I’ve spent at least eight hours of each of the past four days reading other people’s poems. I am attending to word choice, comma placement, the arrangement of lines on the page. I am remembering, in this process, how vulnerable we poets make ourselves each time we take first the risk of writing poems and then the subsequent risk of sending these poems out into the world. This can be a terrifying prospect, writing and then sharing poetry. What I like to read, now and again, are poems that speak directly to the perils of this art.
I thought of this idea when I ran across this poem:

Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee,
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up—
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth—
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)
Czeslaw Milosz writes, “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…” (“Ars Poetica?”). The Claude McKay of “Poetry” seems to concur. The poem provides a glimpse into the poet’s terrors. Against it’s rigid form and taut, archaic language, the poem quivers with emotion and fragility. I am smitten by its revelations of vulnerability.
Later in “Ars Poetica?,” Milosz writes, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” And here we are, reading and judging the articulations of a poet’s mind and heart. Certainly this is what we sign up for when we decide to be writers. We want people to read the deepest articulations of our minds and hearts. And yet…and yet… It is a perilous proposition, sometimes, opening our doors to who knows whom.
Moreover, there is always the question of whether anyone will want to bother to read our admissions. In his poem, “Berryman,” W. S. Merwin writes of how his teacher once addressed such fears:
…I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you write is any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Berryman’s words speak to the truth we all know, the peril continues so long as we pursue this art. Sometimes we can secure ourselves against it, but never for too long lest we stop taking risks and opening doors and doing the things that get us in trouble (and into poems!) every time.
I've got to get back to reading this pile of other people's poems (little windows, doorways even, for they've chosen to admit me). I'll end this post with one last poem. Marianne Moore took a crack at describing how she felt in the face of poetry. First in 1921, and again in 1935, and finally, in her brief 1967 version, thus:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading, it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Originally Published: March 1st, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. March 2, 2009
     Michael Martin

    Kind of like when you have a piece of nail you've been biting and picking at that's stuck in the corner, near the outer edge of the cuticle, and when you pull it this way and that trying to rise it free, there's this slight pain, but it sorta feels good. So you continue to do it, then rest a little, maybe when you either think you're really weird for enjoying this, or when it becomes too much. Then you start again until it wiggles free. And you're on to the next one...whenever that may be.
    What Merwin relayed about John Berryman's stance makes sense. I always thought it was growing up having people crush my happiness that I'd look at a poem I liked while writing and/or editing, then look at it in disgust. "You're no good". Its sad not being able to fully enjoy the work one produces.
    I think it was Samuel Beckett who warned against becoming too invested in your work. Not to love it. This has to do with distance of course, but I think its more... umm... more to do with the fact you bring whatever current love you have over to the next work. Your ex-husband or wife issues to the new marriage.
    Can the same be said for disliking your work, but enjoying the process and enjoying poetry? Do you bring your dislike for your work to your new poems?
    You do. I have at least. It is true, you stop taking risks. You click your seatbelt and smile. I was reading about a drunk woman who was getting a ride home from a friend who said he wasn't as drunk as he was. He slammed into a utility pole and she went flying out the front window. If she had been wearing her seatbelt, the crash-force woulda snapped her neck.
    2008 I unclicked my seatbelt. While I do not love my work agape, I enjoy the process of combining the visual arts with the written word. Doing more and more visual poems, collage poems, taking risks in terms of style, word placement.... little things and big things.
    I kind of disagree with Berryman. I want to know for sure if I'm doing something worthwhile here. It's worthwhile for me, because I've tried to quit writing when life got me crazy and I just can't. Literally. I say it, I promise it, and there I am thinking about it. Seeing the world through a poetic filter you can say. But after I die, thats when I want to know whether what I am doing is any good. I want to be able to stand in Vonneguts purple vortex of after-life and get a glance at how everything worked out.
    Isn't that a writerly dream? For better or worse.........

  2. March 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    I like Michael's nail simile.
    One of my favorite poems about poetry is called "Poetry Is" by Margaret Avison. Echoing Moore's own mention of baseball in the longer version of "Poetry," Avison's poem starts like this:
    Poetry is always in
    unfamiliar territory.
    At a ballgame when
    the hit most matters
    and the crowd is half-standing
    already hoarse, then poetry's
    eye is astray to a
    quiet area to find out
    who picks up the bat the runner
    flung out of his runway.
    It goes on from there, and is well worth looking up.

  3. March 3, 2009

    How have you gotten yourself into reading other people’s poems for eight hours a day? That sounds like something out one of Dante’s circles of Hell. Anyway, I wanted to say the linkage between McKay and Milosz is very gratifying. Your description of McKay is equally so, his “taut, archaic language”…much of his vulnerability comes from the fact that he was obviously as displaced in language as he was in exile, which didn’t prevent him from making beautiful, vulnerable poems. Another incredible two lines: “Something in me is lost, forever / Some vital thine has gone out of my heart…”
    “Some vital thine”… is he talking to himself, himself in the abstract way we need to be to make poems, or to his muse, or to his audience? You call the whole thing a “perilous proposition”. And you’re so right.
    “Little windows” reminds me of a canal tour I once took in Amsterdam, when the tour guide directed our attention toward the sidewall of a brick house and said, you’ll notice half way up the right side, a very small window. That is the smallest window in Europe.
    I’ve never forgotten that window.

  4. March 4, 2009

    Camille, I love the bits and pieces of this post (and of the comments it's gained; thank you Michael for the nail simile and Jason for the poem and Martin for the smallest window in Europe). I was reminded of the following:
    Doing Poetry
    Jack Gilbert
    Poem, you sonofabitch, it's bad enough
    that I embarrass myself working so hard
    to get it right even a little,
    and that little grudging and awkward.
    But it's afterwards I resent, when
    the sweet sure should hold me like
    a trout in the bright summer stream.
    There should be at least briefly
    access to your glamour and tenderness.
    But there's always this same old
    dissatisfaction instead.
    ("the sweet sure"! oh, Jack. And I love the weirdness of the title, the uncommon marriage of those two words, the awkward, teenage innuendo of "Doing," and the implication of brute force behind it.)