I’ve just come across a little advice about poetry (thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings) which I agree with 100%, so I’ll share it with you. It comes from the writer James Dickey.
What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf?
Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars; and gravelly
Rivers, and fruit.
Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice …
Go back and read this list – it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren’s list! – item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life.
Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours?
What Dickey and Mark van Doren help me remember here is that specificity and physicality are at the root of poetry. I try to share that belief with my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Abstraction lives somewhere else – philosophy, maybe, or mathematics. What Dickey says also reminds me that some of the poems I love most – whether narrative, lyrical, formal, informal, that which bears witness, that which reflects – are poems of experience. Dickey’s poetry is not up there with my favorites – I wrote a parody of it once, because at the time I thought it was so dense and decorated that it pressed me flat (yes, this is the same James Dickey who wrote Deliverance.) But I do love what he says in this particular passage. And maybe I just read the wrong collection of his work or was in a funny mood when I read it. Maybe if I read the same work now, I would appreciate it more, who knows? Poems enter you or get turned away in strange ways at particular times – the right time, the wrong time – in your life. Here’s a poem I wrote (not for kids, for adults) about how poetry enters you. It was published a few years ago in the journal Mare Nostrum:
A sip of wine and a wafer to help this host enter you
on your tongue. It’s true, smart gods always find a way in,
since stupid gods are only human. Inside the walls, you ride
the back of a bird which came spinning in from the oculus,
you fall through to a new world beyond the old skin of sky.
Earlier you stood at the gates to the city: so many ghosts
opened their marble mouths and invited you in.
That poem came from experience – a summer in Rome, a morning in the Pantheon, watching the flight of a bird that had come in through the opening at the top of the dome. (When I say “bird,” which bird do you see? How have you experienced “bird”?)
I’m just about to head off (break of dawn this morning) for a few days with fellow writers and friends. We’re calling it a “retreat,” but for me it’s a gentle nudge to turn my back temporarily on solitude and join the world again. We’ll have fun – if the predicted snow storm doesn’t leave us all stranded in airports around the country. While together, we’ll try to stay focused on writing. I might go out and find a rock and a leaf to put next to my notebook as I write. And I’ll scribble this question at the top of the first page to get me started: “What field of corn?”