Dear Editor,

The four poets in your March exchange identify a conundrum for early-career writers: how not to let the striving for a "secure place in the profession of poetry" (Adam Kirsch's words) obfuscate the sort of unblindered vision the great poems, maybe even more than the poets, need. Making one's way through the ever-expanding mire of book awards, publishers, magazines, and prizes must feel like swimming through mud. And how to do that and at the same time breathe light and clean air into one's poems?

I'm reminded of Whitman's declaration, "Great poets must live great lives." While some of the greats—Akhmatova and Lorca, to name just two—lived heroic lives, close to death and devastation, I doubt that's necessarily what Whitman meant. Rather, I suspect he meant that great poets find a way to live lives that feel truly their own, fiercely private, lives of their own making, experienced intensely, fully. If that means rarely leaving the top floor of one's home because the "out there" life presses in too hard on the fullness of the inner life, so be it. To live in Dickinson's manner, in her era—surely that too was a "great" life, even a bold life.

Our current poetical industriousness, coupled with our wonderful democratic embracing spirit, make for an outpouring of good poetry from well-trained poets. But who could argue that most of this is a flood of mere competence, or that over-professionalism is to blame? It seems to me the life from which the beyond-competent poem may be born and borne must somehow be discovered by the poet, the life, that is, that the poems need. Then that life must be protected and nourished. I think of Rilke and how he shunned deep emotional bonds. All of life for him—that eerily, almost supra-human life—was lived for poetry. "Lord, lord, lord, to make the Thing." So perhaps I only identify another conundrum: about Rilke, sadly, I doubt we'd say he was a great man, but I suspect we'd agree he was a Great Poet.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Nance Van Winckel’s sixth book of poems, Pacific Walkers (University of Washington Press), and her fourth collection of stories, 
Boneland (Univeristy of Oklahoma Press), were published in 2013.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In