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Every Poet's Autobiography


Historically, most poets are dead, but poetry has never missed a day. All of the poets who are currently alive and active will soon be dead, but new poets have just been born, and are about to be born.


The stages a poet (in fact, any artist) goes through will be in their own order and sequence, but there are certain circumstances that appear to be constants. These thresholds are not only crossed by artists (or the audience would never come to appreciate them), but the artists go there first, and on their own, and articulate the vistas precisely enough that others can intuit them through the distractions. The basics are as follows: At some point we all want to be like Homer and tell a great story—to entertain and instruct. At some point we walk away from our culture and even our friends and learn, like Whitman, to see with our own eyes. At some point we all, like Picasso, struggle to reconnect with the artist inside of us before we were taught how to paint. At some point we all attempt like Dante to see it all as one vision—from beginning to end. And, essentially, at every step an artist does not choose where to go so much as to refuse to go where we’re expected to go. And there’s always a belief that the artist is speaking to someone who can hear them—that in some mysterious way, the work can actually connect.


Poets don’t sit down to write poems with the poem fully delineated in their heads (at least no one I know does, or could—although I’ve spoken to Russian poets who claim, and I believe them, that they can compose long poems in their head before writing them down), which means that a poet writes a poem with an expectant state of mind, open to whatever is actually happening in the “moment of the poem”—not so much thinking as listening.


This moment is always mysterious and always a surprise when it arrives, not knowing how long it’s going to last or what we have or who is writing or where the poem is coming from or going, in a state of near-deliriousness, tying together the head and ears and eyes. The event of the poem is simultaneous to the writing of the poem, regardless if it is something experienced in the moment of writing or something brought up from memory and re-experienced in the present moment—being it and talking about it, both are useful. And sometimes poems are taken over by the words themselves—words that look or sound good together—ones that suggest each other in a constant forward motion.


A poet is not really in control of the poem but the act of discovery is in their control. A poet’s ability is like an astronaut’s—to live in an unnatural environment distant and adrift from daily life, and then to return a little bit of it back to earth.


How does a poet know when a poem begins, or ends? Often I lift my head up from finishing a poem, one that comes to a conclusion, and I’m overwhelmed with feeling and slightly dizzy, as if an electric charge has passed through me and I have been writing with fire. There are also mysterious poems in my journals that I have no memory of writing. Where was “I” when I was writing those? Where is that “I” now?


The quality of a poet is measured by their ability to give in to their highest abilities. In this the poet tries to become as empty as possible (or that is how it seems to me)—so thoughtless that we can see or hear something that is higher than thought, so empty of thought that anything that could be thought falls away, and what remains is a melody, a brightly colored ribbon twisting in the wind of the breath.


Whatever parts of my life I have not written down in my journals and poetry has essentially disappeared. Once I realized this, I began to write down whatever I wanted to remember.


Sometimes I start out with nothing particular to say other than a vague sensation, and I gather together whatever follows this sensation, and somehow this builds toward something not present when I began.


Using the past as a guide, anonyminity, poverty, and critical rejection seems to be bad for artists but good for art. Acceptance brings pressures that have nothing to do with art. An artist ignored is an artist who will set himself on fire.


Cezanne’s work, he said, was about expressing, capturing, and conveying un petit sensation. This expectation is obviously very different from and leads to a different art than Shakespeare’s. Picasso credited Cezanne with creating the modern world of painting (in retreat and in almost complete non-communication with the art world or the social world at all, really) and called him his father.


I am writing this in the almost dark in a notebook in a hotel room at 5:15 a.m. I was woken up by a dream of Maya Lin, the woman who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. In my dream, a film company wanted to release a DVD about the process of building the memorial (which, in real life, was universally criticized before it was built, and is now considered classic).  In my dream, those who had criticized the memorial’s design sought to hold up the film’s release until archival footage of their criticisms were excised. The dream was so vivid that I woke only an hour or two after falling asleep. Somehow as I lay in bed a thought appeared—the first thought that I wrote down here, without any thought of what might appear next: “Historically, most poets are dead, but poetry has never missed a day.” After that a period of laziness, and then an awareness that I had continued thinking, and then a desire to write down what I was thinking, despite the difficulties of turning on the light, finding my notebook, the pen, and keeping my eyes open. And then when the writing stopped, I couldn’t decide whether to turn off the light or to wait for what came next. Was the writing over? Between each paragraph, there is a period of darkness, when the light’s been turned off and I drift sideways into sleep.  In the silence, in the darkness, in my almost-sleep, other thoughts foliate from the first in a surprise sequence, creating the form of what is thought and thus what is written as it goes by. This paragraph, for instance, was a struggle. When did the first line begin? What really was the impetus to begin writing it down? At first I didn’t know. I knew that I noticed the process as it was occurring, and responded to it in a specific way that resulted in beginning to write down a thought or a sequence of thoughts, and that I was aware not only of the thoughts as I was writing but the process itself, how it was working on me. I remembered the dream that had woken me up, even though I didn’t know why, and that I felt a strong desire to write down my thoughts and I could only accomplish this by suspending all thought and trying to “see” my thoughts, in order to capture the precise details as they appeared until the writing was over. And I seemed to be riding a forward momentum as I was writing of something being spoken, or remembered and spoken, or remembered and spoken and written down, without really knowing why or where it was headed or where it would end. And now, doubling back, the thoughts and the writing become a description of the process of the process.


When I stop writing, like just now, it is often because of a tiredness, a desire to be done, rather than the completion of the forward momentum, rather than reaching the end. The new desire to write, this addition now for instance, comes from a similar struggle—to stop experiencing the flow as it continues, and to turn on something like a tape recorder in my head—listening and recording at the same time—and then to sit up, allowing the process to continue, the listening and the recording—not stopping it—and writing what my mind remembers and using the actual phrases that I “hear” during the process of thinking. And sometimes in writing—but not tonight—I can “wake up” out of the process itself, to where I feel I have all I need to forge a rocket and aim it directly at the moon.


To not write does not end the process.


And there’s always some part of me who just wants it to be over, to end it and be over, to have done. I write as if with a flashlight in my hand, traveling deeper into an darkened museum, moving forward in order to extend the territory of what is—for me—unfamiliar, and then to explore it until it is no longer unfamiliar—until it becomes a part of me, until it gives up its secrets, expanding my process of writing through the writing itself.



[From the author’s Washington D.C. Notebook, originally published in NHS 2006,http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs06/Roark.htm.]