Becoming the Living Poet

Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

– An Excerpt of the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is odd because T.S. Elliot is far from my favorite poet. I love the sense of attendant anxiety surrounding everyday actions. Eating peaches, drinking tea, talking of Michelangelo; these are the minutia that make up our daily lives. There is joy in that and yet there is also terror because these are the existential objects we are using to fill up the well of life and when the well is full we will no longer be able to draw from it. Whether that ceasing is merely a transition to another plane of existence or a permanent deletion from the fabric of reality is an open question, but the answer hardly matters to the anxiety being spoken of in the poem.

There is a great deal happening in the next few weeks and I am trying to remind myself that there will be time.

My time in Denmark is coming to an end and it is a bittersweet transition. There is a great deal waiting for me in San Francisco. New poems, new friends, new professors. I can’t wait to start the MFA program and get to know what has always been my favorite city from the perspective of a local. The sadness comes in with the not so negligible detail that my partner will be remaining in Denmark for another year in order to finish a master’s program there. The simple fact of my partner’s proximity has been such a luxury these past two months. We lived together for three years prior to transitioning into a long distance relationship a year ago and like most things that are wonderful, but constant I took the time for granted. When my partner joins me in San Francisco at the end of this year I shall probably take it for granted again but for now every kiss, every hug, every meal shared together feels like a precious gift and one that is about to be wrended from my grasp in a few days time. It already hurts and it hasn’t even happened yet and the pain just keeps getting bigger and bigger and closer and closer. Ah well, to quote Ani Di Franco’s words in the song, ‘Buildings and Bridges: we are made to bleed and scab and heal and bleed again.

There is a great deal of joy to counter the sadness. No sooner had I begun pondering the question of how to better connect with other writers, when I was invited to begin contributing to a newly forming blog collective called, The MFA Chronicles. The MFA Chronicles is a group of first year creative writing MFAers blogging about the joys and terrors of being a creative writing graduate student. The blog collective was masterminded by Jonterri Gadson, an MFA poet attending the University of Virginia. As far as I know Jonterri who twitters as @JaytotheTee is still looking for new contributors so if you’re a first year MFA student who wants to participate be sure to drop her a line.

In my last post, Ch-Ch-Changes I asked some questions to try and get at ways that this blog could become a more effective resource for other poets. These were the questions:

Any of you have any ideas on how this blog might help poets become better poets?

What kinds of online resources are useful to poets and other creative types?

What are your favorite poetry-related websites? What kind of poetry websites do you wish existed that don’t seem to?

These are ongoing questions so if you missed the last post and have anything to say about them don’t be shy, but I was really impressed by the caliber of the answers I got in the comments. Here were some of the amazingly awesome suggestions:

-Demystifying the process of poetry in some way.

I initially took this to mean the process of submitting poetry for publication, but it could really be any aspect of poetry whether it be gathering inspiration, line breaks, type-setting, editing. There’s a ton about the process of poetry creation that often goes unsaid and we should talk about those mysteries. We can be like a magician’s convention sharing the how to’s of magic tricks. (Just realized I stole the magic trick analogy from @JaytotheTee who tweeted it just the other day, but it was such an apt one.) I like the idea of making the process of writing poetry more mindful and less mystical because when it becomes this almost spiritual, unearthly happening brought on by muses it becomes very passive. Poets who fall into that mindset then start to do things like wait for inspiration to write, when as Jack London said, You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

-Posting interviews with up and coming poets, particularly poets releasing their first book.

The more I think about this idea which involves me actually having something to say to other poets at readings other than the awkward, “so um… that one line in the first poem you read was really good… I like crustaceans too”, the more I think that interviewing up and coming poets for the blog is a fabulous idea. It gives me an excuse to have conversations with other poets that I’d want to be having anyway and it gives me a vehicle to deliver to you some clues to the most burning of all poetry question conflagrations: how do you get a poetry book published?

-Another person thought that documenting my experiences as an MFA poet would be an enjoyable read for other poets.

I worry about making this blog all about the MFA experience. Obviously the MFA experience is going to be very central to my perspectives about poetry for the next few years because I’m going to be a full-time graduate student, but I want to emphasize that I don’t believe that every poet has to get an MFA or that MFA poets are necessarily superior to non-MFA poets. Getting an MFA improves your writing when it provides you with a solid writing community, but a really good writing group and a disciplined writing practice could do the same thing. I chose to pursue the MFA route because I really like teaching poetry. I think reading and writing poetry enriches people’s lives and I want as many people as possible to start doing it, and more to the point I want to have an active role in encouraging people to read and write more poetry, thus having a piece of paper that certifies me as a poetry expert is going to be useful for me professionally. If you just want to write poetry and maybe get it published an MFA might help or it might not. I want to emphasize that when I’m talking to poets I’m not just talking to MFA poets or poets who have been published, I’m talking to everyone who has a passion for poetry and who wants to improve their craft and get their work circulating in the larger reading world.

I want to thank everyone who commented on my last post because it really got me thinking about how poets can help each other and the age old question ‘what do poets want? – a question I’ve been trying to answer since my days as poetry club president in high school and college.

It’s been so lovely talking to you that it pains me to tell you that these lovely conversations will have to be put on hold for the next two, possibly three weeks while I complete my move in San Francisco.

Until I find and move into a San Francisco apartment I’ll be on a near complete internet blackout. Feel free to still leave them if you wish, but comments will go unapproved and unanswered and tweets will go unreplied starting the morning of August 5th and continuing until further notice.

Wish me luck settling into San Francisco. We will speak again soon, hopefully in a better time and a better place.

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Some modest, but nevertheless noteworthy changes have been afoot on this blog. The most obvious one is that the title has changed. Sometimes one word makes all the difference. Instead of being called “The Living Poet” this blog will now be called “Becoming the Living Poet”. After writing the post, Invisible Readers I rewrote my about page in order to shift the blog’s focus away from being my space for personal growth to a space for poet’s to work on personal growth.

Honestly, I’m not sure yet how this blog is going to help other writers, but identifying the question is always the first step towards brainstorming solutions.

Early ideas:

-Creating a ‘blog a poetry book day’ to try to put the tiniest of dents in the vacuum of good poetry reviews.
-Starting an online and perhaps in-person poetry book group. (I want to get a feel for my schedule as an MFA student first, but this idea has been nibbling at me for a few months.)
-Starting a regular submission ritual on the blog. (This one is entirely doable. I would just need to *gasp* commit to posting about it every week on the same day. I’m thinking we’d start with a very small reachable goal. Either one submission or one hour spent on working on a submission every week. If you can’t find an hour in one day you can split it up into 15 minute increments throughout the week. I’m thinking it will be ‘Submission Monday’. Unfortunately I don’t think I should start it until I get into San Francisco because in about a week I’ll be on internet blackout for two weeks and it’s no fun to start a ritual and then put it on hiatus immediately.)

Any of you have any ideas on how this blog might help poets become better poets?

What kinds of online resources are useful to poets and other creative types?

What are your favorite poetry-related websites? What kind of poetry websites do you wish existed that don’t seem to?

Leave your answers in the comments.
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I wanted to add some new people to the blog roll who have some great things to say about poetry, writing, and creativity.

Jessie Carty, a Charlotte-based poet, writer, editor, and teacher has a lovely blog called 58 Inches where she muses about poetry as well as documents her daily life. She also teaches writing, creativity, and social media classes so be sure to check if she’s teaching anything if you ever find yourself in the ‘Tar Heel State’. (And if you have any notion why it’s called the Tar Heel State please let me know.)

Mildly Creative is a blog created by mildly creative individual Ken Roberts who has devoted himself to help[ing] others take the steps, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, towards a life of creative abundance. The focus of Mildly Creative is on authenticity and creation over perfection. My favorite post series so far is How To Be Authentic with People Who Don’t Understand You.

Post-Apocalyptic Publishing is a blog written by Emma Newman, a novelist trying to publish her first novel. Is she any good you might ask? Well, I think she’s fabulous and I know this because she’s been podcasting her novel, Twenty Years Later chapter by chapter. Twenty Years Later is a young adult novel that takes place in post-apocalyptic London. (And don’t scrunch your nose at it being young adult, it has the same kind of all ages appeal that many of Neil Gaiman’s young adult novels have.)

And I wanted to draw your attention to a blog that is already on my blogroll, Soul Sleuthing where you’ll find the wonderful post series: Gumshoe’s Guide to Getting Off the Couch still in progress.

That’s all for now. Hope you share your opinion on what makes a good online poet’s/writer’s resource. Until next post!

In my post, Submission (Not the Kinky Kind) I professed an interest in rejection letter art projects.

Ever since I made that commitment a nagging voice in the back of my head has been telling me not to wait until August to start submitting work. If I’m really serious about amassing a collection of rejection letters that any working writer would be proud of there’s no time like the present.

I thought a good step in the right direction would be figuring out where I wanted to submit work and making a commitment to do so.

Below I will list no more than 3 places I plan to submit work to in the next two months and then I will make it happen.

-On a friend’s recommendation I think I will submit work to Room Magazine. After reading the online samples of poetry the magazine has accepted, some of the work I have in the notebook I brought with me to Denmark could fit the tastes of the magazine, so I could feasibly type of work and send it out tomorrow. I still need to finish my Paris and Barcelona postcards. Perhaps I’ll finish all that this weekend and send it out in one big bundle. I would like to have a submission sent out by the end of next week so I will make that a formal goal.

-I also plan to submit to the Bitter Oleander Press because I like their style and hope they’ll like mine.

-There’s a contest being held by 13th Moon Press that I want to submit to for feminist women poets. A submission is 3 poems no more than 500 lines total. There’s an entry fee, but I have a good feeling about the contest so I’m going to bite the bullet. The deadline is September 8th. Some of the work I want to submit is boxed up in Norcal, but I should be able to just make the deadline when I move to SF.

I’m feeling pretty good about my choices. In the next week we’ll see if I can do the hard part, which is of course, the follow through.

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Off topic, caught up on the Practicing Writing posts I was behind on today. Here are a couple of links Erika Dreifus found that I particularly enjoyed:

-Realistic and only slightly disheartening article about one teacher’s rewarding and excruciating experiences teaching high schoolers poetry: D’Oh On A Grecian Urn

Tips on how to obtain a review copy of a book

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And very far in this blog’s past I mentioned wanting to revisit some of the poems I liked in high school to try and figure out what makes a poem Valuable in the sense that it touches someone’s life.

I put the project on hold because I couldn’t figure out how to do it in a few posts. When I started walking down the dusty memory lane of my poetic preference past I was bombarded by poem after poem of early influences. I think deconstructing my influences might have to be a gradual, piecemeal process until I find some way to make sense of the data.

So here’s a poem whose last line haunts me to this day:

somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond by e.e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

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Reading this poem makes me recognize that it often isn’t literal meaning that draws me to a particular poem. The last line is the part of the poem that has echoed in my brain for years, popping into my head at strange moments. But what does the rain having small hands literally mean to me? The image is one of tenderness, fragility, and longing. It evokes an intense feeling without an object. I think that may have been what originally drew me to e.e. cummings as a poet – his ability to mean intensely without saying anything sensical, his ability to emote a message that was wordless and yet unmistakable.

In my experience it’s always best to start a blog post with something completely off topic, so I’m pausing to brag. Way back in April I mentioned that I was applying for a scholarship and that the personal essay the scholarship required was not turning out well.

Well, update: I got the scholarship! And I almost didn’t send in the application at all because I originally thought the date it needed to be in the committee office was the postmark date, but after much angst I decided I’d gotten the letters of rec and written the essay so I might as well send it and take my chances.

Lesson learned: If you let your best be good enough, you give yourself a chance of succeeding, so don’t let thoughts of this isn’t going to work out stop you from trying.

So I recently got back from a marathon two week sight-seeing trip to Barcelona and Paris, which I haven’t yet fully processed, but one thing I did realize in my travels is that I know absolutely nothing about French poetry.

So now that I’m home (for a given value of home, I’m still in Denmark), I thought I’d take some time to do a little research on French poetry and at least give myself a starting point to fill in this gap in my poetic education.

I should mention that I’ll be reading these French poets in translation since my French is abysmal almost to the point of non-existence.

So without further adieu, here is one dead French poet and one living French poet:

One Dead French Poet: Paul-Marie Verlaine

A friend of my S.O.’s who I was staying with in Paris pointed out Paul-Marie Verlaine‘s place of residence and was confused when I confessed that I’d never heard of the guy.

Paul Verlaine is apparently one of France’s most famous poets, as much for his poetry (he was part of the symbolist movement), as for a disastrous affair with another renowned French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. The affair transitioned from minor scandal to legend when, in a drunken rage, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist and was imprisoned for two years where he took up Catholicism to accompany his alcoholism.

While wit and eccentricity, have always attracted me to writers more than blatant excess (he beat and then abandoned his wife and child, meh), I can’t deny Verlaine writes beautifully. The images he uses produce such potent melancholy, such bitterness at the emptiness of hedonism strained to its breaking point. The tone of his poetry perfectly fits the definition I discovered of Fin De Siecle, whose values Verlaine is said to embody: a period in French history marked by decadence, the perception of degeneration, and renewed hope for a brighter future.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Verlaine was inspired to begin writing poetry after reading Les fleurs du mal (translated: The Flowers of Evil), the once-banned book of highly sensual poetry written by another famous French libertine, Charles Baudelaire.

Four years before his death, Verlaine wrote a poem titled For Charles Baudelaire (if you click on the link, it’s the last poem on the page).

The last two lines intrigue me:

In art-contorted doubts, weeps its chagrin.
A simple death, eh? we, brothers in sin.

Here are some more links to poems by Verlaine:

The Young Fools
What Sayest Thou, Traveller
The Song of the Artless Ones

This was my favorite of all the Paul-Marie Verlaine poems I discovered:

The Innocents by Paul Verlaine
(Fêtes Galants: Les Ingénus)

High heels fought with their long dresses,
So that, a question of slopes and breezes,
Ankles sometimes glimmered to please us,
Ah, intercepted! – Those dear foolishnesses!

Sometimes a jealous insect’s sting
Troubled necks of beauties under the branches,
White napes revealed in sudden flashes
A feast for our young eyes’ wild gazing.

Evening fell, ambiguous autumn evening:
The beauties, dreamers who leaned on our arms,
Whispered soft words, so deceptive, such charms,
That our souls were left quivering and singing.

One Living French Poet: Yves Bonnefoy

Wikipedia says that Yves Bonnefoy is regularly mentioned among the prime favorites for the Nobel Prize, which makes me smirk a little because it makes the Nobel Prize in Literature sound as arbitrary as the Oscars (which maybe it is, I confess I’ve never given much thought to their selection process). Bonnefoy is the chair of comparative study of poetry at the prestigious, Collège de France in Paris. The previous chair was apparently none other than the renowned postmodern scholar, Roland Barnes. Bonnefoy is also one of the major translators of Shakespeare into French and a prolific literary art critic.

But stepping away from Bonnefoy’s almost caricaturishly long and prestigious list of literary achievements, I chose Bonnefoy as my living French poet because his work is nothing short of haunting in a way that feels both profound and ineffable.

Read his 10 poem sequence, The House Where I Was Born one after another in order and you’ll feel as if you’ve learned something profound about the poet that you can’t quite put it into words. You’ll wonder if you imagined the intense visceral impact the words had upon your emotions and general nervous system and have to start the sequence again from the beginning.

Here are some lines from the work:

And yet I give up this ground that stirs
Beneath the body waking to itself, I get up,
I go from room to room in the house,
They are endless now,
I can hear the cries of voices behind doors,
I am seized by these sorrows that knock
Against the ruined casings, I hurry on,
The lingering night is too heavy for me,
Frightened, I go into a room cluttered with desks,
Look, I’m told, this was your classroom,
See on the walls the first images you looked at,
Look, the tree, look, there, the yelping dog,
And the geography map on the yellow wall,
This fading of names and forms,
This effacing of mountains and rivers
By the whiteness that freezes language.
Look, this was your only book. The Isis of the plaster
On the wall of this room, which is pealing away,
Never had, nor ever will have anything other
To open for you, to close on you.

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I feel the way one should feel after discovering a new poet whose work stirs something in the belly and the soul. I feel a little more complete than I did a day ago or even an hour ago. Le sigh of contentment.

Driving by John Newlove

You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else’s car
and the heater wouldn’t work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.

Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.

This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn’t matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.

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In the week I’ve been in Denmark I have added updates to Facebook and Twitter. I have taken over 100 photographs. I have posted photos to facebook and emailed photos to friends. I have bought postcards which I plan to write, address, and send before the week is out. Am I more afraid of forgetting or of being forgotten, I couldn’t say, but there is an urgency to my communications as if a bridge across a river that cannot be forded is being swept away by a flood and I am trying to send across my last few messengers before the bridge is gone completely.

I think it will take time to trust that there is a full life waiting for me in San Francisco. I know there is a creative life waiting for me, but if I am going to keep my commitment to being honest with myself, I have to admit that I am not a solitary person. I need time to myself, time to write and think, but I also need people. I need people to care about and people who care about me, and while I couldn’t find the writer’s community I was seeking in San Diego, I had the most wonderful friends that anyone could ask for.

In the past month or two I’ve been doing a headcount of all the people in my life. Who am I good with keeping in touch with? Who is falling through the cracks? Who have I been out of contact with for too long to contact again? Everyone I met in high school falls into the latter category save one. Two years shy of the high school reunion and all but one of my closest high school friends will be strangers before I see them again.

I fear that in a few years many of the people in San Diego whom I have confided in, comforted, and shared my life with will hardly know me. They will be strangers to me again as if we had never met.

I’ve struggled with this concept a lot in the past. If people drop off your radar does that mean it was not the right time to maintain a friendship, the necessary conditions were not present and no amount or forcing it would have made a difference in the outcome? Or does it mean that some part of you failed to care enough to make the person a high enough priority to keep them in your life?

It’d be easy to say that it was always one or the other. The first interpretation is seductive because it neatly liberates both parties from suffering any of the responsibility for the death of the friendship. The second interpretation is tempting for me in a different way. It allows me to place all of the blame for every person left behind neatly atop my own shoulders and thereby understand the universe in the simplist possible terms. Friendship doesn’t last forever because I’m too selfish to allow it to.

A friend whom I lost contact with a few years ago once told me that it was not a tragedy that people drifted apart, it was a miracle that they connected with each other at all. He also contended that our friendship was unlikely to withstand the test of time, but that knowing that it would end did not detract from its value.

He was right on both counts.

We eventually lost contact because he became very self-destructive and at times rather cruel and I eventually decided that the pain of having him in my life out-weighed the value of the friendship. This is a very dramatic example of the death of a friendship. Most friendships fade rather than collapse. I bring it up because I think it neatly illustrates that the interest of both parties in continuing the friendship is a part of the conditions that make a friendship possible.

When that friendship failed I felt I was abandoning him at a time when he most needed me. With distance and a change in perspective, I perceive the way the events unfolded much differently. In a sense we both stopped caring and ceased to put forth the effort that maintaining the friendship required, but it wasn’t necessarily because we didn’t on some level still care about each other. It was because our priorities had shifted due to the different directions our lives had taken us. He was at a point in his life where he saw his friends as a captive audience and himself as a performer. I was at a point in my life where I needed to stop casually allowing myself to be hurt by other people simply because I had a reasonably high pain threshold. I didn’t realize it at the time, but having someone near him who refused to challenge his inappropriate behavior was the last thing he needed to make positive changes in his life. As for me, I understood on some level that I couldn’t make any progress in convincing myself that I had value if I continued to devote time to people whose behavior towards me contested the theory.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the people who are in my life right now have remained my friends because they are good for me and they think I’m good for them. That wasn’t always true in the past, but it’s true as of right now.

The most common reason for a friendship to end is that the mutual benefit of the interaction has been lost.

In some ways I hate the connotations of the word benefit. I worry that it implies mutual exploitation, and would like to clarify that a benefit can be as simple as enjoying another’s company or feeling inspired by someone else’s thought processes. Once we put aside the idea that benefits have to be material; it seems perfectly obvious that mutual benefit has to be a part of the friendship equation. Mutual harm is not a friendship, its a form of very sophisticated abuse. A friendship where only one person is benefiting will eventually lead to resentment and thus one or both parties will eventually be harmed. The resenter will want restitution or the resented will feel threatened and attack preemptively. A friendship where no one benefited would seem to contradict the universal maxim that friendships are valuable.

The take home point here is that I can let go of my fear of losing my friends in San Diego because, as harsh as it sounds, if I lose contact with a friend then in all likelihood one of us is probably better off for the loss because the benefit of the friendship was no longer apparent.

In moments when I can separate myself from my own abandonment issues, I find it somewhat comforting to acknowledge that if I lose touch with someone it will most likely be because time is finite and there were other things taking up that person’s time (or my time for that matter) which offered more immediate benefit. In a situation like that it is right that the friendship fade gracefully rather than that one person force it to continue.

That isn’t to say that I’m not going to cling and grasp like nobody’s business to try to stay in touch with the people who are close to me. I will do what I am able, but some people will inevitably be lost to me in this life transition. They will go on to meet new people who will fill the niche I used to fill in their lives and I will probably do the same.

That’s not a tragedy. That’s part of the beautiful resilience and adaptability of human life.

I will remember my friends because the time I spent with them left a permanent imprint. I think that’s part of what it means to be a ‘true friend,’ to make a positive impact on a person that may be subtle, but is nevertheless unique, personal, and non-transitory.
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My favorite friendship quote:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. — C.S. Lewis

A good quote for the occasion:

Can miles truly separate you from friends… If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there? — Richard Bach

Near the end of Thursday’s incredibly therapeutic freakout post in which I started working through my fear that my poetry would never be useful to anyone other than myself I talked about the concepts Value and value.

A Valuable poem with a capital “V” is a poem that can save, alter, or at least validate a life. A Valuable poem is the sort of poem that a person carries around in their pocket or even memorizes just to make sure that they’ll have it on hand at the exact moment it is needed.

A valuable poem with a lower case “v” is a poem whose quality is immediately recognizable by relevant experts such as literary magazine editors, contest committees, literary critics, and other poets. A valuable poem can win a contest, impress a fellowship committee, or be bundled together with other valuable poems and published in a poetry book that can then win literary prizes and inspire universities to offer teaching and visiting writer positions.

So the basic distinction between Value and value is that the first is a metaphysical/ existential concept and the second is a monetary/ professional respect concept. Value and value are not always mutually exclusive, though it should be noted that a poet who has written 100 valuable poems has probably only written maybe 5 Valuable poems and that’s being optimistic.

A prominent example of a poet who has written Valuable poems that were also valuable would be Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou wrote the often quoted poem, Phenomenal Woman that helped a generation of women recognize that they could be beautiful and desired at any shape or weight. She also read a poem at President Clinton’s inauguration.

A poet who wrote Valuable poems that were not valuable within her lifetime was Emily Dickinson. Because of her unusual syntax and word choices, Dickinson published very little in her lifetime, and the few poems she did live to see published were altered by editors to such a degree as to be almost unrecognizable. I included Emily Dickinson on my list of the Top 5 Over-Read Poets because nowadays Emily Dickinson is recognized as one of the greatest American poets ever to have lived. If she were alive today she would undoubtedly be another Maya Angelou (maybe not undoubtedly, she was notoriously bad at marketing herself).

Poets who produce poetry that is valuable, but not Valuable are what Donald Hall in his famous essay, Poetry and Ambition refers to as writers of the McPoem.

We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.

Donald Hall puts the blame for the phenomenon squarely on the shoulders of MFA programs, which I think is rather unfair (to be fair, I’d better think that), but the phenomenon is nevertheless a real one. While this may sound like I’m passing the buck, it seems to me that the fault lies more in how poetry is marketed – as something quaint, cute, and ultimately irrelevant – rather than with poets themselves.

A few years ago contemporary poet Charles Bernstein wrote an amusing poem/parody titled Thank You for Saying Thank You that was essentially both a model and an instruction manual for how to write the perfect McPoem. In it the poem’s speaker explains that this poem represents the hope for a poetry that doesn’t turn its back on the audience, that doesn’t think it’s better than the reader, that is committed to poetry as a popular form, like kite flying and fly fishing.

Although, by bringing Donald Hall into the conversation, now I worry that the concepts of poetic Value and poetic Greatness are going to become conflated and I’m almost positive (yes, only almost) that these two concepts are not synonymous. I’m going to devote an entire post to the concept of poetic Greatness pretty soon, but for now I’ll give a very abbreviated definition so that no one (including myself) gets lost.

For a poem to be Valuable it merely needs to have found its “right people” (it’s a Havi Brooks concept). A poem’s right people are those whose lives have been improved simply by having read that specific poem.

For a poem to be Great it needs to live on in the literary canon inspiring other writers to ever loftier poetic heights.

Value and Greatness have frequently coincided for the simple fact that Great poems reach more people. Great poems are read in high school English classes and taught in college courses. Great poems are the poems that are trotted out during National Poetry Month.

Theoretically at least, the more people a poem reaches, the more likely a poem is to reach its right people. This opens up a larger issues of how many right people a poem needs to have before Value kicks in. If you only ever read your poems to your mother, but reading your poems gives her prozac-esque levels of personal contentment, does it then follow that your poem is Valuable even if no one else ever sees it?

If you give a person a Hallmark card at the right moment and they find the card’s sentiment especially comforting does it then follow that the 4 line rhyming couplet in the card has Value in the capital “V” sense? Suppose a thousand people received the same card and were all equally moved by its sentiment, however saccharine? If Value isn’t just a combination of emotional intensity and number of people impacted then it would have to follow that the concepts of poetic Value and poetic Greatness are more intertwined than I initially assumed. Unless Value indicates a specific kind of emotional impact, i.e. one that produces personal growth rather than mere comfort…

Complicating everything (in a good way, sometimes things need to be complicated) is the fact that in recent times with deconstruction and post-modernism (which I’m definitely not going to explain right now) the idea of the literary canon as arbiter of greatness has fallen out of fashion. Some of the unflattering adjectives that have been applied to the concept of the literary canon include, but are not limited to: racist, sexist, and colonialist. African American literature classes, women’s literature classes, and world literature classes are all attempts by universities to make up for the limitations and prejudices of what is commonly recognized as THE LITERARY CANON, but this implies that there are either multiple literary canons or that a great deal of undeniably high quality literature falls outside of THE CANON. As with any institution with a deeply entrenched history of oppression, the question of whether the canon can/should be reformed or abandoned, is a debate that remains alive and contentious.

In a future post I want to do a (probably not exhaustive) survey of poems that I personally have found Valuable in my life and see if they share any common characteristics.

Whether this will give me insight into the nature of Valuable poetry or simply into the nature of my own preferences in poems, I’m not sure. Either way I think the information will prove useful.

In many ways I feel like this post has created more questions than it has answered. Rest assured this will not be the last post on this topic. Not by a long shot.

In theory I’m finishing that scholarship essay tonight, but I’m doing my usual habit of writing past the maximum word count without having answered the whole prompt.

I wrote an intro paragraph which isn’t going to work for the essay, but sounds a lot like the beginning of my favorite short story, How to Become a Writer by Lorrie Moore. If you haven’t read it you simply must.

The link with the story transcript has typos which are errors made by the typist, not by Lorrie Moore (perish the thought). If you want to read the immaculately perfect version of the story you should buy Moore’s short story collection, Self Help. You should probably buy it anyway because pretty much all of the other stories in the same collection are nearly as, if not equally brilliant.

Here’s my unintentional tribute to Lorrie Moore. The poet’s version of How to Become a Writer:

In the beginning no one chooses to be a poet. Poetry chooses you and you start writing poetry. If you start young enough, initially at least, your teachers will praise you for it and ask you to read your poems in front of the class. The class will politely clap and you will feel good about this because it means that you now have a talent. You’ll smile and blush. Then the school day will end and you’ll go off by yourself to write more poems. At first your mother will be proud of your poems. Maybe she’ll even put a few on the refrigerator because she’ll think that the fact that you write poems means that you’re smart. But eventually she’ll start to think that spending hours alone in the park writing poems is a little strange and the pride will gradually be replaced by concern. She’ll express this concern in pointed questions about why you don’t have more friends. If you’re very lucky this whole poetry thing will turn out to be a phase. It will usually fade at the onslaught of puberty, and certainly by the time you’re ready to go away to college you’ll have forgotten this silly poetry habit. If you haven’t forgotten, then that’s when the trouble will start.