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Journal, Day Five
My week is ending and I feel I haven’t gotten anywhere near the heart of what poetry really is for me. It’s a secret, I suppose, yet as a wise friend says, the deepest truths are written on our faces for all to see. And thank God. Secrets never turn out to be very interesting once they’re revealed. Because they’re all always the same. . . .
My poetry secret is my fear: fear that my love will not be returned, that my devotion has not been deep or strong enough, that I haven’t been truly faithful to the goddess, that she will show me up for the unworthy, talentless slacker I really am. I know from experience that every writer feels this way—believes he or she will never find another poem, is gripped every time by crippling doubt and emptiness in front of “the page whose whiteness keeps it white,” as Mallarmé put it. (But in my case it’s the truth.)
I don’t think there’s anything I admire more than having the courage to take the ultimate risk and put all one’s eggs in the basket of aspiration, making the all-or-nothing wager. No parent wants to see his child choose this reckless course, and we’re all familiar with the bitter odds. But my notion of heroism starts here, and I for one consider daring to try to be great an honorable way of spending a life, if the decision is tempered by a realistic understanding of the risks and responsibilities, and the likelihood of defeat.
The truth is that most poetry, even most of what is greatly prized and read today, even what has been wrested from nothingness by these heroes of mine, is destined to be forgotten. But that’s not our concern. The future will decide what it can make use of. In the meantime, some of it has a temporary, sublunary value—most of all to its maker. So let’s praise the exercise in itself; it builds character, if not enduring art. I myself have spent most of my years in the ante-room of the temple, running out for coffee, limbering up. It’s been wonderful fun, but the work remains to be done. More courage is required, if you don’t want your fear to defeat you. What finally matters is sitting in front of the screen, trying to imagine your way to something that, for you at least, fulfills—or even extends—your idea of the thing a poem can be. If someone else somewhere eventually feels you’ve spoken to her, then so much the better.