Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Against dailiness: Time and attention in poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to make some changes.
I’m trying to be kinder. Trying to watch less news. Trying to be more giving, more contemplative, more focused. Trying to soften.
I’m also trying to change the way I write, and to be gentle with myself as I do. I recently lost my friend and mentor Michelle Boisseau, a superb poet and an incomparable teacher of poetry. I was lucky enough to have her in my life for almost three decades, having met her when I was an undergraduate at Morehead State University. The first poem I handed her then was about rainbows. She handed back instruction in how to be deeply authentic—to live observantly well below any rainbow—and I was instantly hooked. That was how I began my life as a poet.
Michelle’s last advice to me had to do with my habit of writing daily poems—a practice that has been important to me, almost like meditation, for years. But a few months ago, she asked me why I was so keen on poem-a-day projects. Why didn’t I invest more time—go further in?
It had been years since my mentor had offered direction about my poems, and I wasn’t sure what to do with this guidance. Daily writing was how I worked. I specialized in small poems, sonnet-sized or below, and I labored over the page, putting hours into crafting each piece. There was nothing light about my labor, nothing throwaway about my poems, and I stand by the work. Still, I couldn’t deny it—there was something to what Michelle was telling me.
I’m realizing more and more that I have trained myself to pay big attention to small things—status updates and tweets. Magazine articles. Songs and sitcoms. Nothing in my daily life prepares me for sustained thought, and very seldom do I return today to an idea that was percolating yesterday. Each day brings some new cynosure.
Of course, we can think of many important poems that were substantively completed in a day. The Romantics offer plenty of examples. Think of William Wordsworth, practically running as he approached his door after a ramble, “Tintern Abbey” ready to spill from his head. Or think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, frantic to record “Kubla Khan” in the moments between waking from an opium-enhanced dream and the unfortunate knock on the door by that damnable Porlockian.
But my little poems about my life aren’t the same as these. Maybe they have more in common with Emily Dickinson’s work—her poems born complete on the back flaps of envelopes. I know I flatter myself with any of these comparisons, but I’m thinking about process as much as product, and of that part of writing that occurs far from the page, as we noodle and observe.
I should note that I see my friend’s advice as very targeted—a suggestion meant specifically for me, a midlife poet with a book under her belt and another on the way. This probably isn’t something she would have said to a beginner, for whom experimentation and variety can be richly instructive and rewarding. I think she was offering particular advice from a mature poet to a maturing one, and it had to do with allowing myself to follow my thoughts well into their depths, rather than staying at or near the surface.
When I first knew Michelle, she advised our university literary journal, called Inscape. It is not lost on me that the concept of inscape, that term coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is in back of her suggestion. I don’t think Michelle was telling me to labor more over prosody (although that’s not a bad idea, either). I think she was seeing the potential in me to explore the inscape of me and everything around me, and she was giving me permission, in a life built of student compositions and editing projects and PTA meetings, to probe the thingness of things, the instress.
It feels incomparably fine to be recognized as someone whose insights might matter. When I sit at my desk, though, this new challenge is a bit of a burden. I’d like to tell you the astonishing thing my young son said in his sleep, or maybe describe what the sun did to the remnants of the ice storm in the trees. These are not new thoughts, but they’re beautiful ones, and I’d like to nudge them around a bit, see where they take me. But I have something big to say, and I can’t be sure that ice-coated branches will get me there.

Of course they can. What I mean is that I’m not sure how to get to a big there from my very modest here. There’s no map, and the way is not direct. And that’s the real poetic challenge, and one I hope I’m up to—my new job is to lay down that path.



  1. I'm looking forward to seeing where this takes you, I'm glad to see new posts here.

    I didn't stay in touch with Dr Boisseau, but I'm sad that she's gone. The one reasonably decent poem I've written in my life was produced under Michelle's tutelage, in her undergrad poetry writing class at MSU. I lost it and can now remember only a couple of words and phrases.

    1. Michelle was simply amazing. She made poets. I miss her. <3

  2. So glad to read this. Now I am reflecting on my practice.

  3. Thanks for posting this! Inspiring in the New Year!