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Journal, Day Three

By Jonathan Galassi

Editing, translations—that leaves poetry itself, which always comes last, because it’s the most difficult, most personal, hardest to confront, the locus of the deepest hopes and doubts. At least that’s how it’s been for me. No doubt there are those who spring out of bed knowing what they need to say and already having found a way to it—so exhilarated by the struggle that it isn’t a struggle. For me, the process has always been more like a blind piecing together of something, an endlessly difficult matching of words to an elusive rhythmic command. . . .

In my youth I was intrigued by the notion that Roethke had a book of lines he would thumb through and select from to build his poem. I think that’s as legitimate a way of writing as any, but it implies a faith in the integrity of the line per se that I don’t think many poets would subscribe to today. I’m not sure what many poets would subscribe to today—what’s being attempted is so disparate and diffuse, so stricture-free. But freedom can be the most debilitating condition of all.

Lately I’ve been thinking that what I should try myself is to be less careful, more immediately responsive to the vicissitudes of dailiness. I’m afraid I’m unavoidably wedded to the notion that a poem is a made thing that aims to be an autonomous object—a thing, with a life of its own: “Ozymandias,” “To Autumn,” “Correspondances,” “Birches,” “One Art.” I was raised that way; these are the art works that give me the deepest pleasure, that seem to add the most to the world, and in my heart of hearts I aspire to add to their number. I know there are other ways of working, but this is what inspires my loyalty and desire.

Tradition/innovation. . . I’m turned off by the small-minded professional formalists, rule-givers who limit things with narrow definitions and end up with far less than they might have had. Yet as I read I’m always hunting for the inner form, the secret shape of the poem, whatever its outward appearance. So often today I don’t find it. I get lost in an easy miasma of words, lines, paragraphs that don’t seem impelled by natural force, by the rhythmics of speech. Maybe it bespeaks a lack of attentiveness on my part.

And yet when it’s there, it’s there. Recently I’ve been working with a young poet on her first book—the first time I’ve had that privilege in ages. There’s marvelous internal coherence to her work, which is embodied by a rigor of its own—not formalist, but innately shapely. This writer is a reporter as well as a poet; she both shows you what she’s seen and makes you feel what she’s felt. The poems steadfastly announce where they’re going and then end up taking you to surprising, moving inner places. How exciting to see a new poet finding her own original way to make things that are both beautiful and useful.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006 by Jonathan Galassi.