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Shop Talk: Bly, Levis, and Edson on Poetry and Poetics


I like to talk shop. I also like to listen to other people talking shop, even if their shop is not my shop (poetry, pedagogy, responsible agnostic living).

Being stimulated, educated, and comforted in the presence of shop talk is one reason that I like listening to comedy podcasts such as You Made It Weird, WTF with Marc Maron, and How Was Your Week, where stand-up comedians and comedy writers talk about (among other things) their strategies for crowd work, how they perceive the tradition of stand-up comedy and how they think they fit into it/ play against it, writing habits, and early career mistakes. Most, I find, are masters of dissection, willing to take apart a 10 word joke and discuss at length how it works/ what makes it funny/ how the joke would be less successful if they'd used an indefinite article [an ice-cream stand] rather than a definite article [the ice-cream stand].

My affection for shop talk is the reason I watch reality shows like Project Runway and Master Chef. They're shows about making: The central question of Project Runway is "What makes an exciting piece of fashion?" [The designer must consider "what's happening now" in fashion, what's been done too much, what's wearable but not so wearable that it becomes clothes instead of fashion, what kind of person is the designer designing for/ what is his or her story, whether the designer playing it too safe, whether the designer unwisely straying from the realm of his or her talents and interests...]

Similarly, the central question of Master Chef is "What makes a good dish?" [The cook must consider how to best present the dish {placement on the plate, colors of the food/ plate/ garnishes}, whether the dish is ambitious enough, whether the dish overstimulates the palette with disparate textures/ flavors/ aromas...]

Margaret Atwood once said "I don't want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck… you may improve your so-called technique, but only at the expense of your so-called soul."

I certainly want poetry to be dangerous, as in "of consequence," or as in "a medicine that can heal or poison depending on how it's administered." But I do want to know how poems happen. And I want to talk about the making of poems, and hear other people talking about the making of poems, because my suspicion is that no matter how much I examine it, I will never understand everything that happens to produce a good poem. Then I will be reassured that the mystery is real, and I will have new ways to celebrate it. My thoughts on poetics match my thoughts on religion: If anyone's god is worth anything, that god will become no less awe-inspiring with scrutiny--the god that's worth something, more than likely, will become even more so, as it continues to elude the complete understanding of intelligent, curious people.

Larry Levis once said that "craft becomes, rightly, the most private of dialogues between the poet and his language." I think the private, highly personalized nature of craft is another reason I like hearing people discuss it: it's intimate; it offers a better knowledge of poetry as well as a better knowledge of the person who made the poetry--it exposes the poet's value system, just as people-watching with a friend helps you to better understand the friend. [Does she seem most interested in what people are wearing, how they talk to or touch the people they are with, their weights, their voices/ laughs….?]

Here are some excerpts from three of my my favorite craft essays, all from A FIELD Guide to Contemporary Poetry & Poetics, which are useful as teaching aids as well as personal devotionals for the poet/ artist/ interested person:

I. "Recognizing the Image as a Form of Intelligence" by Robert Bly

"The image…keeps a way open to old marshes, and the primitive hunter. The image moistens the poem, and darkens it…without the image the poem becomes dry, or stuck in one world."

"[Psychic weight], which comes later in [a poet's] development, is connected to grief, turning your face to your own life, absorbing the failures your parents and your country have suffered…an adult grief that makes the poem feel heavy in the hand."

"When a poet creates a true image, he is…bringing into consciousness a connection that has been forgotten, perhaps for centuries."

"It is possible there is another sort of image, which the ancients knew about. It is less like a container and more like an arm. It reaches out of human consciousness to touch something else."

"We do feel a gap between ourselves and nature. We can remain in the gap, and let the two worlds fall apart farther and remain separate. Or a human being can reach out with his left hand to the world of human intelligence and with the right hand to the natural world, and touch both at the same time…The power that makes us able to touch both is called 'imagination'."

II. "Some Notes on the Gazer Within" by Larry Levis

"We all know that poetry had better come, if not 'as naturally as leaves to the tree,' then at least with something more alive and luminous than a servile, cynic's technique. [A] poem made to order from theory is slave labor."

"The best beginning poets I know are also the most literary: what they demonstrate is a love for poetry rather than a love for themselves."

"Poets thirst after what is pure and other and inhuman…"

"[When I] really look inquiringly inward…it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazed I have to be in order to write poems…it is to find out how I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject and, consequently, to find myself a poet."

III. "Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care & Feeding of Prose Poems" by Russell Edson

"Human intelligence sees itself as the only thing different from all things else in the universe; an isolated witness to seemingly endless cosmological processes…Human intelligence recognizes its frail root and utter dependance on the psychical universe…That out of vast mindlessness was it born…Must look upon its situation as absurd. Intelligence is in the care of mindlessness."

"Growing your own writing without going to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and without sending your work to know poets--your own garden, your own meditation--isolation!--Painful, necessary! One comes to the writing table with one's own hidden life…not dragging Pound's Cantos."

"How I hate little constipated lines that are afraid to be anything but correct, without an ounce of humor, that gaiety that death teaches!"

"[There is the poet who] neglects content for form; always seeking the way to write…the endless discussions of breath and line; the polishing of the jewel until it turns to dust."

"Beware of serious people, for their reality is flat."

"[This sense of nothingness], that life is always poised on the edge of decay, that seemingly solid structures long to become dust…and that only man holds the past with any tenderness…[it means that the writer] who has nothing to lose is allowed to be silly; the Angel of Joy prescribes it…"


[Editor's Note: For more essays on poetics and craft, please visit the "Essays on Poetic Theory" section of The Learning Lab.

Originally Published: March 19th, 2013

Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A...