A certain cowardice: three confessions about poetry

What a fox. Mark Strand has the looks and the words.

First confession: I used to write poems, but I don’t anymore.

For now, poetry feels too risky, the payoff too uncertain, each poem like stepping from a ledge never knowing how far one will drop. Poetry takes more courage than I’ve got. I’m no prophet, no visionary. I just want to live. And to piece together stories that might–might–have bits of poetry caught up in all the workhorse prose.

Second confession: I love poetry, but find poets a little scary. 

This fear is probably because I imagine that they live with the anxieties I would feel if I were a poet. How do they do it? Maybe a lot of them don’t have my “special” kinds of worries. I think of Carl Dennis, whose poems themselves (funny, talky, self-depricating) make me think he might be able to live with his work.

But then I think of Mark Strand whose experience with poetry is exactly what I would fear. For all his success, for all the gratitude I feel for his poems (several of which I’ve memorized, including this one), I cannot imagine what it’s like to be him. I recently read an excellent interview in which, among other topics, he talked about “quitting” poetry again and again:

It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else… So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.

It floors me to imagine believing, with each book, that one has nothing left to say in that genre. Ever. If Mark Strand weren’t so handsome (I think he looks like Paul Newman), I might feel bad for his suffering in the wake of his own words. 

Third confession: sometimes I feel the novel is the coward’s art.

One of my writing teachers, Peter LaSalle, once said that the poet has to make every word count whereas the fiction writer can always bring home the bacon on the next page and make the reader forget some so-so prose. I guess that’s what scares me most about poetry: that absolute exposure, each poem needing to hold up to scrutiny. In fiction, it’s more about the cumulative effect. I can hide in the sheer volume of pages.

Of course, the best fiction writing is risky, too. When it is truly fine work, there is the feeling that one might embarrass one’s self. Or do injury. But the bright spots in fiction come with plenty of plain old work with ordinary words. The novelist can make use of everyday language without shame. Bits that the poet has to sacrifice to find her poem can properly belong to a novel.

So there you have it. Three confessions, all of which suggest that poets are a superior kind of creature. Thank you, poets. You’re braver than I’ll ever be.


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