We have to recognize that all these rigors are finally for the purpose of making headway against ignorance and inexperience, and never as punishment for imaginary offenses, to others or the self. Neither, though, should we privilege the marketability of the moral, in which abides the illusion that some day we'll be judged and rewarded for our ethical efforts, in our poems or out.
Gentler: the right to find manifestations in oneself of love (and so of poetry, which is love) in what are apparently evidences of its opposite: coolness, neglect, indifference, stubbornness, even (well-examined) rage, (though never violence.) Perhaps I'm trying to say something here about the basic trust in the efficacy of poetry, of being a poet or artist; that our efforts have to be grounded even if in the most tenuous way in the conviction that at the core of human existence is, after all else, love, or something enough like it to give us the confidence to send our language-packets out to the world.
More practically: the right to move in our work into the realm of abstraction, with neither too much credence in seductive promises of philosophical purity and certainty, nor too limiting a skepticism about abstraction's capacity to enlarge on the ordinary and incidental. Abstractions are a useful implement for clarifying the usually muddled impressions which inform our vision of experience, and they're just as useful in poems. In other words, sometimes the old workshop maxim has to be revised from "Don't tell, show," to, "Tell: everything you can."
Close to here is the right to recognize and entertain and put to use, at least temporarily, those concrete, platitudinous symbols and implicit metaphors in which many complex considerations are embedded, even those such as "soul," or "spirit," which appear absurdly schematic and time-worn. There seem to be certain configurations of our inner world which can't be fully considered without the use of these ancient constructs, and we have the right to resort to them in poetry, to put them to use if nothing else as starting points, or propulsive stimuli, even though our cultural moment might reject all such terms as merely sentimental.
The right to remember: there's much to be reflected upon about the use or misuse of memory in poetry, but one thing seems clear: we have the right to cultivate memory, but we shouldn't be too good at it, or reflexive about it, because remembrance can then become an end in itself, which is nostalgia. A corollary to this might be the obligation not to release ourselves too readily from past to present necessities, because we can end up then with too compelling a commitment to the present, and the present's future, without adequately taking into account the causes from the past which determined it. We also have to be aware of memory's inherent ambiguities, but we still have the right to inhabit those ambiguities without too daunting a compulsion to strive for accuracy. Remembering is necessarily inventing, and inventing is often remembering, but this doesn't mean there are no standards for judging how things are remembered in poems; on the contrary, the poetic memory is art under oath, but real accuracy has more to do with the aesthetic efficacy of the poem, rather than its fealty to any "real" past.
If the right to remember is taken farther, there comes the right to believe with conviction that one is participating in the common history of humanity, to feel, even if only glancingly, even if only for moments at a time, the concrete connection we have to what went on thousands of years ago to certain exceptional actual or mythical personages in Greece, or Canaan, or Iceland, or even farther back in caves in France or China, and to be able to embody this awareness in our poems. One's own thoughts and acts, however humdrum and banal they may seem, should be able to be regarded as a portion of that same history, or destiny, or tragedy, if tragedy is what one comes to believe it is. (I suppose comedy is another possibility, though these days there don't seem many felicitous endings gleaming out there ahead of us.)
From this comes the right, then the need, to meditate if not directly in our poems then in our reflections on the questions that come before poems, on the nature of our own specific historical identity, and to move without qualm from this to general human experience. This has to be done rigorously enough, though, to prevent rash deductions that might jeopardize a scrupulous attention to the single self in terms of the general, and vice versa. There should also be the recognition that the ultimate purpose of these reflections may be in our poems a kind of forgiveness, of ourselves, but also of the groups of which we are, or have been, voluntarily or involuntarily, members. (Sometimes it seems our species itself requires forgiveness.) But in our poems or out of them, we shouldn't be too quick to resort to this sort of absolution: pardoning oneself or one's group should always be difficult; if self-forgiveness becomes programmatic, it degrades the potential seriousness of the debates such issues entail.
History, of course, implies death, so, next, death: to be able to imagine and re-experience the deaths of other people, and one's own future death, as an essential part of general and personal history and of our poetic tool-kit. Others' deaths perhaps as much as one is capable, less often one's own. We should be able to believe in our own death only in ways that will allow the self to better prepare for an apprehension of the mystery of non-existence, without inciting a despair which might render meaningless anything but the raw terror of that mystery.
On beauty now, some more general reflections. It seems essential for any artist to realize, and to keep in mind, the ultimate subjectivity of any criteria of beauty, without denying the legitimacy of this criteria. We have to be able to have confidence in our commitment to those elements of our aesthetic that can be categorized, and perhaps denigrated, as "taste." At the same time it seems essential to recognize that taste can only be accurate within the terms of the system it is a part of, and that such systems should continually be evolving, as we're exposed to new poets and new poems. We also have to have the right (and again, perhaps the obligation) to liberate ourselves from the strictures of the system of beauty we develop for ourselves, and to question how that system, and our taste, have evolved, because otherwise we can tend to become conservative and hide-bound. At the same time, we have to be careful not to undermine our faith in our own taste to the degree that the assurance necessary for creating poems might be imperiled.
Corollary: to be able to keep confidence in one's work flexible enough so that useful criticism of it won't be rejected out of hand. Criticism is always grounded in taste, but it still should occasionally be considered seriously enough to determine whether it might contain helpful suggestions for our own aesthetic processes. It's crucial, though, to recognize when criticism is merely an enactment of its perpetrator's obliviousness to or disregard of the subjectivity of his or her own taste-system.
Corollary to a corollary about criticism: to know with some degree of accuracy the shape of your notions of honor, so as not to believe your honor has been offended when it hasn't, even if something in you wishes to act as though it had.
Corollary to all of that: the right to acknowledge your efforts to yourself, and to appreciate them according to criteria of judgment in which you really believe. To reward yourself within a range that neither inflates your feeling of self-worth, thereby reducing your objectivity, nor skimps it so much that the essential and probably inevitable discrepancy between effort and reward becomes disheartening. There should always be an inherent unwillingness to believe that anything in existence really has need of the limited and conditional gestures of which one is capable. But we still should be able to believe in and enjoy now and then our own and other people's appreciation and acknowledgment of what we do.
This implies a certain level of success, so the next step to this would be to not let the seductiveness of possible success contaminate our sense of purpose. The illusion of success is stability, dependability, durability; that illusion is always in negative relation to the uncertainties of artistic labor, and to existence itself. Too great an attachment to success makes one vulnerable to its other properties, capriciousness, flux, and maddening unpredictability. What we call ambition is too much credulity in the first and an inadequate appreciation of the second, of the fact that in ongoing artistic striving, rewards must always be considered fleeting, and finally symbolic.
A bit now about reading. It wouldn't seem there'd be much to remark about reading and poets, except that we should do as much of it as possible; there's always something to be learned from reading poems, poems you don't know, and those you already know well and love. But paradoxically we should also have the right not to read poems, or even more to the point, sometimes the obligation to not read them, at least some poems, at least particularly poems by your contemporaries. Younger poets tend to pore too much over the work of their peers; this is probably an unavoidable component of ambition. It would be impossible to specify just how much of a poet's reading should be of contemporary poems and how much from the enormous resource of the many centuries of poetry in English and translation, so I'll just remark that too much reading of those whose language and history and vision is by definition close to one's own can seem to overload the world with poems, dilute it, pollute it with poems: poems, poems, poems. It's happened to us all.
The last right I'd like to propose sounds odd: it's the right not to know what you're doing, even to not know what you've done. This seems absurd on the face of it: isn't our education, and not only our formal education but the self-making, poet-making, which is our life's project, devoted precisely to teaching us that we should know how to do what we set out to? Yet the fact is that much of the best work produced by artists (and maybe everyone else) is accomplished by small or larger leaps into the obscurity out past our intentions; much of what we come to value most in our own work are evidences of that unfathomable phenomenon we call inspiration.
Inspiration is essential to the production of significant art, but considered practically, as a method, a procedure, it's all but impossible to characterize rationally. Inspiration in practice is either something that's happened at some time in the past, even the past of a few moments ago, or that hasn't yet happened: while it is happening, it's not there, or you can't be aware of it being there because the whole consciousness is taken by its activity—in a certain way you aren't there yourself, there's just the poem being enacted by you, and, even more mysteriously, seemingly for you. The hardest thing is that inspiration is neither something that can be willed, nor something you can wait around for. If you try too hard to bring it about, to force it, but don't succeed, which is what usually happens, the outcome can be impatience and frustration, states of mind not conducive to creation. If on the other hand you sit back and wait too long, it may well never come to pass at all. This is what's troubling, really painful about the whole business: you need inspiration, it's absolutely essential, but you can't schedule it, or count on it, or be sure it's ever going to happen again, or happen at all. At the end, we can only prepare a space, a field, for inspiration to occur. This of course is contrary to the way we're taught to believe we should accomplish anything: by deciding to do it, then figuring out how, then making it happen. Implied in this view is the notion that learning happens systematically, in increments; that we grope towards something, find it untenable, try something else which works, and along the way draw conclusions, so that the next time we can skip the inessential rest. We learn, in other words, that the proper way to accomplish anything, especially art, is by developing principles of procedure, which we call "craft," and working from them rather than from trial and error.
In my experience, though, this isn't an accurate description of the whole unlikely process: anything like a principle I might learn about composition immediately becomes something I no longer have to think about, so I always feel as though I'm working from trial and error, always doing what I don't know how to do, with a sense of blundering towards where I'm trying to go, and I'm always a little surprised if or when I do get there. For a long time I suffered, and still can occasionally, from the feeling that I must be doing this all wrong, because if I have to explain, even to myself, what I've done when I've written something I find satisfactory, I often can't.
Lately I've realized that one of the rewards of the labor of poetry is reading something I've written that pleases me and thinking, "How did that happen?" Young poets, or the young poet I was, tend not to know this, and can become discouraged waiting for it to happen again. Older poets, by whom again I mean me, can tend when facing the page to forget it, too, though if we're lucky we learn that however inspiration happens, all prosaic signs of the self to the contrary, it may indeed take us once more, so we slog on. That "may" is the necessary faith of art, and our most essential right.
About the Author
C. K. Williams is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which won the National Book Award; Repair (1999), winner of a Pulitzer Prize; The Vigil (1997); A Dream of Mind (1992); Flesh and Blood (1987), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Tar (1983); With Ignorance (1997); I Am the Bitter Name (1992); and Lies (1969). Williams teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University and lives part of each year in Paris.