Thursday Poem: How To Be A Poet by Wendell Berry

Thursday, it occurs to me, was probably a poor choice for this weekly lark on poems. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – each of these days amount to the same kind of nothing, a kind of beige blur where nothing happens worth mentioning except, perhaps, the release of new episodes in the shows you may or may not be watching. In short, I would have oodles of time to write on those days, and yet, Thursday, the day preceding three on which I am always stupidly busy, is the one I arbitrarily chose a year ago and I’m stuck with it now. It always manages to sneak up on me, so I’m either forgetting or rushed, and neither is an enjoyable sensation; the former only stokes the constant fear I have that every moment of forgetfulness is a sign I’ll have Alzheimer’s one day, and the latter leaves me viscerally unsatisfied, unhappy that floating on the web are words of mine that do not measure up. Not to a moment’s thought.

In saying that, there is value in learning to accept your imperfection, that the words will never measure up – value in the spilling of whatever is inside without being so damn persnickety about form and style, value in trusting that quality is in the content, that your intent will come across regardless. Writing on Thursday also means that there’s no way for me to put it off, as I so often want to do when I’m sitting here, having just got home from work and 8 hours of staring at a screen, furiously typing, tired and empty and dreading continuing in the same vein on a seemingly endless loop. Which brings me to this week’s offering,  by Wendell Berry.

Generally speaking, I dislike any attempt to tell me how to write poetry. Frankly, it’s ninety nine percent nonsense – at least to me. Free verse is a wild thing and you should lose yourself in it, not take the hacked paths of others. For the formal poets out there, I reserve the one percent for learning the structures of those constraints they choose to employ. So while the title initially had me wary, I was ultimately charmed by this poem, as its advice is universal, not instructional. It begins:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity.

Sit down. Be quiet.

Just reading that is like taking a deep breath, like my whole body is exhaling to the tune of this simple truth. That is what I need more than any other thing, a place to sit, and silence. I love, too, the aside here that comes after listing what you need, “more of each than you have”. It sounds paradoxical, but I understand exactly what he means here. Or at least, I have derived two meanings from it. The first is that you never seem to have enough of any one element to do what you need, to achieve what needs to be achieved, and the second is that you succeed anyway. When I sit down and I am silent and it seems the world is silent too and words pour out, I am as close to thoughtless as a sleeping man – no, more, because even in sleep you think in the form of dreams – just following one word to the other, not knowing what is being written under the word is there, startling in its permanence, and then when it’s over, I sit and read the poem…

And think, where the fuck did that come from? Sometimes, with reflection, it becomes clear but I am often surprised by the affection or the knowledge or the skill – shocking, I know, but I sometimes think well of what I write – that is on display. The hope, and the love too. I think, ‘I didn’t know I had that much of it in me.’ And so, the line that to be a poet you must rely on more than what you have, to me, is quite telling, in that you don’t have it until the moment you reach for it, and find it is there as it perhaps always has been, merely waiting for you to bother to stretch. What else do we need, Mr. Berry? Work, he says, and time, and patience. Yes, yes, and yes.

Work and time need no explanation; age and discipline in concert produce wonders. Patience, however, is most important of all I would say. Poetry is ninety percent waiting, ten percent writing, I have found. I can’t say I’m entirely patient enough yet, I’m still irritated when I have a thought or feeling lurking around in my chest, and want so much to get rid of it, but can’t, knowing it will only be spoiled if I jump the gun, that if I just wait long enough it will gestate and emerge the way it is supposed to…And so have to spend days, sometimes weeks almost physically uncomfortable, until I can sit and be quiet in such a way as to work with it. Suffice to say, even knowing that, I fuck up plenty of times. I did it just the other day in fact. Now I have three useless lines lying around, which burns me all the more because they were good lines and they have been wasted.

I’ve only spoken about the first ten lines and somehow this is already a thousand words, so I’m going to shut up now, especially as this is only a short poem, and I’m sure you know by now how I feel about giving it all away. Go, read it here. It is good advice and I only wish I had read it sooner.

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