You’ve been traveling, let us say, perhaps to France. Your body’s in another time zone and yet you’re back at home base and ready to get back to your writing. There it is, though, a blank page, and you suddenly freeze. Or you’ve come through the winter and you’re tired—of students, colleagues, meetings, papers to grade. Now you can sit down. You’ve just submitted final grades. You want to write and feel ready. But there it is again—a blank computer screen, or a blank page. Where to begin?
Some of the most basic questions loom at such times for me as a writer. What is a poem? How do I write one? How did I ever write one in the past? If these questions don’t loom for you at times, or re-loom after a spate of not writing, I am surprised. Go on about your life as usual, your happy work—the suggestions that follow are for those of us, the troubled ones, who need answers to these questions.
It’s a truism that reading other poems and other poets can help you get going. I want to suggest a particular kind of reading, one that has worked me in the past. Find an anthology—an old anthology (of twenty or thirty years ago, or longer)—one that collected great poems of the past. Two I found near me recently are these: Fifty Years of American Poetry: Anniversary volume for the Academy of American Poets, introduced by Robert Penn Warren, copyright 1984. Another is: 100 Great Poems of the 20th Century, ed. by Mark Strand. Published by W.W. Norton in 2005. Many other anthologies would work for this exercise. Look around, and/or go to a used bookstore and see what you can find.
Why does it help if the book is old? I recommend a book where you don’t recognize the writers’ names, and thus their words, cadences, rhythms, forms will be new to you. You want to encounter freshness and be jolted anew by the voices of poets.
Why should I read the poems out loud? I recommend this so you may really hear the poets. Slow down, enjoy the poems, don’t worry about starting to write yourself—but I guarantee that something you hear, some approach to a subject, some way of beginning a poem, will jolt you into action.
What are some of the poems that did this for you? I am referring to the Mark Strand volume mentioned above. Find this and read these. See if you aren’t changed by the encounter.
A.R. Ammons, “The City Limits”
Amy Clampitt, “Marine Surface, Low Overcast”
Hart Crane, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”
May Swenson, “Question”
Wislawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning”
Derek Walcott, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”
William Carlos Williams, “These”
James Wright, “The Journey
Can you be more specific about what you found reading these poets of the past? Let me try. The Ammons’ opening, for example. I love the confidence with which the poem starts, “When you consider the radiance,” – and the surprise of the word “radiance.” Notice that it could be another word; you could put your own word in. But the poet begins and just starts; he is spinning out his observation of the world and its details, and I suggest that the writer doesn’t know where this poem will end up. The writer is doing what my teacher Richard Hugo suggested: following the music. Start somewhere yourself; start anywhere. Start your sentence and write. Get going. Follow the music.
Ditto the Amy Clampitt poem. I defy you to read the opening stanza and not be simply entranced by her use of vocabulary and sound. What a spin of words!
Out of churned auereoles
this buttermilk, this
herringbone of albatross,
floss of mercury,
déshabille of spun
aluminum, furred with a velouté
of looking-glass. . . .
What happens for me as a reader is a re-centering of my poetic spirit. I can practically hear the gears turning and my brain saying, “Oh, this is poetry. This is not prose. This is amped-up language.” Encountering this poem, I feel washed in the spirit of poetry—re-calibrated is the word I used in my title, and I mean it. Maybe over days of other reading—newspapers, sign, schedules, menus—I need to see the real thing in order to recall how to make it. Yes, I am getting closer. I am also getting the itch to write.
Another example: Hart Crane. I think perhaps it is the utter plainspoken simplicity of his poem’s beginning, the sheer lack of flair, that astounds me and causes me to stop in my tracks. Listen: “There are no stars tonight / But those of memory. / Yet how much room for memory there is / In the loose girdle of soft rain.” Perhaps I have grown tired of my contemporaries, of everyone competing and nearly shouting for attention. “Look at this!” “Notice that!” Again, a re-calibration. Poems may be quiet and still effective. It is not always necessary to shout or to jump around. Just tell it straight (there is no “telling it straight”). You see how I contradict myself. Well, so be it.
A final example: May Swenson. Yes, I know her name; yes, I know she is/was a well known poet. Her poem “Question,” though, is a jolt. Her poem gallops away with energy and punch from the start. I want to go on this ride. Listen again, “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do / when you are fallen.” I’m amazed, entranced, and my ear is immensely pleased. It could be that reading these other poets does even more than re-calibration. I find a new music, or my old music made new, through this reading. I feel my sentences tightening, reading May Swenson. I may even decide to start a poem using her direct address, or following her stanzaic pattern or rhythm.
I’ll go out on a limb: I think of all writers, of all genres, poets have the toughest job. Why? They must begin again so often as most poems are short. Thus, we must become experts in beginning. When things freeze, though, and when doubts build up, do feel confident in turning in certain directions. Read poets of the past in an anthology. The difference in years from their time to yours will help you hear their words better. Please try it! Beyond just helping you get started with writing your own poems again, you may find some poets whose work you want to explore more fully. Each of these I mention above are ones I’ve now reading much more fully. After a dry period, re-calibrate and jump start your writing juices by a good dose of reading. Trust me! I hope this works for you as it has for me.