Monday, February 13, 2012

Suffering Poets

Currently I am reading and enjoying an old collection of interviews with poets, Bill Moyers' The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (1995). These conversations in print are like lurking in a fine literary salon. The only problem is that Moyers, good as he is with interviews, does not challenge a theme repeated by several of the thirty-four poets included. They talk about the horrors of writing, the struggle, sometimes for decades to get it right. Donald Hall says, "It's typical for me to spend three to five years on a poem . . . not working on it every day, but maybe every day for six months. . . . I need to sleep on it five hundred times." And Stanley Kunitz says, "I think poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing one can do in the world."

Well, I get the life-enhancing part, but I cannot agree that it's the most difficult thing in life to write poems. Nor do I plan to spend 500 nights sleeping on one. Life is too full of life for that. I like the idea of William Stafford writing a poem every day, but I don't do that either. I manage most weeks to make a fair start on a new poem, but I don't expect 52 whiz-bang, Pulitzer worthy results every year. Writing a poem is most often a pleasure, like doing a good puzzle or solving a mystery. The discovery that comes from working on the piece is my reward, the response from readers and listeners a bonus. But the poem is words on paper, less worrisome than a sick child or a broken heart. I write about the child, the heart, the hunger in the world and the unfairness of life. But writing about it is not the same as suffering the event itself. Steven King says in On Writing to put your desk in the corner and not in the center of the room. It is not, however important, the center of your life.

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