Fatherly Advice


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What do you tell parents of would-be poets who worry about their children’s ability to make a living writing sonnets?
— Your father, Sierra Vista, Arizona
P.S. Do you want me to send you that law school application?

It is perfectly natural to feel the worry you express, and especially if your child is nearing the end of her MFA program that offers no job placement upon completion, but I don’t think she is relying solely on her ability to write sonnets to make her living. The great Nobel laureate, poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky makes a bold and validating claim that, in my personal experience, I have found to be true:  “The more one reads (and by extension, writes) poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be it in political or philosophical discourse, in history, social studies, or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction.”

In other words, your child’s study of poetry has equipped her with the tools to write the most effective political speeches, newspaper articles, magazine columns, textbooks, cookbooks, Choose-Your-Own Adventure novels, and yes, maybe some day legal briefs. Even with the incredible advancements in science and technology, the ancient art of the written word is still the widest and most accessible form of media. It is in demand, and unless we start communicating to each other only in numerical code, it always will be.

Daniel Pink argues in his book, A Whole New Mind, that right-brained, creative people are critical for future business. According to him, the MFA is the new MBA, so perhaps after the buffer of student loans and cheap student health insurance dissipates, your child will sell out and pursue something with a more tangible return. But do not be mistaken, she is not wasting her time. And I assure you, her creative work has met enough opposition that she can’t possibly be deluding herself.

FYI, one of my colleagues completed a post-graduate degree at Harvard and found herself desiring more, something more of the creative spirit, something more of the critical insight into humanity that the study of writing and literature can offer, so she entered our excellent MFA program. “And what was that degree?” you ask (I can hear you from here). Why, it was a J.D., a Doctorate of Law.

Aside from teaching others how to write poetry, what is the preferred profession of most people who consider themselves poets?
— Julie S., San Antonio, Texas 

Many poets also write children’s books (Luci Tapahonso, Naomi Shihab Nye to name a couple from memory), but I think many poets would prefer to be a chocolate taster.

Can you suggest some wine pairings for specific poems?
— C.K., Sacramento, California

I’d rather suggest some poem pairings for certain wines:

I think Chardonnay tastes like wood (I’m not an expert on wines, so pardon my generalizations). Who else has written of the woods as well as our own Robert Frost? In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” or especially in “Directive,” you can find a perfect pairing for this dendroidal wine: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Pinot Grigio:
Pinot Grigio is one of my favorite white wines because I think it has a smooth taste, though sometimes it’s a bit acidic. I would pick a poem that is smooth as well but offers a subtle bite of sorrow. “Eating Alone,” by Li-Young Lee is a good choice:

[…]White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

Riesling: This wine is sweet, not bad at all, and in my experience, a little bit goes a long way. I don’t know what it is about this wine that makes me feel wondrously invincible, but because it does, I feel it would be most appropriately paired with many poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, but specifically with “With strokes that ring clear”:

With strokes that ring clear and metallic, the hour
to touch me bends down on its way:
my senses are quivering. I feel I’ve the power—
and I seize on the pliable day.

Not a thing was complete till by me it was eyed,
every kind of becoming stood still.
Now my glances are ripe and there comes like a bride
to each of them just what it will.

There’s nothing so small but I love it and choose
to paint it gold-groundly and great
and hold it most precious and know not whose
soul it may liberate…

“There’s nothing so small but I love it”—I love it!

Cabernet Sauvignon:
This is pretty mild wine that I often drink because it has a good amount of tannins, which everybody says are good for you. This poem is good for you, too:

“Do you feel your age?” she asked
so I squeezed my age till it hurt,
then set it free.

Either Jim Harrison or Ted Kooser writes that poem in Braided Creek, a collection of aphoristic poems that were included in their correspondence with each other for many years.

Chianti is hands-down my favor wine, but most likely because of its associations rather than its character. I think Chianti has an inconstant flavor, but I drink it and accept it nonetheless, each sip accompanied by the vague ache of regret or nostalgia. It pairs well with “A Daughter Proposes Lithium” by Sarah Hannah, who taught at Emerson College but ended her life just last year:

The records of your rise and collapse
Are all over this place—

In the crags, the squall of gulls,
The scars on the salt-bitten tree.

If I could I would build you a wall,
Silver-white and glinting,

A shoulder for the break tide,
Like the Hindu who drapes himself

Stones for remedy.
The tree is low and gnarled.

Some days it seems staid;
Some days it terrifies.

The fact that I never studied with Sarah Hannah is truly a deep regret. Let us all raise our glasses in a toast.

If you had to write a poem using the letters in the word “poetry” as the first letter in each line of your poem, what would it be?
— Brandon C., New York City, New York

I don’t know, something weird, like:

Republic on
Your guard! • 24 November 2008