You guys, people don’t understand why we write poetry

poetry shouldn't run in place

As a poet who’s also a runner, this quote really grabbed me:

“Poetry shouldn’t run in place—it should be running towards a wall and then through it.”

It’s from “Poetry at Stake,” a blog post written by Tara Skurtu for The Best American Poetry. Tara talks about what it means for something to be “at stake” in our writing, and she uses some very literal (and sobering) examples. You should, of course, read her entire piece, but here’s its essence:

“This is the definition of poetry at risk: it employs the limits of language, endangers the realm of the comfortable, approaches a silence or loss we feel yet can’t explain.”

Limits. Danger. Loss.

Yes.

And there are poets for whom writing is actually dangerous. What’s at stake isn’t language or emotion, but freedom (Poet Maung Saungkha was jailed because the speaker in one of his poems claimed to have a tattoo of Myanmar’s President on his penis) or even life (though it was overturned, Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh faced a death sentence for blasphemy).

Most of us, however, aren’t going to be arrested for our poems. Our risks are of a lesser variety: a pissed off ex (can I get an amen?!), a journal rejection, blank faces at an open mic. But that’s not really what’s meant by the question, “What’s at stake in the poem?”

I was first introduced to the question by Angie Estes, my poetry mentor at my MFA program. It was a question she had for me (and for lots of her students) from reading my very first packet. It took me a while to come to an understanding of what she meant. I knew that she wasn’t necessarily interested in what was at stake for my speaker but for the reader, but I struggled at first to put a finer point on it than that. I wasn’t trying to be dense, but it took me a while to step outside my work and “get it.”

Eventually, here’s what I came to: our best poems grapple with (or celebrate) something our readers can recognize in themselves… but in a totally different capacity. The “different capacity” is why I don’t simplify this by calling it universality. (I hate that concept. I really do. I feel like it’s come to mean “in common” or just plain “common.”) What I really want for my poems is to surprise the reader with a realization or connection they didn’t even imagine existed. Of course, those really great poems are rare. But at least when something’s at stake for both the speaker and the reader, we keep one hand on the idea of it. Or, at least, one hand reaching down through water trying to grab at it.

It’s elusive and squishy. And it’s part of the reason people don’t understand why we write poetry.

What’s important is that we know why. Personally, I’m after an experience. Not a recounting of an experience, but an exploration that just isn’t possible when I’m my clumsy mortal self stumbling around being an asshole (we’re all assholes), never having the right words. I’m after a brand new experience that transforms and transcends my real life and imparts me with the openness, recognition and clarity I simply do not achieve in the day-to-day.

There are some connections it’s impossible to make without poetry, and in many cases, the poems end up serving as proxies to me of the original experience. I live with them (and through them) instead of with the actual memories. That distance is typically instructive and illuminating.  And while it requires of me considerable sweat and tears (both in real life and in drafting/crafting the words), I hope the poem gives readers a short-cut to it. Or maybe a better bad metaphor would be a backstage pass: a good poem gives readers unprecedented behind-the-scenes access.

Of course, I also write poetry for reasons that are a little less rock-n-roll, reasons that are far more grounded and tangible. I write for some of the same reasons I run: it keeps me sane; it works out the kinks. I’ve got these legs that are thick and slow, but what’s at stake in the run isn’t the finish line (though we’ve been trained to believe it). What’s at stake is that we set out in the first place. We lace ’em up. Embark. Move toward. Dare!

What about you: why do you write poetry? what’s at stake in the work?

10 thoughts on “You guys, people don’t understand why we write poetry

  1. A.R. Ammons famously declared that “A poem is a walk,” and sometimes it doesn’t have to be any more than that. But sometimes we learn amazing things on a walk, as Archie did and recorded in “Corson’s Inlet”… sometimes a poem is a run. any kind of run, and you must know what I mean–a run you don’t want to take but take anyway, and feel bad at the beginning, good in the middle, crappy at the end, but somehow invigorated, and then you find the benefits are down the road. Other times it’s a perfect run. Other times you overdo it and injure yourself and it’s nobody’s fault but yours. To me, what’s at stake in running and poetry is the same — in each poem, each trip out the door, both everything and nothing is at stake. You never have an idea how that run or poem will impact you or anybody else, down the road, or a thousand years from now, or seconds after you post it on WordPress. Another great similarity between running and poetry–as George Starbuck used to say, “You’re only a poet when you’re writing poetry.” Same for running. To be it, you gotta do it. And that makes stakeholders of us all, writers and readers.

  2. I write poetry to learn something new: about the world, about language, about the way my mind works. I do like thinking of it as a daily workout (and I’ve been influenced in this by Luisa Igloria’s poem-a-day project at Via Negativa). As for walking/running metaphors, I can say that at the age of 50 I feel I’ve finally sort of hit my stride. I started writing at the age of 7, so I guess that makes me a bit of a slow learner. 🙂

  3. Great essay here… Like you, I write for the keeping-sane “non-rock-n-roll” reasons (which is also, oddly, why I attempt to play rock-n-roll on guitar) but also for the discovery and understanding that comes from exploring experience. I find that most of my poetry is in some way or another grounded in experience and comes from a need to better understand things. I’m not a runner, but much of what you wrote applied for me in cycling terms… it’s not about finishing or chalking up a certain number of miles; rather, it’s about being out there–pedaling hard or coasting–but going nonetheless.

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