I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry writing class.
You'll never be a poet until
you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong.
It may be right for me, but it is
wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to,
telling you to write like me.
But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don't
teach you how to write but
how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap
detector on. If I say something
that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don't
start arguments. They are futile
and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important
arguments are with
yourself. If you don't agree with me, don't listen. Think about
When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes,
though you may not be
aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The
other, that all truth must conform
to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very
difficult, and you are not only
limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very
witty and clever, such as
Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing
programs. So you can take that
attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as
well as your chances of writing
a good poem. If the second attitude is right, then I still have
a job. Let's pretend it is right
because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform
to music, those of us who
find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but
love the sounds of words
enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on
writing--try to stop us.
One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around
to make it accommodate
what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases,
what he has already conceived
to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music
conform to truth,was fond of
quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like,
"How do I know what I think
until I see what I've said."
A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering
subject, which starts
the poem or "causes" the poem to be written, and the real or generated
subject, which the
poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered
in the poem during the
writing. That's not quite right because it suggests that the poet
recognizes the real subject.
The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only
have some instinctive feeling
that the poem is done.
Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating
subject. The poet puts
down the title: "Autumn Rain." He finds two or three good lines
about Autumn Rain.
Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more
to say about Autumn Rain
so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he
starts telling us the meaning
of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course,
is that he feels obligated
to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is
the subject. Well, it isn't the
subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you
run out of things to say
about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact,
it's a good idea to talk about
something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn
Don't be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become
more interesting the
longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like
me, I find. The longer they talk
about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the
next sentence different from
the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm,
tonality, and the music
of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write
In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination,
all things belong.
If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like
Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand.
When you are writing,
glance over your shoulder, and you'll find there is no reader.
Just you and the page. Feel
lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences,
give up all worry about
communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.
To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance, not in real
life I hope. In real life
try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and
give you more time to write.
By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume
that the next thing you put
down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative
development, but because
you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said
this. The adhesive force
is your way of writing, not sensible connection.
The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering
subject. One way is to use
words for the sake of their sounds. Later, I'll demonstrate this
idea. The initiating subject
should trigger the imagination as well as the poem. If it doesn't,
it may not be a valid subject
but only something you feel you should write a poem about. Never
write a poem about anything
that ought to have a poem written about it, a wise man once told
me. Not bad advice but not
quite right. The point is, the triggering subject should not carry
with it moral or social
obligations to feel or claim you feel certain ways. If you feel
pressure to say what you know others
want to hear and don't have enough devil in you to surprise them,
shut up. But the
advice is still well taken. Subjects that ought to have poems
have a bad habit of wanting
lots of other things at the same time. And you provide those things
at the expense of your
I suspect that the true or valid triggering subject is one in
which physical characteristics
or details correspond to attitudes in the poet has toward the
world and himself. For me, a small
town that has seen better days often works. Contrary to what reviewers
and critics say about
my work, I know almost nothing of substance about the places that
trigger my poems.
Knowing can be a limiting thing. If the population of a town is
nineteen but the poem needs
the sound seventeen, seventeen is easier to say if you don't know
the population. Guessing
leaves you more options. Often, a place that starts a poem for
me is one I have only glimpsed
while passing through. It should make impression enough that I
can see things in the
town--the water tower, the bank, the last movie announced on the
marquee before the theater
shut down for good, the hotel closed long after I have left--imagined
things I find if I go
back, but real or imagined, they act as a set of stable knowns
that sit outside the poem.
They and the town serve as a base of operations for the poem.
Sometimes they serve as a
stage setting. I would never try to locate a serious poem in a
place where physical evidence
suggests that the people there find it relatively easy to accept
themselves--say the new Hilton.
The poet's relation to the triggering subject should never be
as strong as (must be weaker than)
his relation to his words. The words should not serve the subject.
The subject should serve the
words. This may mean violating the facts. For example, if the
poem needs the word "black" at
some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator
may have to be black in the
poem. You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings
Let's take what I think is a lovely little poem, written by a
fine poet who has been unjustly
I found him sleepy in the heat
And dust of a gopher burrow,
Coiled in loose folds upon silence
In a pit of the noonday hillside.
I saw the wedged bulge
Of the head hard as a fist.
I remembered his delicate ways:
The mouth a cat's mouth yawning.
I crushed him deep in dust,
And heard the loud seethe of life
In the dead beads of the tail
Fade, as wind fades
From the wild grain of the hill.
I find there's much to be learned about writing from this excellent
poem. First I think it
demonstrates certain truths that hold for much art. The poem grows
from an experience, either real
or imagined. I only recently found out that this particular experience
was real. The starting point
is fixed to give the mind an operating base, and the mind expands
from there. Often, if the
triggering subject is big (love, death, faith ) rather than localized
and finite, the mind tends to shrink.
Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later,
we had a cure for gonorrhea.
But what if the British government had told him to find a cure
for gonorrhea? He might have
worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small.
If you have a big mind,
that will show itself. If you can't think small, try philosophy
or social criticism.
The need for the poem to have been written is evident in the poem.
This is a strong example
of the notion that all good serious poems are born in obsession.
Without this poem the experience
would have been neither validated nor completed.
The poem has elements of melodrama. All art that has endured has
a quality we call schmaltz
or corn. Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian
and post-Victorian writing
was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from
sentimentality we got, the truer the art.
That was a mistake. As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches
fiction writing, has pointed
out: if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close
to your inner self.
The poem is located in a specific place. You don't know where,
but you know the poet knows
where. Knowing where you are can be a source of creative stability.
If you are in Chicago, you can
go to Rome. If you ain't no place you can't go nowhere.
The snake is killed gratuitously. The study of modern psychology
may have helped some of us
become better people. We may treat our children better because
we have gained some
rudimentary notion of cause and effect in behavior. But in art,
as seemingly in life, things
happen without cause. They just happen. A poem seldom finds room
for explanations, motiva-
tions, or reason. What if the poem read
Because I knew his poison
Was dangerous to children
I crushed him deep in dust . . . ?
The poet would be making excuses for himself, and the fierce honesty
with which he faces
his raw act of murder would be compromised. Nothing in the drama
King Lear can possibly serve
as explanation of the shattering cruelty of Regan and Cornwall
when they blind Gloucester.
From a writer's standpoint, a good explanation is that Shakespeare
knew a lot of creeps walk this
But there's more to be learned from this poem than just artistic
principles. They are always
suspect anyway, including those I think I find here. Let's move
on to the language of the poem.
Generally, in English multisyllabic words have a way of softening
the impact of language.
With multisyllabic words we can show compassion, tenderness, and
tranquillity. With multisyllabic
words we become more civilized. In the first four lines of the
poem, seven of the twenty-six
words, slightly better than one out of four, are two-syllable
words. This is a fairly high count
unless you are in politics. The snake is sleepy. He presents no
threat to the speaker. His
dwelling is that of a harmless creature, a gopher. It's almost
as if the snake were a derelict, an
orphan, a vagabond who sleeps wherever he can. The words "noonday
hillside" suggest that the
world does not have rigid topography but optional configurations.
At 4 P.M. it might not be a
hillside at all. We take our identities from our relationships,
just as the earth takes its configurations
from the time of day, the position of the source of light. This
is a warm, fluid world.
With single-syllable words we can show rigidity, honesty, toughness,
relentlessness, the world
of harm unvarnished. In lines five and six, the snake is seen
as a threat, the lines slam home heavy
as the fist the poet sees as simile for the head of the snake.
But of course, men, not snakes,
have fists, and so we might ask: where does the danger really
The speaker then has a tender memory of the snake in lines seven
and eight, and we get two
three-syllable words and a long two-syllable word, "yawning."
You might note that the poet is
receptive to physical similarities of snakes and domestic cats--they
look much alike when
yawning--just as later he sees and hears the similarity of rattlesnakes
to wheat (grain), the way
the tail looks like the tassle, the way the rattle sounds like
wind in the grain.
In the final five lines the poet kills the snake, faces himself
and the moral implications of his act
without a flinch or excuse, and we get no multisyllabic words
in the entire passage. All single
-syllable words, and the gaze is level, the whole being of the
speaker honestly laid out, vulnerable
on his private moral block. If one acts on the rigid prejudicial
attitudes expressed in lines five and
six (which the speaker did), and not on the fluid, tender, humane
attitudes expressed in the first
four lines and lines seven and eight, then in return one is faced
with the fully developed,
uncompromising picture of what one has done. Forever.
In this poem the triggering subject remains fully in view until
late in the poem, whereas the
generated object, what the poem is saying, just begins to show
at the end but is nonetheless
evident. The snake as such is being left behind, and attitudes
about life are starting to form.
The single-syllable words in the last five lines relentlessly
drive home the conviction that all life
is related, and that even if life isn't sacred, we might be better
off if we acted as if it were. In this
case the poet got off the initiating subject late.
I mentioned that one way of getting off the subject, of freeing
yourself from memory if you
will, is to use words for the sake of sound. Now I must use four
lines from an early poem of mine,
simply because I can't verify any other poet's process. I know
what mine was at the time. These
are the first four lines of the fourth stanza of an early poem
called "At the Stilli's Mouth."
With the Stilli this defeated and the sea
turned slough by close Camano, how can water die
with drama, in a final rich cascade,
a suicide, a victim of terrain, a martyr?
When I was a young poet I set an arbitrary rule that when I made
a sound I felt was strong, a
sound I liked specially, I'd make a similar sound three to eight
syllables later. Of course it would
often be a slant rhyme. Why three to eight? Don't ask. You have
to be silly to write poems at all.
In this case the word "cascade" fell lovingly on my ear and so,
soon after, "suicide." I wasn't
smart enough to know that I was saying that my need to see things
dramatically was both childish
and authentic. But "suicide" was right and led to "victim of terrain"
and "martyr," associative
notions at least, but also words that sound like other words in
the passage, "martyr" like "drama"
and "water," "victim" like "final" and "Stilli" (Northwest colloquial
for Stilliguamish, the river).
Instead of "suicide" I might have hit on "masquerade," but that
would have been wrong and I hope
I would have known it. I might have simply because "masquerade"
sounds too much like "cascade,"
calls attention to itself, and to my ear is less interesting.
What I'm trying to tell you is that by doing
things like this I was able to get off the subject and write the
poem. The fact that "suicide" sounds
like "cascade" is infinitely more important than what is being
It isn't of course, but if you think about it that way for the
next twenty-five years you could be
in pretty good shape.