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Six Provocations



“The poem wanting words is like a soul wanting flesh to stand up and walk around in for a while.”

--Alma Villanueva



1. Is poetry dead again?

This question always arises in reference to poetry’s possibly shrinking audience. But the mourners have it all wrong: Poetry is more apt to die of success than failure. Poetry, like wilderness, is most itself when left alone. Or gone to cautiously. Rarely and reverently. Out of deep need for exposure and solace. Too much attention and it’s not poetry anymore. It’s something else -- with all of the boot prints and tire tracks, campfires and party music, promoters, extollers, tweeters, and status updaters.


2. Performance Poetry

I once watched Richard Burton recite “Fern Hill” on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was a gorgeous recitation. The cliché is true—he could have been reading the phone book and it would have sounded beautiful, but Burton honored the language of “Fern Hill.” He preserved the privacy of the poem, made it more intimate, not less so. In performing it, he made it seem not performed.


3. Inspired

When people tell me they’re inspired, I worry about them. Inspiration happens. It can’t be handed off like a football or passed like a virus through the air. And it can only be recognized in hindsight. When you notice you’re inspired, the spell is broken. You’re like the cartoon character who has run off the cliff and falls only because he notices he has run off the cliff.


4. Suppleness

Sometimes our poems fail because our language is not supple enough, we have not fully inhabited the words we are using. It’s a mysterious thing, this sexual and mystical relationship with language that is required of a poet. And it’s not about etymology, though that’s part of it, but about the feel of the word as a thing, a sound, a taste, a movement in the mouth, a vintage on the tongue, a complex heritage of meanings, the history of the word’s life among language users.


5. On a Wire

The poet is always seeking the balance between reason and unreason, between sound and sense, between image and abstraction, between knowing where she is going and not knowing. And it’s no good to walk from A to B on the solid earth, one must walk the wire.


6. What’s to learn?

Young writers believe in inspiration because they’re full of energy, “like something,” Denis Johnson once said, “thrown from the furnace of a star”; old writers believe in revision, because they’ve seen the world hem and haw for fifty years and begin to see that the grand gesture is fine but that real progress is incremental—a line break got right, a word, a small poem finely made. A mentor’s job is to bring craft to the inspired. To bring expressiveness to the expressers. To help inexperienced writers be both wild and skilled. To teach them to love language more than what they have to say.

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