Publishing in a journal is a pleasure. Publishing a book is a dream. But publishing should not be the primary goal of the creative writer.
This statement may sound strange coming from someone who regularly maintains that writing isn’t finished until it finds an audience. But I can’t help but feel that we rush to find our audience prematurely sometimes—and that readers would benefit more from our sustained thought and our deliberative revision more than our speed of production.
Like most writers, I can pound out something pretty respectable right now. It’s no great accomplishment to write a nice little poem. As a former journalist, one of my chief skills in life is writing four to six competent inches that will inform or entertain an audience. I worked in a daily newspaper so small that on a few occasions I had twenty stories in an issue, some bylined and some not, all written from 7 to 10:30 a.m. I wrote; I found an audience. It was all in a day’s work.
But a newspaper is a product (albeit a disappearing one), and its value is in having lots of reliable information. Go to a whole day’s worth of county commissioner’s meetings on Tuesday, a school board meeting at night, and it’s not too hard to fill a front page with a simple record of what happened.
Likewise, a little poem can faithfully record some small thing—the news of the poem being that my son’s hand looks and moves like a starfish, or that I saw the reflection of my eyelashes in my coffee and thought I saw a spider. I can write about these moments, and indeed I have written about both. If I stop at these simple observations, a memorable poem might result.
A small poem that makes meaning of simplicity is a pleasure to read, and nearly all of my favorite poems begin in this way; a lyrical poem often has some moment of observation as its jumping-off point. The poems that feel the most meaningful to me move past observation to arrive at a deeper understanding, though. In Mary Oliver’s “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” that snowy owl is “beautiful, and accurate,”
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
It’s a thing that happened, and she recorded it faithfully. Had the poem stopped right there, I would have felt rewarded by the reading. But Oliver goes much further, into the metaphysical—“the river / that is nothing but light.” She writes,
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried [….]
It’s such a beautiful experience when art feels familiar, when it seems like it’s giving language to our own half-realized thoughts. This poem by Oliver expresses my spiritual viewpoint perfectly. This is my conception of life and death, and of what we become when we’re through with our bodies. I would not have had such an astonishing sense of connection had Oliver not engaged in deep reflection. I don’t know where this poem came from or how it evolved, but doesn’t it feel like the result of deep reflection in the moment of composition, on top of what feels like Oliver’s quiet, introspective spirit?
A very small poem I admire a lot is William Stafford’s “The Little Girl by the Fence at School.” In only seven lines, Stafford offers a reflection on the nature of death. In this poem, the grass has one idea about forever and the sky has another:
THE LITTLE GIRL BY THE FENCE AT SCHOOL
Grass that was moving found all shades of brown,
moved them along, flowed autumn away
galloping southward where summer had gone.
And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped
and all became still. A girl said, “Forever?”
And the grass. “Yes. Forever.” While the sky —
The sky — the sky — the sky.
In so many ways, this small poem speaks for itself. The grass says “forever,” but the sky (the sky, the sky, the sky …) is an authority on forever, and it is noncommittal on the subject. While the poem takes up very little space on the page, it doesn’t have the feel of something that was dashed off. I just retyped the poem in less than a minute of time—so why does it feel like it took a very long time for Stafford to make it? But it does.
As I see it, there are two factors that point us toward the kind of writing that stays at the surface—that doesn’t reflect contemplation, that avoids deeper waters. One factor is a capitalistic system that forces artists to work for this week’s pay, rather than giving them space and time to create something lasting, or even eternal.
The other factor, possibly influenced by the first, is our rush to publish. The beautiful thing about publishing is finding an audience and completing the circuit from the deep understanding that happens in our notebook to the communication of that insight to others.
But we also rush for other reasons—to show our worthiness for employment, to fill a tenure file, to amass social media “likes” or shares, or to gain a higher stature as an artist.
I do it, too—I have no good reason to rush into publication except to share work and establish a little bit of a community within the relative isolation of my days—so I’m really preaching to myself here. I’d like to go deeper—maybe produce less, and maybe even end up with poems that are less pithy and that require more from a publisher. I think I’ll appreciate the results, even if I miss the instant satisfaction of the share.