The poet’s greatest treasure is a foundry of words, carved into the core of his or her being. But foundries run dry on occasion and production halts. It is then we cozy up to clichés and has-beens.
I’m sorry for that.
Yesterday, I agonized over a poem I was writing. Perhaps you read it—”When Chaos Curls.” And some moments I’ll return to it and love it, and others I will hate it. But it stays, if for no other reason than because it marks two important landmarks: my emotions while it was being written, and my capacity for writing as it was being penned. Though it may carry no weight or meaning to anyone else, it is these for me.
This past weekend, I wandered into a Tattered Cover-esque bookstore in Seattle’s Capital Hill and found a quaint anthology that I was terribly excited about—a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. As I flipped through the dash-riddled, stop-and-go verse, something occurred to me. What if, though it be beloved by many, a long-sung Dickinson poem made the woman cringe? What if it meant nothing more to her than lack and disability? For that was her landmark, though it wasn’t a pleasant one.
It goes both ways, of course. No doubt there were dog-eared pages of poetry she loved and we just couldn’t absorb. She kept them to herself, perhaps, or perhaps they were published in volumes with all the others because, well, she’s Emily Dickinson. But we get nothing from them. To her, however, they were brilliant rays of hope.
I say these things not as excuses, or as reasons why we simply haven’t fed you with the poetry you want—or any poetry at all. I say it so that you can understand. Poetry is far more sacrificial than academics would have you believe, and far more vulnerable than the author would candidly let on. If we give over a poem because it inspires you, it might well torture us. Remember that. And just because you find a poem not worth a dime or a nod, does not mean we will not hide it beneath our pillows and read it to ourselves, outloud, every night before we fall asleep. This is not love of self, but understanding of self that we trepidatiously practice.
I suppose the image of a foundry—while riveting—is not the best way to describe the inner-workings of a poet. Because we are not just a hollow factory, mechanically churning out meter by the minute. We bare our souls in words, and words gently molded to a poem. There are times the creation takes shape in a day, and times when it comes to life in a lifetime. But wherever, however these pinpricks of humanity are opened for your impression, remember they are not just words spread upon a page anymore than paint is sprawled across a painter’s canvas. They are maneuvered, considered, sculpted, crafted, and agonizingly finished in a whirlwind of hate and love. For the best poems, I am convinced, ignite neither emotion completely, but both together in some strange admixture of doubting self.
I confess I was wrong. Poetry is no product of a foundry, but, I think, the feeble voice of a narrow-minded prophet. And as we doubt, the Thomas of our hearts reveals the most powerful, beautiful compositions we can possibly create. Does it matter why? As Whitman has sung, digging deep into my wellspring of inspiration: “I am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.” I accept both vice and virtue in every ream, every stanza, every verse. And I will weave poetry until the prophet’s voice falls silent, and I have exited the world.