This week’s Poetry Tuesdays guest, Tobey Hiller, has published three volumes of poetry - Crossings, Certain Weathers (Oyez, 1980 and 1987) and Aqueduct (Clear Mountain Press, 1993) – as well as a novel. David Meltzer says of her work, “A clear impassioned intent underlies the work as a whole. . . and a faith in the poem to resolve or resolve or be present as a witness to what’s gone and yet remains to be cherished. . . Here is the lyric of accomplished grace and concern, [the poems] insist their music against the on-going emptying-out of language our era contends with daily.” Happy poetry month! – Meg
Hmmm. How do poets get started? (What a wonderful topic.) Or, what starts people writing poetry? Or, what makes poetry inhabit people? Because writing poetry is, often enough, like being seized, requisitioned, or made into a channel, isn’t it? Anyway, this form of the question—how did that weird, insatiable muse get a hold on you—is a slightly different one from who encouraged you, what the home context around you was like, and how you managed—usually by hook or by crook—to get your first poems, or your first book, published. (A whole other topic that people have already written about, quite well, here.)
Often enough, it’s true, poetry erupts when you get squeezed into a corner—it is a bounded form, after all: children take over your heart and your life, life itself dictates a small space in which to move emotionally or politically (Emily Dickinson, Czeslaw Milosz), or the patterns of life, in their iron and their comfort, hold you tight (ritual writings, ballads, psalms, chants, etc.) Or, conversely, poetry happens when you feel that a small space (your life) has erupted into a huge and paradisical or hellish one (you fall in love or into a new culture, say, or you contract a dread disease or lose someone you love). Almost everyone wants to write poems when love or loss arrives. Something calls for song. Or keening. Something calls for language shaped to a winged form.
And then there’s just plain yearning. The indelible life experience that seems to accompany consciousness.
when wilt thou blow,
that the small rain down may rain.
Christ that my love were in my arms,
and I in my bed again.
(Anonymous, 16th c.)
So I think—at least this is true for me—that what starts people writing poetry is the desire to connect, both to others and to the life moment in question, to embrace (perhaps not to pin down as in Nabokovian dead butterflies but to hold lightly, with a breeze coming off) some moment or experience in all its spectrum and color, even horror, but yet somehow efficiently, somehow shorthand (“No layoff/from this/condensery” says Lorine Niedecker) and have other people, who have similarly felt whatever it is, recognize, by the lifting of the hair on the backs of their necks, the “we” and the “I” –the familiar and the unique—in the poem.
And for me, writing poetry has always been a way to observe, worship, name, work through, map the world in its rock, tree, city, water, song, people form and complexity, in words that, when I can manage it, convey the ineffability of the connection between one form and another, between the moment of experience and the source of the experience, between the mind and the stuff out there, between the wave lapping the shore and the gentle sound caught in my own ear. Most of it’s not good enough; some of it seems to come from somewhere else, and so a certain sort of humility is necessary when confronted with a good poem. But sometimes, for all of us, it seems that only poetry—words strung in a necklace not quite meant for narrative, almost meant for song, particularly suited to our quirky, questioning, linguistically fascinated species—will satisfy us. Like dance, it’s something we take up, writing or reading it, when the music—or the cacophony—happens and nothing but a certain kind of movement, an articulate breathing, will do. – Tobey