Life Sentences

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


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What’s the meaning of life?
— Alicia

Well, I would say it’s to write as many good poems as possible, but that’s way too predictable of me, isn’t it? That statement is true for me, or at least it fits into my own unique equation along with other variables. The meaning of life is different for each person on this planet. People who think of themselves as poets, generally speaking, want to leave a legacy, great or small. We want future generations to read our work, whether it’s one poem or 10 books of poems. Sometimes we project our meaning of life onto other beings:

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”

(James Tate)

But the truth is, that never works; everyone and everything has to discover what their meaning of life is on their own. Isn’t it irritating when you ask a question and the answer is, “You have to figure it out for yourself”? Well, that’s what I’m going to tell you. The meaning of life, for you, might be art/occupation/family/religion. It might be your morning walk through the trees. It might be your kind smile, which sets off a chain reaction each morning as you greet your coworkers. But I can’t tell you what it is.

Can I be straight with you, Alicia? I think about the meaning of life a lot, which my twisted psychology translates into thinking about the end of life. I’m not even 30 yet, but I think about death more often then I’d care to admit, in part because I worry that I haven’t left my legacy yet. I’m not as cool and collected as my column suggests — I mean, not all the time. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I read my columns to comfort myself, because I think I make a lot of sense. I’m channeling the wisdom of centuries of poets so I’m not being totally egocentric — a little bit, but not totally. “What is the meaning of life?” Walt Whitman says, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”  Enough life, enough legacy, enough meaning.  Be happy, Alicia. Breathe. • 28 September 2009