Tuesday, September 11, 2007

You Are Not Alone

I've decided to start a collection of my favorite quotes about poetry. Feel free to comment and add your own!

you are not alone,
the poem said
in the dark tunnel.
- Louise Gluck, "October"

The words loved me and I loved them in return.
- Sonia Sanchez

Use what talents you possess;
The woods would be very silent
if no birds sang there except those that sang best.
- William Blake

I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it
- John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing"

Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you ... Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture- the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us- has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you.
- Edward Hirsh, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rilke's Classic Advice for Poets

I have owned my copy of Letters to a Young Poet for about thirteen years. It is the sort of wise book that has something new to say to me every time I pick it up. The volume has become such a classic that it’s hard sometimes to remember that it wasn’t written as a book, that it is but half a conversation. This time around, reading it for school, I also read the “Chronicle” written by translator M.D. Herter Norton, which describes where Rilke was in his own life—physically and psychically—when he wrote the Letters. It presents a more complex picture of the timid, tortured soul who was as much in need of his own advice as his reader.

The Letters cover a variety of topics, including love, solitude, depression, and inspiration. Together they comprise a volume that’s less of a book about how to write than about how to live—at least, how to go about living if one is a sensitive, perceptive, solitary, creative, and questioning person. The ultimate message I take from the Letters is to trust oneself and one’s own process, however difficult and fruitless that may sometimes seem.

At 15 years old, I underlined this passage: “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write” (18). That challenging question was important to me then. Now that I have discovered it is essential for me to write, the passage immediately preceding that one shone out from the page:

"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now … I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."

This passage is good medicine for a grad student with a few published poems under her belt who fervently wants to continue wooing and impressing her slowly growing readership. It’s not that acknowledgement by the outside world doesn’t matter, but the material for creativity must always come from within and cannot be helped by adhering to current fashion. I am reminded of the indispensable advice of writer and teacher Pat Schneider in her book, Writing Alone and with Others: “When you ask someone else for a critical opinion, take suggestions for change only if they meet with an answering Yes! in your own mind” (113). Rilke’s words encourage poets to seek out and trust our most intimate instincts.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Meet Your Fear in a Dark Alley

Today the Writer's Almanac told a very interesting story about Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones. She had a traumatic experience that haunted her life for many years until she was able to confront it and give it voice in her writing. Her novel became a success and she was quoted as saying, "It's very weird to succeed at 39 years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted."

A few days ago (August 22), it was Annie Proulx's birthday. Proulx got me to love & appreciate the short story. Nobody does grunge better than she. The Writer's Almanac said, "She was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, when she burst onto the literary scene, publishing her first novels, Postcards (1992) and The Shipping News (1993), in her late 50s ... she doesn't regret becoming a writer later than most people because, she said, she knows a lot more about life than she did 30 years ago."

Slowly building the life you want isn't always pretty and easy, and rarely feels like it's got any sort of meaningful direction. But as Tolkien wrote and bumper stickers have adopted, "Not all who wander are lost."

Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, advises writers to plumb the depths of our own lives, especially those bits that seem mean or inconsequential. It takes time and determination, but we have to go through the sh*t to get to the art.