Word Choice

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


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Only poets read contemporary poetry books, and only poets go to poetry readings. If I become a poet, will I be entering an erudite circle of writers whose only praise comes from others in that circle? I want to reach people, but how can I if nobody reads my poems, except other poets who will criticize anything I do wrong and imitate anything I do right?!  I began my first semester in a prestigious MFA program for poetry this semester, but I’m thinking I should switch genres. Help me please.
— T.W.

Do it. Yes, switch genres, because I get the impression that you are not driven by the idealism that drives most poets, and if you are running out of steam this early in the game, you will be pretty miserable later in life. Understand that I say this as an advice columnist. I want my readers to be happy and I think you will be much happier writing a novel or a screenplay because we have more tools for evaluating their success, we know how to market them better, etc., and you will ultimately receive more objective validation.

I lament losing another member of our infantry, though. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai says that poets “are the combat soldiers, the foot soldiers, of literature and art, and of life…The only ones who get hurt and hit, and wounded and killed, are the poets.” As such, poets are sometimes able to come back and tell us “much about reality.” Poets don’t concern themselves with the fact that not many people read poetry — we are driven by possibility, the possibility that our words would right some wrong, fix some ache, bring thought to a neglected subject. And despite all our wounds, we keep going back to the front lines, because we know that with every reader who pauses over a poem, every struggling student who overhears one line and remembers it and recites it to a colleague, every time we make someone’s heart go from indifferent to sad or grateful, we are taking a step in the right direction. We can’t measure it, but we believe it.

Memorial Day for the War Dead

Memorial day for the war dead. Add now
the grief of all your losses to their grief,
even of a woman that has left you. Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.

Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”
No use to weep inside and to scream outside.
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.

Memorial day. Bitter salt is dressed up
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.

The flautist’s mouth will stay like that for many days.
A dead soldier swims above little heads
with the swimming movements of the dead,
with the ancient error the dead have
about the place of the living water.

A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.

A great and royal animal is dying
all through the night under the jasmine
tree with a constant stare at the world.

A man whose son died in the war walks in the street
like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”

—Yehuda Amichai

9 November 2009