believe that most people have little trouble reading a poem, that most people like poetry, that most people crave the pure pleasure of poems, and that most people want a poem that’s not too obvious. Human beings admire mastery. We enjoy hearing an extremely talented musician play difficult music. We love watching an elite athlete—like a world-class diver nailing a high-degree-of-difficulty twisting and somersaulting dive with no more splash than a teardrop.
And we thrill at the triumphs of the poet who, like a sculptor, transforms the rough marble of everyday language into a sculptured poem of human aspiration.
Mastery arouses us because doing something difficult is hard.
In late 2002, Oregonian books editor Jeff Baker and I met in Portland to bandy around the idea of a monthly poetry column, in lieu of conventional poetry reviews, in the Sunday books section of the state’s major newspaper. I came armed with what I hoped was an apt metaphor about poetry and difficulty. In particular—and because I knew that prior to being the paper’s books editor Jeff had once been a sports reporter—I opted for a sports metaphor.
“I see myself as being, you know, like John Madden, the football color commentary guy,” I said. “Anyone can follow the game but John Madden’s experience brings you closer to the complex game beneath the game. He brings you closer both to the game and to the sport.”
I went on in this fashion, though I needn’t have. Because we both understood that just as John Madden shows viewers the Xs and Os of each play, what went well, what broke down, and just as he covers the history of the formations, who the players and coaches are and what he thinks matters most about the past, present, and future of the sport of football, and just as he brings his values about the art and practice of football, and just as he models watching football in a reliable, enjoyable, and insightful manner, my intention with a poetry column was to be like the chalkboard talk for what poetry is and how it works, to reflect upon what I think matters most for readers and writers of poetry.
I needn’t have worried. Jeff Baker already wanted to expand coverage of poetry in the books section. He was actively commissioning reviews of new collections and had also started a feature to publish original poems each week. Few, if any, newspaper books editors have been a better friend to the poets than Jeff Baker, whose editorial generosity to me was offered with expertise, good sense, and a quiet directness. Following that lunch meeting began a monthly ritual that lasted from January 2003 to the fall of 2013, in which I would send Jeff a short commentary, essay, or reflection on the art of poetry, and would receive in reply a salutary, “Thanks, David.”
Readers responded more volubly.
Some took the reflections and the lines of poetry to heart. A woman once called my house to say that she was so delighted by Muriel Rukeyser’s “In Her Burning”—a poem about an old woman’s randiness—that she was going to bring it to her book group. “The ladies will love it!”
Others said they pinned up the columns on their refrigerators. Many teachers wrote to say they posted the columns and poem on the corkboards in their classrooms. I often noticed them reposted online.
One Saturday afternoon at a local park, a regular reader thrust Robert Frost’s “To Earthward” into my hands at our sons’ fourth grade soccer game. The boys had played on the same team since kindergarten, and they would continue playing together through high school. There was a strange cultural peculiarity going on in that moment in southeast Portland on the sidelines of the soccer field—as other parents were shouting at kids to kick and chase the ball, she was waving her rumpled copy of the poem at me and demanding, “Could Frost be this dark?”
I answered her in my next piece.
The complaints piled up, too. One reader tried to convince me that poetry didn’t deserve such attention—even monthly—declaring, “Only schoolmarmish, gray-haired biddies care about poetry.”
I took that personally.
Gray-haired? Not yet, pal.
Schoolmarmish? OK, well, you got me there.
Another reader really let me have it, and I quote: “Why don’t you ever introduce something by Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, Sharon Olds, or Maya Angelou. Poets that don’t make me work.”
I see his point. And his sensibility, too. If only Modernism had never taken place.
And yet his passion for those particular poets deeply underestimates both their talents and the historical importance of the conversational style. My poetry column, at least, was intended as an offering of what I hope are uncommon reflections about poetry, and not as a presentation of individual poems by specific poets. I mean, I realize now how many poets who mean the world to me—Czeslaw Milosz, above all, who has been a north star, and W.S. Merwin, Yehuda Amichai, and others—I just didn’t get to. Even in the preparation of this book I have left out a couple dozen or so columns with poems I’m enormously fond of.
To illustrate my ideas about reading and writing poetry, I drew from poems that are longstanding masterpieces, forgotten beauties, and recently published gems. These reflections provide what I hope is a warm invitation to the art of poetry. I’ve tried to write in a plainspoken, conversational way and have tried to help readers make connections among the different styles and movements in poetry and understand how they fit together. I haven’t hesitated to make aesthetic judgments, but I’ve done so, I hope, in order to invite you to come to your own conclusions.
Like a lifeguard letting you know the water is safe—to abandon the John Madden metaphor—I saw myself as the guy who says that you’ll be OK diving right into a poem. Because just as you listen to music on your own or watch films on your own or read history on your own, reading poetry is something you most certainly can do on your own.
I’ve found it helpful, when reading poems, to have a handful of expectations in mind. They give me a standard from which to evaluate poems, a standard I have revisited and revised many times over. As much as we profess to favor originality in art, it might be more accurate to say that we want originality not to be made out of nothing, but to be refashioned out of something—something real. The very act of refashioning from the real is what we notice as original. Only in the most rudimentary ways is a poem a straight imitation of experience. A poem is a refiguring of experience. It’s an invention of a new experience. A poetic experience. And, as a reader, it becomes mine.
I see each poem as being tethered to its cultural predicament and its historical conditions. This is why, in addition to the physical geographic border of a specific language—French or English or Russian or Dutch or Arabic, and so on—we have national poetries with particular, peculiar, and predominant national literary dramas. Naturally, there are complicated cross-border dramas, too: English-speaking poets in the West Indies, French-speaking poets in Lebanon, Russian-speaking poets in Ukraine.
Paradoxically, little new happens in poetry. There’s adaptation, there’s distortion, there’s refinement. It’s easy enough to imagine a future poetic movement called the New Beats or the New Agrarians or the New Imagists. But “neo” is about resurgence and reinvention, about revival, about nourishing the present moment and paying homage to the past.
I say all this but it’s not like I was born with these values about reading, writing, or writing about poems, poets, and poetry. I now know that writing for so many years about how poetry is created has helped me enormously to think through my ideas about the entirety of the art of poetry. It has been enormously humbling, too.
The first piece of prose I ever wrote about poetry in a daily newspaper was in 1989 for the Book World section of The Washington Post. Aggravated by what I took to be an insipid poetry review the Post had recently published, I wrote to the editor, Michael Dirda, to offer my services as a reviewer and pitched him on some new books.
This was audacious of me. I was twenty-five years old. I had been writing poems for only three years, ever since I’d resolved to hammer out my life as a poet. I had never written a book review before.
“How do I know you’re not married to one of these people?” Dirda asked in a subsequent phone call before assigning, on speculation only, a roundup of five books different from the ones I’d proposed. These included new collections by Lucille Clifton, James Dickey, and Louise Glück. Thus my career writing about poetry in newspapers began. Years after I wrote those first reviews for the Washington Post—and later for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for literary quarterlies—Jeff Baker and I cooked up the idea of a newspaper column in the Oregonian about poetry. I leaped at the chance to shift my role from reviewer to columnist.
Though I can’t say I aspired to become a newspaper poetry columnist. My primary interest is, has always been, the writing of poems. Writing prose about poetry, in my case at least (and this may be true for others), has sometimes helped to keep the silence between writing poems at bay and to help me, as I said before, think through my preoccupations about the art of poetry. Over time, to be fair, I’ve been grateful to have the column in the Oregonian. It’s been like a piece of real estate in the literary neighborhood to return to with regularity where I can talk to a loyal readership about the art of poetry.
When I stepped down from writing the column, it was a private decision and one I’d been mulling for some time. After more than ten years and over a 120 columns, I wanted to stop before I ran the risk, if I’d not done so already, of becoming dull, rote, or shrill. The decision had nothing to do with the Oregonian and only a little to do with the dwindling audience for daily newspapers or the diminished size of the books section. What I mean is, during my time, the newspaper allowed me complete freedom to write about poetry in a manner that interested me. Often I would be asked by readers if the newspaper ever forbade me from writing something or writing about any particular poet or insisted that I write about any particular poet. No, never, not once.
And so I hold with the view that newspapers and general interest publications ought to provide a discussion of poetry on the same pages as its coverage of civic, political, and sporting life. That the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat of both the world of sports and the world of the sonnet might exist side by side epitomizes the ideal, as William Carlos Williams once said, that “poetry is news that stays news.”
Anyone can be a critic of new poetry. It’s easy as burning down a barn. The vast majority of contemporary poetry of any era is usually forgettable and soon forgotten. The real challenge for a writer who writes about poetry is to try to figure out how a poem works the way it does and why it might defy the historical odds. Or at least to try to figure out how a poem defines—at the very least, characterizes and, at the very best, mythologizes—our time.
All the same, I’m uncertain about what influence a poetry column has. For me, the whole point of writing about poetry was less about trying, presumptuously or foolishly, to shape the literary landscape than to help stimulate some conversation about poems, poets, and poetry, and about the role these play in a modern civilized city and nation, and beyond. I’ve tried to explain, from my perspective, who poets are, how poems work, how the art got the way it is, and what all that might mean or lead to.
David Biespiel was born in 1964 in Oklahoma and grew up in Harris County, Texas, in Houston. He is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry, and a book on creativity, Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces. He is the editor of the Everyman's Library edition of Poems of the American South and Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets, which received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. He writes the Poetry Wire column for The Rumpus and is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. Among his honors are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and a Lannan Fellowship. Since 1999 he has been president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in Portland with his family.