We have a special guest blog from poet Benjamin S. Grossberg, however I know him better as Professor Grossberg from the University of Hartford's English Department. I am thrilled he agreed to share his insights for National Poetry Month. In this blog post he explores the requirements and risks of not only writing poetry, but shaping one's self into a poet.
-Maxwell Bauman, Door Is A Jar Magazine, Editor-In-Chief Editor
Because I teach creative writing, I often field questions about becoming a poet. Students ask about applying to graduate school or publishing — and sometimes they even ask about writing poems. But these questions all boil down to the same question: how do I become a poet?
There’s an easy answer, a conventional piety, “Everyone who writes poems is a poet.” I’m tempted to say it. You are already a poet, and here are steps you might take to become a better one. In some cases, that answer is true. But beyond writing a poem — or even publishing one — and beyond academic appointments and prizes, “poet,” I think, is a shape of mind, a thing you make of yourself. As much a shaping of the self as getting tattoos or body piercings, or taking on a rigorous weight-lifting routine. But more drastic than those because — in the words of Emily Dickinson — it’s an “internal difference/ Where the meanings, are.”
To become a poet, you must shape your mind as rigorously as a ballerina, an ultra-marathoner shapes the body — thousands of hours of repetitive action. These shapes aren’t conventionally beautiful; they’re actually pretty strange. But the more extreme the shaping — the more particularized the mind or body to the activity — the better you will be at it.
We know that habits of mind shape the mind, make it even likelier to perform those habits. The mind physically re-wires itself into its choices: creates more and likelier pathways — perhaps bushier dendrites. The mind of a poet may well have a particular look if you could examine it at the right level, perform some kind of MRI. No doubt the language centers of the brain would be bloated. A friend of mine, poet Gray Jakobic, once told me that the only commonality she has observed among poets is that they all love language. It turns out there are two neighborhoods in the brain, the “Broca’s Area” and “Wernickes Area,” that focus on speech and speech comprehension. We may imagine these are large, high-rent areas for a poet, brownstones lovingly restored, wide boulevards.
But beyond a love of language, what might a poet’s brain look like? It would have to have the propensity to handle a thing for an extended period. Anything. A person, a place, a narrative, an emotion, a single sense impression held between thumb and forefinger, lifted to the light, turned slowly for inspection. Is it the detail poets love, the fine sensory particulars, or is it the way that careful seeing spawns connections and associations? Careful seeing is emblematic seeing. Is there an area of the brain especially geared for emblematic seeing? Perhaps emblems are another neighborhood. In the city of a poet’s brain, maybe this would be the largest thoroughfare: the expressway that cuts across and guts other neighborhoods.
And of course there must be risks to having a poet’s brain. Those gutted neighborhoods. The propensity to handle a thing for an extended period can easily become brooding — or worse. And how does such a brain fit into our moment, when new media urges us all toward accelerating gratifications, the flash, the buzz of a phone, the “hit,” the “like”? How can a mind shaped to check email every few minutes linger in the handling of a thing? Maybe to shape your brain to be a poet is to shape it away from the trajectory of our moment, to risk alienation or outsider status.
But maybe outsider status is necessary for a poet, too — in order to get a wider, original perspective. The poet is always watching the world, and watching herself watching it. Looking for patterns. Some part of the self hanging back. Not the kids playing on the soccer field, but the one on the side lines, observing how the ball moves across the terrain pulling a clump of people behind it, like a magnet dragging iron filings. The city of the poet’s mind has very definite boundaries; it’s ringed by mountains or rivers. No bleeding into suburbs, into the minds of others.
Poets don’t fall off girders over Manhattan. We don’t get caught in burning buildings. But that shape of mind has its own occupational hazards.
Language, emblematic seeing, outsider status. No doubt there are other traits, too, resulting in a very particular mental topography: characteristic citadels and byways. If being a poet is not, finally, a manifestation in the external world, but a way you wire your mind, then the only way to become a poet is in the act of being one: writing, reading, writing, observing, writing, and lingering over words. So maybe everyone who writes poems (and reads) is a poet. Or rather, everyone who writes and reads a lot.
Benjamin S. Grossberg is the author of Space Traveler (University of Tampa, 2014); Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of the Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award; and Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2007), winner of the Snyder Prize. He has also published a chapbook, The Auctioneer Bangs his Gavel, with Kent State University Press (2006). His poems have appeared widely, including in thePushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and the magazines Yale Review, Southern Review, Southwest Review, New England Review, and The Sun.