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The Writer at Work

W.S. Merwin wrote in a poem that he once asked John Berryman how you can ever be sure that what you write is really any good, to which Berryman responded that you can never be sure, you can die without knowing, if you have to be sure, don't write (Berryman). Berryman may not be the best person to cite on this or any other subject in 2021. He was denounced in The New York Review of Books for writing in blackface as Henry's alter ego Mr. Bones in The Dream Songs ('The Roots of Our Madness'). Minstrelsy, writes Kamran Javadizadeh, associate professor of English at Villanova, "supplied Berryman with a ready-made racialized structure within which he could stage the dramas typical of confessional poetry, which tried to unsettle the 'stifling' decorum of midcentury poetry." More than any of his peers, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, W.D. Snodgrass, Berryman made explicit the racialization of the turn toward personal poetry "and the whiteness of the lyric tradition for which confessionalism seemed the culmination." Berryman began writing the poems that make up The Dream Songs in the 1950s. They were collected and published in 1969. No matter. He is a candidate for the cancellation index. Expurgation is in order. Cleanse the canon. Ahem.

I was introduced to Berryman in the late 1970s by a poet friend who was attracted to a poetics of self-destruction that found expression in the lives and works of Berryman, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz. I read and liked The Dream Songs, and returned to them from time to time, blissfully unaware of my complicity in racism. Along the way I picked up enough of Berryman's life story for a capsule bio note but little more than that. For all I know he could have been a virulent racist. I did not find that in the poems when I first came to them, nor do I find it there now. Mr. Bones provides wry commentary on Henry's flaws and failings, which are many, in a diction and idiom associated with black culture and jazz, borrowed by the author and put to his own use as poets and artists have always borrowed from other cultures and milieus, a notion that has been displaced in our time by the concept of appropriation with its derisive and dismissive connotation.

The confessional poets and my friend's pantheon were not part of the tradition I looked to as I was developing a sense of myself as a poet. My debt was to a bohemian, countercultural tradition that ran through Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and a diverse bunch associated with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s. Unsettling the stifling decorum of midcentury poetry was part of that program too. Rexroth begins a chapter in his survey of American poetry in the twentieth century with a paraphrase of the Communist Manifesto: "a spectre has haunted American poetry for over half a century, the obstreperous presence of Ezra Pound." As William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg's Howl:

We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own—and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and affrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem.

Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.

Rexroth was not one to hold back on the subject of race and racism in American poetry and culture. In a book published in 1971 he takes note of "Black critical standards and the mystique of Black aesthetics…the popularity of the notion that white people cannot possibly understand African sculpture, jazz and gospel music, and Black literature." Acknowledging the insistence of black poets upon being treated as essentially a cultural expression of a conquered territory within the borders of the United States, he concludes that it is best to treat black poets in a separate chapter instead of discussing them as they occur chronologically or in literary schools, on equal terms with everyone else, no need to mention their color, as would ideally be the case.

Taking America's racial history into account does not entail watering down critical standards:

in a country where white faces are used to advertise everything and white figures are the model of status and prestige, and writing, painting, and music by white people are presented to everybody indiscriminately as examples to be imitated, it is essential that the American Black, whose sense of identity and cultural rootedness were crippled by slavery, should regain that confidence which comes from a sense of community and continuity. On the other hand negritude is no excuse for poor work, cheap melodrama, sentimentality, and sterile propaganda, however militant. Vicious anti-Semitic doggerel is vicious doggerel, whether it's written by a Black American or a White German or by Ezra Pound or e.e. cummings.

It is worth nothing that his verdict on the reactionary cranks known as the Fugitive poets, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, et al., was equally blunt: they were "fugitives from every aspect of modernity, philosophical, social, literary, political…militant defenders of the Myth of the Old South, long since debunked by Mark Twain as a pipe dream resulting from falling asleep over the novels of Sir Walter Scott."

I could find only one mention of Berryman in American Poetry in the Twentieth Century and there he is only named with no discussion of his writing. When asked elsewhere about Berryman (Conjunctions:1 An Interview) Rexroth replied only that he did not care for him and had never been able to read him. No mention of Mr. Bones and black idiom. It is fair to question whether Rexroth's assertion that writing, etc., by white people is presented to everyone indiscriminately as models to be imitated holds true today as it did fifty years ago. One need only read The New York Review or tune in to National Public Radio to find an abundance of evidence that it does not. Ah, but I digress. This is a rant for another day.

The relevant point for today's exercise is that you never know if it is any good. An outsized portion of my sense of self-worth is wrapped up in keeping faith with that dream of being a poet I had when I was nineteen. It does not take the second coming of Sigmund Freud to suspect that this may not be conducive to psychological well-being, however one may define that slippery concept. This is fertile ground for the self-doubt that was part of my makeup coming out of the cradle. At a point in my career when it is only natural to look back and take stock, I find that as Ezra Pound put it, "my errors and wrecks lie about me." Yet I have kept at it, which not everyone does, and written a few poems that I believe are almost pretty good, a few poems that mean something to a few people. These thoughts pull me back from the abyss.

Conventional markers of accomplishment, books, publication in prestigious journals, awards, prizes, popularity, are all conspicuously absent from my resume. Does their absence count for nothing? Maybe it counts for little. There is an honorable tradition of poets who remained under the radar in their lifetimes. Whitman was self-published, as was Blake before him. Emily Dickinson took a dim view of publication, calling it "the auction of the Mind of Man." Conversely, there are legions of acclaimed poets, winners of prizes, celebrated by Oprah, whose poems do not speak to me, which is not to say that I do not acknowledge the talent and accomplishment of some of them.

The questioning does not stop at wondering if the writing is good. I must ask also if I have authentically kept faith with that dream, if I am more than a poseur or dilettante or even an earnest scribbler of no particular distinction. It took a long time for me to grasp the scope of my ambition. I want the poems to be good or at least of some particular distinction. For a long time I thought of going to my desk as a trope for hacking away at the writing work, be it poem, essay, or the occasional foray into fiction. Putting in the time is keeping faith. So is cultivating the sensibility that sends me to my desk and in the best moments breathes life into what comes from it. Each is sine qua non.

The imperative to go to my desk regularly is not to be confused with the bourgeois requirement to go to the office daily for eight hours of work for pay. Any likeness is only superficial. Nonetheless I sometimes think in those terms as I try to assess my diligence and discipline as a writer, more so since retirement in August 2017 brought the obvious opportunity to put into the writing the time and effort once devoted to wage work. At the office performance is evaluated via metrics conjured by sorcerers in human resources. These past few years I have gotten in the habit of tracking word and page counts and submissions to poetry magazines as objective indicators, metrics of a sort, that I am indeed going to my desk, putting in the time, keeping faith. As with conventional markers noted previously, these metrics may count for something. But what and how much? They are silent on the issue of quality.

And what if this line of thought puts one on the wrong track altogether, duping the poor writer with the fancy that he, she, it, they, or some other pronoun is getting somewhere? Poetry work is not akin to bourgeois work in the office, much less proletarian work in the factory or peasant toil in the field. What then does it mean to speak of the writer at work?

"There are no capable poets!" said Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), perhaps the premier Russian poet of her era:

Either someone's a poet or not! It's not the kind of work where you get up early in the morning, wash, and sit down at the table: Well, let's see, I'll immerse myself. Poetry is a catastrophe. Only in this way can it be written. If not this way—the reader will immediately understand this and feel it!

Poets, she asserts, are not professionals like painters, actors, singers. "They sit and fish; perhaps once a century they will catch something. They mainly fish for only an intonation; everything else is there…. If a poet wrote a poem today he has no idea whether he will write one tomorrow or ever again."

Poetry is a catastrophe. What a thought! If a poet wrote a poem today he has no idea whether he will write one tomorrow or ever again. What damaged soul would look to poetry for a sense of self-worth if this be so? Not that it is a matter of looking or choosing. "If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn't to blame" (Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871). Either someone's a poet or not.

Work on an essay such as this one or the tentatively finished poem Letters from an Obscure Man, presently in search of a publisher, cannot be reduced to the physical act of writing. The pen is taken up when thoughts, themes, images, fresh points of departure occupy me throughout the day while reading something perhaps altogether unrelated, walking, running along the riverfront, taking in the view looking west from the Mt. Tabor reservoir, lying in bed at night unable to fall asleep. Sometimes I make note of them. Others I trust that memory will not betray me. These are more than merely passing thoughts. This too is the writer at work.

My maxim is to read a lot, think a lot, write a lot. One great article of faith is that there is no one right way to go about it, not even going to my desk or to a café and putting pen to paper. There are all manner of ways to do it. Wordsworth wrote poems and Nietzsche books during long walks. Rimbaud said that he witnessed the birth of his thought: "I look at it. I listen to it: I give it a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths or comes bursting onto the stage." William Faulkner offered a more prosaic formulation: "My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey."

A story related by André Breton has it that the French Symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux (1861–1940) had a notice posted on the door of his manor house every evening before he went to sleep: THE POET IS WORKING.

As for painters, they may not always be as professional as Akhmatova suggested. It was said of Magritte that on occasions he would put down his brush "and run frantically to the brothel." When asked by an interviewer what he did when he did not feel like painting, Miro said that he always felt like painting. "When I stand in front of a canvas, I never know what I am going to do—and nobody is more suprised than I at what comes out." (Morris, Lives of the Surrealists)

I have never been adept at developing and working from an outline. An idea, a subject, a theme, comes to mind. For a poem it may no more than a few words, an image, a phrase, an inkling. I make notes and record early thoughts. For days I may agonize over the first sentence or the first line of poem that will kick off the actual writing. At some indefinite point a vague critical mass comes together and I leap into it with only the fuzziest notion as to where I might land. From there it is a matter of writing, revising, rewriting, and rewriting some more until an endpoint as satisfactory as I can make it is reached. Even then it is always subject to revision.

Akhmatova wrote that it was impossible to determine when she began to hear A Poem without a Hero within her:

It may have begun when I was standing with my companion on Nevsky Prospekt (after a dress rehearsal of The Great Masquerade, February 25, 1917) and a Cossack calvary charged down the road, or once when I was standing alone on Liteiny Bridge and it was raised suddenly, in broad daylight (an unprecedented incident), to let a minesweeper proceed to the Smolny in support of the Bolsheviks. I really don't know.

In 1940, more than two decades after she began to hear the poem, she started writing it.

Then…I completely stopped writing poetry, but nevertheless, in the course of fifteen years the Poem would unexpectedly overtake me again and again, like an attack of some incurable disease (it happened everywhere—during the music at a concert, in the street, even in my sleep). More than anything it tormented me in Leningrad in December 1959, turning again into a tragic ballet, which is obvious from my diary entries (December 13th) and the stanzas about Blok. I could not tear myself away from it, and was continually adding to and revising something that was to all appearance finished.

She continued to rewrite and edit A Poem without a Hero into the 1960s. It was published in 1965.

Thinking finds its way. The path is seldom straightforward or clear of debris. This essay has been with me in shadowy form for several weeks. It began to come together over the past few days. Yesterday I went at it almost as if I were back at the office putting in a full day, maybe even some overtime, chained to my desk. I feel good, almost exhilarated, when this happens.


  • Anna Akhmatova, My Half Century: Selected Prose, ed. by Ronald Meyer, Ardis Publishers, 1992

  • André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), in Manifestoes of Surrealism, The University of Michigan Press, 1969

  • William Faulkner and the Art of Fiction No. 12, interviewed by Jean Stein, Paris Review, Spring 1956

  • Kamran Javadizadeh, 'The Roots of Our Madness,' The New York Review of Books, April 6, 2021

  • Desmond Morris, The Lives of the Surrealists, Thames & Hudson, 2018

  • Kenneth Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Herder and Herder, 1971

  • Rexroth interview conducted by Bradford Morrow, Conjunctions:1

  • Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, tr. by Louise Varese, New Directions, 1946

  • William Carlos Williams, Introduction to Howl, 1956

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