The duty-read is slogged through easily enough and usually for good reasons: sometimes one needs to finish a book so that one can cross it off a list or take a test or assure an uncle or aunt (with the proof of knowledge of specific passages) that his or her gift of literature was a great choice. But the duty-write is another inconvenience altogether. If your love of writing poetry is a matter of public record – i.e. if your family and friends know there’s a poet among them – you may be familiar with this phenomenon. It occurs when a friend or family member asks you if you will write a poem for a wedding, say, or some other red-letter event. TV's Carrie Bradshaw, writer and sex columnist, must deal with a duty-write in an episode of Sex and the City, and she's not even known as a poet.

Of course, the request to write a poem isn’t, in-and-of-itself, an inconvenience or even an imposition. Such requests are flattering. What's more, a commission from some source other than a muse or MFA instructor can free up a poet, provide a precise focus, a real-world deadline, a license to make lines.
But while it’s nice to be thought of enough by a loved one to be asked to write some poetry, your typical loved one likely doesn’t want the kind of poetry you would prefer to write. (And while said loved one may own your book, it’s a safe bet the book’s spine is still pretty smooth.) Your fractured verse narratives or free verse collages or guttural sound poems (wonderful as they may be) are not wanted at most weddings. Something that goes 'abab' - for good or bad - is often the ticket. But even then there can’t be too many references to shadows and lost innocence, to baby birds pecking their desperate way out of eggshell. I was privileged enough to write a poem for my high school graduation, but the anguished free verse I ultimately read to the assembled students and their camcorder-hefting parents was, I now realize, too moody, too prickly, too turned in on itself – not unlike myself at the time; not unlike Madero, the young poet in Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (which, at times, is less a remarkable novel than an anthropological study of poet behaviours - the mating rituals, the migration patterns, etc.). You may recall that Madero is a poet for but a brief time when he accepts a waitress’ commission to write a poem for her. "'Consider it done,'" he says. "'One of these days I promise you I will.'" But she wants the poem immediately. Madero tries to explain that one “can’t just write a poem that way, on the spot.” He’s too young a poet to understand that human needs and public occasions don’t have time to wait on inspiration.
Still, at least Bradshaw and Madero write their respective poems. Some time ago a friend of mine found a half-brother she'd never met. The friend, who doesn’t read poetry, asked if I could compose some lines for her to give to the half-brother, as a gesture of goodwill. I was flattered, but turned down the gig. I figured, perhaps condescendingly, that she just wanted some homemade Hallmark verse, and anyway I was (I rationalized to myself) too busy. Now I realize I was being arrogant, ungrateful, and (worst of all for a poet) complacent. I should’ve accepted the challenge, for my own sake as much as for hers. When we automatically assume that poetry can’t speak to the non-specialists we chloroform and gag an entire art form. And we take ourselves way too seriously. My failure to write the half-brother his poem was mine, not poetry’s.
Not everyone fails the occasion. George Johnston, the neglected Canadian who wrote lovely occasional poems, didn’t drag himself to the duty of writing them but, rather, rose to it. Indeed, every now and then, an occasional poem manages to plant both hands firmly on the tiles and pull itself, gleaming-wet, out of its occasion. But we usually just call these victories ‘poems.’ They may start life as duty-writes but they are anything but duty-reads.

Originally Published: March 1st, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. March 2, 2009
     Michael Martin

    'When we automatically assume that poetry can’t speak to the non-specialists we chloroform and gag an entire art form.'
    Dope line.

  2. March 2, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Hear, hear! I have long believed in the importance of poets writing occasional poetry, for all the reasons you give: meeting a three-dimensional challenge, participating in the tradition of occasional poems of the past, being useful and generous, and hopefully learning something in the process about how to serve and grow those "great audiences" we were recently talking about on another thread.
    Since at the moment I am grappling simultaneously with an ode for a 30th college reunion and my university president's inaugural poem (I admit, not without some second thoughts, in spite of my long-held beliefs), this is just the kind of pep talk I needed. The trick, it seems, is to find an intimate angle on the topic so that the poem becomes as much "your" poem as the ones you write for yourself. Would you consider posting one of your favorite of George Johnston's occasional poems?

  3. March 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks for the comment, Michael.
    Annie, that sounds like a full plate, occasion-wise. It would be great to read the poems you eventually come up with. I think you're right, too; the successful occasional poem needs to become "as much 'your' poem as the ones you write for yourself." It deserves the full attention of the poet's talents. Only then can it have the chance of wriggling free of that pesky adjective "occasional."
    I was planning to do a reading of a Johnston poem in an upcoming post. Maybe I'll try a reading of one of his occasional poems - poems which transcend their occasions and are, as suggested above, really just poems.

  4. March 2, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    The New Quarterly, one of the better Canadian mags, dedicated its 100th issue to occasional poems and thoughts thereon. Really good issue:
    I've written a few occasional poems, a couple on demand, some at my own instigation and some quite by accident. The hit rate's way higher in the third category, but there's workmanlike satisfaction in carving out some verse that serves a purpose, if only for a day.
    I wonder how many poets are doing the duelling banjo routine that Keats and Leigh Hunt used to play.

  5. March 3, 2009
     David Krump

    Hey, folks.
    Nice post. Nice responses.
    Just wanted to question what I am (mistakenly?) reading in this post and the comments so far as underlying assumptions.
    Annie, you wrote: "so that the poem becomes as much "your" poem as the ones you write for yourself."
    Jason, you responded: "I think you're right, too; the successful occasional poem needs to become "as much 'your' poem as the ones you write for yourself." It deserves the full attention of the poet's talents. Only then can it have the chance of wriggling free of that pesky adjective "occasional."
    Is the assumption here that in order for poets to write well and give their attention to a work the way to do this is by foregrounding personality and interests of the poet? Cool. I get this, I think.
    But aren't the challenges to the poets to get away from themselves and their own interests a little bit in order to put their talents (not their interests and self) to work for the positive impact the work might have upon the moment, the occasion, other people?
    I mean, maybe asserting that the self defines/assists the orbit and trajectory of a successful occasional poem isn't necessarily the best view to have.
    Maybe the poem shouldn't be your poem as much as ones you write for yourself. Maybe the poem is supposed to be a gift, an extension of the self beyond the self (and all that self entails).
    I don't know, but this post made me dig my heels for a moment. Though the moment has passed, I continue to question the notion that poems are best when owned by the self interest of the poet.
    Why not write an occasional poem solely for other folks and hope that they like it? Isn't that a better way to take the audience into consideration?
    Why is the poet's full attention in opposition to writing for an occasion, or, as I like to think, for other human beings desiring a poem?
    Could well be I'm misreading the sentiments expressed in the posts above. If this is the case, go easy on me. I'm not trying to start a war. Thanks.
    Maybe Motion was write about the demands of being an Occasional poet, or maybe he didn't rise above himself.
    Not a dig against, Motion. I think he's brilliant, but I wonder why poets, even in high profile posts, find it so demeaning/demanding to create specific poems for other people.
    Is it that we're scared people won't understand a poem composed as we normally would? If that's the case, then who do we write for?
    I write poems for my friends who have babies, and poems for my little sister's whose favorite sheep just died, and poems for the siblings of a murder victim. It's a challenge, but no more so than writing for an unimagined (or academic) audience. What's the big deal? Invest your talent in expressing and digesting other people's emotions, right? Not so hard. Just takes a pinch of compassion.
    I don't know. Could be I misread the whole thing.
    Why does an occasional poem need to escape its occasion?
    If you're a poet in a small town, and the mayor, say, gets shot in the head or falls down the stairs and breaks his neck, how is this not an occasion to write a poem? I get commissioned poems vs. poems you compose and revise because you just "must write everyday." But isn't every poem celebrating or denouncing one occasion or another, even if only a personal occasion?
    Poems that rise up from personal occasions are the few, I'd say, over poems that encounter larger or non-self-involved issues or happenings.
    I am way off?

  6. March 3, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    David, thanks for the thoughtful response. You raise important questions. In agreeing with Annie, I'm not suggesting that in order to write well we must 'foreground' the "personality and interests of the poet" - I'm not sure she's suggesting that exact meaning either. I do think that there's the potential - when writing a poem for an occasion - to transcend (which is a slightly different word than 'escape') the occasion and speak to a larger audience, as Auden's poem about Yeats does. This may involve taking a more intimate angle - making the occasion one's own - but maybe not.
    Most of the occasions you mention are much more serious (and sad) than the ones I discuss in my original post - and the writing of poetry for these occasions is much less likely to be considered an inconvenient duty (the title of my post is "The Occasional Curse of the Duty-write"). Someone faced with writing an elegy may not need the pep talk which Annie found in my original post.
    Indeed, in the case of less grim occasions, like a wedding or a college reunion or an inauguration, a poet might feel slightly more inconvenienced than she might feel if the occasion in question involved, e.g., a death. And the poet might just toss off some lines, or decline the gig altogether. My point is that even the more minor, nagging occasions should be welcomed. We should rise to them. And the poems we write for them deserve "the full attention" of our talents. The occasions that don't nag will probably just get "the full attention" of our talents anyway.
    So we probably agree more than not, David. But again, thanks for the thoughtful post, which raises an entire range of occasions not considered by my post. And never fear a war on my threads. I'm apt to leave my gun at home.

  7. March 3, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Zach, thanks for the link to The New Quarterly and your comments!

  8. March 3, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Speaking of "Duty-write," what about the duty of responding to letters people write you?
    You've got 18 of them, so far, in response to your "Negative reviews" piece at the online version of this month's Poetry!

  9. March 3, 2009

    This is a very interesting post and one that brings us all the way back to the ancient Romans when poetry was more often than not “occasional” or “public”. And yet in advanced Western societies the “public” poet, like the “public intellectual” is becoming an endangered species. Where today are the likes of Frost, Auden, Eliot and Lowell? The latter went to jail for being a conscientious objector, and with Norman Mailer and others participated in the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Likewise, his poems often verged on the “occasional” without the kinds of compromises that poets today would naturally feel, the “duty-write” as you call it.
    Unlike in England our poet laureates do not write occasional poetry, and I’m sure Elizabeth Alexander will think twice before she accepts another commission. I would say that (like memorization and learning to translate from a dead language like Latin or Anglo-Saxon) writing occasional poetry should be part of the poet’s education, so that poets learn to deal with, as Annie Finch so marvelously puts it, the “three-dimensional challenge.”
    And yet to be a public poet, you need a public, and that’s, at least in part, where the problem lies. You do mention Auden in your response to David Krump’s spirited rebuttal. Here’s Auden on the subject from a different angle. “All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work “comes” to him. Among those works which are failures because their initial conceptions were false or inadequate, the number of self-commissioned works may well be greater than the number commissioned by patrons.” (From his essay “Writing”, collected in The Dyer’s Hand.)

  10. March 3, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks for your interest, Kent! I'm staying out of the fray for the time being. Since I've already had my initial say (through the piece itself) and since I think the piece should be its own best argument (and shouldn't need my help, if it's any good), I would rather let others have their say for now. This may sound silly - since I'm now blogging for, and responding to comments on, Harriet - but I did write the piece for the print magazine, not the blog or the Web site, and I don't think everything we write needs (or even deserves or benefits from) an immediate defence appended to it. Anyway, the conversation seems to be doing fine without me. I may chime in later. But I really do appreciate all comments, yours included.

  11. March 3, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    I've been following this post and its comments with interest. Jason, you say, "When we automatically assume that poetry can’t speak to the non-specialists we chloroform and gag an entire art form. And we take ourselves way too seriously." I wonder if the problem isn't that "we take ourselves way too seriously" when we assume non-specialists can't be moved by the poems we want to write, but that we don't take ourselves seriously enough.
    People are asking poets for poems. This suggests people believe they need poets, or at least want poetry, to mark certain occasions in their lives. This means they value poetry. Perhaps their standards of what makes good poetry aren't the same as ours. So be it. My own standards of what makes good poetry have changed over time because of years of reading. Perhaps commissioners' views about what poetry is and can be will change as well. Perhaps, by accepting these commissions, we can encourage people to broaden their views by writing a poem that speaks directly to them and to their occasion. This might encourage them to read more poetry that may or may not, in the end, speak as directly to their particular occasion. Perhaps we can be ambassadors for poetry in this way. By refusing genuine requests we miss opportunities to support our own beliefs that poetry really can matter, that what we do is fundamental and important and useful and good. Each time we refuse these opportunities we take our own potential as poets less seriously.

  12. March 3, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Martin, thank you for that Auden quote; it's a gem. I agree with you, David, that the purpose of poetry--mine, anyway--should not be primarily to foreground the self. So centering on the self is not at all what I meant by making a poem "your poem." What I meant was, making it yours as intimately as a poem that you feel inspired, compelled to write, would write anyway even if no-one wanted you to do so, is yours. I have written quite a few poems for occasions--an elegy to be read at my father's memorial service, valentines for my husband, an epitathalamion for my brother's wedding--all of which are included in my book Calendars and which, in being ultimately packaged for a larger public but also in having been written for particular occasions, might seem to fit the definition of occasional poems. And yet they were "my" poems to start with, in the sense that I was self-motivated to write them.
    The inaugural poem and class ode are poems I was requested to write. If they eventually move me-- which I am sure they will, because I intend them to be useful poems for the occasions, and they won't be that unless I am moved as I write them--it won't be for such emotionally obvious reasons. But by the end, I agree with you, they will be--as they should be--"my" poems in the sense that my soul will be in them.
    Yes, I will share them when they're done, Jason! But it may be a few years' revision time before I think them ready to share with a wider audience beyond those present at the occasion. The poem I wrote for a soldier in Afghanistan, which I wrote about in the comment section of a post by Lucia Perillo on Harriet last year, is still in that phase--I finished it in July and shared it with the soldier, but it still needs plenty of "curing" time before I'm sure it's ready for an audience of my peers in poetry.
    Camille, I just read your post. That's a very interesting take on the idea of "taking ourselves seriously" as poets--that it is more truly serious for a poet to be considered part of a community than to be somehow considered "above" the community. That is a very convincing point! I have routinely assigned my students to write a poem for an occasion, and to share it with people during that occasion. They get a lot out of this assignment, both in morale--they can do something useful as poets!-- and in the skills to write for an audience outside of workshop.

  13. March 3, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Great comments, all. Thanks for them. Martin, I appreciate the Auden quote, and I'm glad you remind us of the eloquence of Annie's "three-dimensional challenge." Annie, I totally understand the need to let poetry become properly pickled. And Camille, your comments pose a good challenge.
    That said, I sometimes get a little anxious around the word 'useful,' though poets (and poetry) certainly can be useful. Still, I sometimes wish poetry was promoted less as something that's good for us, that's useful, and more as entertainment. Entertainment is a 'use,' of course, but not always one we associate with utility. (This is not to criticize any specific mentions of usefulness here; this is just a general comment.)

  14. March 3, 2009
     David Krump

    Harriet is great.
    Thanks to all who make it so.

  15. March 5, 2009
     Michael Martin

    Jason, in regards to poetrys usefulness versus its entertainment value...
    I think what happens is this --- when poetry becomes "too entertaining" its degraded by a certain sect. The odd title of "Spoken Word" given to some poets. Separated as "stage performers" (without the tag of being a poet). When all poetry originated from the oral tradition. You see some poets reading poetry with a disconnection.
    I think to be considered and more pushed for as entertainment, there has to be a revitalization of the page and the stage. Invoking the poem as one would a spirit to set the words and body on wire. When a poet reads, in my opinion, from a disconnected stance, the audience then becomes disconnected with them. I am not suggesting theatrics for the sake of, but allowing the work to convey what work, power, and emotion the poet his/herself put into it.
    Going on the open mic/poetry reading circuits you notice that the poets who read are "there", in the room. The page itself is decomposing when you think about it. So to fully engulf oneself in the page and only that, you then become apart of it and decompose a little yourself. Okay, maybe I'm reaching with that last one, but maybe you get the idea.
    Such as movies as entertainment -- you have some movies created only to make money. From the word go their first order isn't to entertain. That comes second or third. With a poem, that first order which equates to making money would be to please the audience. You have some movies which aim to entertain, not necessarily please the audience. So there is the blurry picture of the audience in mind, but audience in the sense that you're writing with yourself in mind --- what do you like to see (or in poetry's case, read).
    Some poets I think forget about that... be objective, would you want to read what you've written if you didn't write it? So I dunno... what's the first step to poetry seen more as entertainment?
    Well... bring those with the same ideals to the forefront. Begin to invite those with different reading styles into the fold (whatever fold that may be). The first step is an actual community, instead of a pretend community. Poets looking down at other poets. The title spoken word used in the general community seen as "less" somehow. When you gather up and show solidarity, people tend to believe the message you're sending. So if you're message is we're entertaining poets (or rather, poetry as entertainment like Late Night Jay Leno), they'll begin believing you and instituting it into their daily mindsets. Shoot, Def Poetry was genius. Good poetry/great poetry which had a page presence. Didn't mean I loved every piece. The same way I don't love every poet in the canon or living today. I still respect them. Why? Because they're fellow poets and this shit ain't exactly easy.
    Some amazing page and stage poets.

  16. March 5, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Michael, many thanks for the interesting thoughts and for the link. I'll enjoy checking it out.
    But in answer to your question, yes, I think (and hope) I would want to read the stuff I write even if I hadn't written it! Or put another way: when writing poems, I aim to write the sort of poems that I enjoy reading, that I am entertained by. Whether or not I achieve this aim is another matter...
    And to be honest, I don't need to hear the poems I love recited on a stage. The page, in and of itself, entertains me. That said, the stage, yes, has its uses and can be an exciting platform for exciting work.
    Ultimately, I don't have a well-thought-out theory about the relationship between poetry and entertainment. It's just a word (entertainment) I wish came up more in discussions of poetry, discussions which often frame poetry in very utilitarian terms or describe it as something that's good for us, nourishing, which makes it sound like broccoli. (Of course, entertainment is a use, and I don't mind broccoli, but you know what I mean...)

  17. March 8, 2009
     Liz Jones-Dilworth

    I appreciate your discussion of how poets generally (and you yourself) grapple with a tendency to condescend to audiences.
    I have been asked to write or read poems for a few weddings now and none of those couples have wanted "references to shadows and lost innocent" or rhyming poems.
    Before a poet accepts or declines a commission, he or she should make sure they understand the needs and preferences of the person requesting the poem. Without knowing what's expected, a poet can't know whether or not it's possible to meet those expectations. Simply assuming that we poets know what the common people like is always a bad idea.

  18. March 8, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Good point, Liz. Thanks for it.

  19. March 11, 2009

    would you ask a visual artist to paint a portrait of grandmama?
    i find it frustrating that it's ok for sculptors, painters etc to work on developing their art and to take risks in that exploration, but when people who write poetry do the same, there are complaints of inaccessibilty to the general public. i have no problem with anyone writing any kind of poetry they like. but i do have an issue with the judgement that if a poem isn't accesible to a general public audience, it somehow fails. some poems are meant to be written that way and some are not.

  20. March 11, 2009
     P. Scott Cunningham

    Here's an odd occasion for all who are interested in testing their occasional poetic abilities: