Advice and insight from a professional poet.
— A.K., Lincoln, Nebraska
A.K., you owe Dana Gioia no more royalties than you owe to the parent who taught you how to write a grocery list. Gioia uses the sestina form in an effective way that inspires you to write one — he didn’t invent it, just like your mom or dad didn’t invent the grocery list. But their version of the grocery list, the separation of fresh produce on one side and toiletries and paper products on the other side, just makes so much logical sense that you’re inspired to do the same thing. Poets are always happy to hear that they’ve inspired someone — that’s the real royalty. So don’t worry A.K.: You’ve paid up.
I've been trying to prove Fermat's last theorem: If an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c. Can you help me out?
— MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts
“You are not the first/ to ask me to describe this darkness,/ it is the job I’ve never wanted but/ am always overqualified for...”
Of course it has no solutions! A poet can write 14 lines of iambic pentameter in a predetermined rhyme scheme, but still not find a proper solution to a sonnet. She can repeat the first line and third line of the opening tercet in the appropriate pattern in each successive stanza and still not find a proper solution to a villanelle. MIT, you already know why Fermat’s theorem is true; you just need a little persuasion to prove it.
First of all, MIT, I commend your task, it being of existential importance. When I look at Fermat’s theorem, I, for one, get angry: an + bn = cn has no solution when integer n is greater than 2 — that hardly seems fair! I mean, do we really need more messages in our lives that tell us we’re inadequate just for being bigger and older? That we will have no solutions after we’ve had more than two drinks at happy hour? What is going to stop us from severing off appendages in an attempt to make us more solvable? The answer is you, MIT. You must descend into the darkness, prove the theorem, and show the rest of us the light: The wonder of mathematics makes it true, no sub-text attached.
If this new sense of urgency doesn’t help you, my advice is this: Drink some Chianti, take a nap, dream yourself doing impossible acrobatics, then rise with a new clarity. Take it one step at a time. If you haven’t found a solution in a couple of years, you need to shake up your brain some more. Read poems that are so incomprehensible that they leave you flabbergasted, like poems in an unknown foreign language or maybe some by John Ashbery, and you will be hungrier than ever to return to Fermat’s theorem.
I hope that helps. I don’t know that much outside of my discipline, “being/ too zealous and confused just as scientists,/ after introducing electrodes into the monkeys’/ diencephalons, still don’t know if life/ is suffering therefore beautiful or/ life is beautiful therefore we must suffer.” (Dean Young, “Not in Any Ha Ha Way”)
I have been dating the same woman for more than four years. Most people would be engaged or at least considering marriage at this point. However, she doesn't even really want to talk about it. How can I move our relationship to the next level? What would a poet do in this situation?
— J.O., Tucson, Arizona
I have a question for you, J.O.: Must you marry her to move the relationship to, as you say, “the next level”? I don’t think so, but I’ll get to that in a moment. As to what a poet would do in your situation, poets usually cope to a less-than-desirable romantic situation in the following ways:
1. Heavy Drinking: This has been the preferred coping strategy of poets in response to love’s tribulations. Edgar Allen Poe took to the bottle after his wife’s death in 1847. John Berryman would drink until his marriage failed, drink some more, then marry someone else. Bukowsky started drinking at the tender age when his acne started driving away potential lovers, and after many failed romances, he eventually married, so maybe it worked for him.
2. Suicide: Poets are fond of this strategy, too. According to legend, ancient Greek poet Sappho jumped to her death when her love rejected her. Chinese poet Gu Cheng was so obsessed with his wife that he became jealous of their nursing baby, putting the baby in the care of a nurse. Then he killed his wife before hanging himself in 1993. Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky reportedly left this note before he shot himself in 1930: “The love boat has crashed against the daily routine. You and I, we are quits, and there is no point in listing mutual pains, sorrows, and hurts.”
(If you want to behave as a poet, don’t do the above two things. Keep reading…)
3. Eternalizing the Muse. This strategy is the only one I endorse, its most prominent examples being in the work of Dante Alighieri, who met his love Beatrice at the age of 9, but was betrothed to marry someone else. He loved her from afar all his life, and even more so when she died at 24, serving as his inspiration for La Vita Nuova, a series of poems which recount his love at first sight, his mourning over Beatrice’s death, and his determination to eternalize her in literature. Later, Dante eternalizes her as the character who guides him through heaven in La Divina Comedia.
So, J.O., as Dante moves through nine levels of hell to eventually reach his love in heaven, I think you can move your “relationship to the next level” by doing the same thing. Of course, you would need to contemporize the poem and probably use an Arizona setting. Why don’t you write her an epic that realizes this: a voyage that begins through a pit of rattlesnakes in the Sonora Desert mid-June and reaches your love via the purgatory of Phoenix in an air-conditioned café in Flagstaff? Let me know how it works out. • 10 November 2008
Kristen Hoggatt lives, works and writes in Boston, where she is also pursuing her MFA at Emerson College. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.