It’s the Poetry, Stupid!


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It’s my birthday. Will you write me a poem?
— Ken S., Portland, Oregon

It’s my birthday, too!  Let’s celebrate together with a heroic couplet:

This is for people whose name starts with K:
you’re getting old — you better seize the day!

Yuck, that was awful. Here’s a better one by Richard Wilbur, addressed to someone with initials very close to yours

For K.R. on her Sixtieth Birthday

Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark,
Who round with grace this dusky arc
Of the grand tour which souls must take.

You who have sounded William Blake,
And the still pool, to Plato’s mark,
Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark.

Yet, for your friends’ benighted sake,
Detain your upward-flying spark;
Get us that wish, though like the lark
You whet your wings till dawn shall break:
Blow out the candles of your cake.

Blow out the candles of your cake, Ken S.!

I just recently entered an MFA program in writing and my colleagues are so critical and mean when my poem’s up for workshop. It really hurts my feelings.
— Amy F., Houston, Texas

Don’t take it personally, Amy F. When your colleagues read your poems in workshop, it is their job to be critical. I know — it sucks, and especially with poems because those often reach so close to home. One time the poet Steve Orlen was upbraiding me for a sentimental poem (my grandpa had just died!) and I screamed, “It’s just a bad poem! Move on!” So I told myself that if Steve Orlen wasn’t giving me such a hard time, he wouldn’t have been doing his job, and he wouldn’t have been taking me seriously. I’m still a little angry about it, though, but that’s how it goes in poetry workshop. You just have to get used to it.

Donald Hall says, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.”  So you’re in an MFA program, you’ve obviously got talent. Now your colleagues are simply going to beat it out of you to see if you’re still standing. Fortify yourself, Amy F.!

I lost $90,000 out of my 401K and I’m too embarrassed to say what I have left for my retirement, which will be soon. Frankly, the economic situation’s got me terrified. Are there any sensible investments out there just waiting to be discovered?  Is there anything you can say to make me feel better?
— Dennis T., Hartford, Connecticut

Well, I can say that you’re in good company because the economy has a lot of people I know terrified, too. I don’t know a lot about money, but I really don’t think there are any wise investments out there to help you recover financially. I just think we have to ride this out. But I do know that the Dow’s cranky mood swings won’t ever affect your mind, so the wisest thing to do right now is invest in it. Instead of watching TV or going to the movies, save money and go to the library. Check out a book, maybe one of the Russian classics that everybody always said you have to read.

And isn’t that wonderful?  That we have libraries in this country, and they’re free?  Alexandria’s library is one of the best in the world, but you have to pay to get in. I know it’s bad advice to say “Look at people in (a country that doesn’t have libraries),” but hey, look at people who live in a country that doesn’t have libraries, and realize how lucky you are. Imagine not having money, not having clean water, and not having a library, or having a library full of state sanctioned books and propaganda. I’m sure you can find Shakespeare, Keats, or Yeats in your public library, and they probably have access to the Internet, so you can locate writers outside the canon. It is comforting to curl up with a good book of poetry, I know, to sit with John Keats in front of the kitchen window as dusk overtakes the day. His words offer comfort: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter.” — It’s so true, isn’t it?  You don’t really need external stimuli at all. Here are some comforting parts from “To Hope”:

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

They can take our money. They can take our houses. They can take our jobs. But they can’t take our poems!

Just yesterday I got the flu shot. But now I’m freaking out a little because I wonder if the flu shot is just a big conspiracy for the government to inject us all with tracking nanorobots, or perhaps a serum that makes us indolent and malleable to their cruel whims. Recent history supports this hypothesis. What do you think?
— Dr. Sunshine

Oh no!  You think?  If so, it’s a good thing I forgot to get a flu shot this year.

I do think you should try to get a hold of your thoughts, Dr. Sunshine. Your query reminds me of a Dickinson poem:

A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely, what it was,
Have I the Art to say.

But somewhere in my Soul, I know
I’ve met the Thing before;
It just reminded me–t’was all–
And came my way no more.

The mind is pretty amazing — it can imagine many, many things of which only a percentage are possible or even probable. Sometimes they are good things, like winning the lottery or your partner cleaning the bathroom as a surprise, but sometimes they are bad. Actually, most times they are bad. Buddhist and other eastern philosophers call this the monkey mind: The mind starts with a fairly innocuous thought, then jumps to another, and another, then finally to something that can get you into trouble. Steve Orlen has a poem called “Monkey Mind”:

When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.

I guess you and Steve Orlen should practice meditation. So should I, because I’m pretty good at catastrophizing and losing my cool. I just simply cannot think about certain things, like some of the particulars you expressed in your query. No, I cannot think about the government injecting us with nanorobots or zombie serum, nor how eloquently and convincingly you expressed this possibility, which makes me think it must be true. I mean, you said it so well that it must be true!

Thanks a lot, Doctor Sunshine: You’ve infected me with conspiracy theories. • 8 December 2008