As writers and artists we all know that it is important to talk craft with those who practice our same discipline, and to get the perspectives of those who have been creating long before we have.
About seven months ago I sent Mary Oliver (the poet who has the biggest influence on my writing) a letter. Three months passed…. nothing. After a few months and a new apartment, I grew concerned that she might have sent a response to the old address; I wanted to make sure she had the new one, so I wrote her again. Three months passed…. still nothing.
However, I didn’t get discouraged. I know that she gets hundreds of letters and mine was just another one added to the stack. Anyhow, I continued to read. I continued to dive into book after book of poetry, until I came across the poem, “The Lullaby,” which deeply moved me. It is a poem by one of my favorite poets, Richard Jones. Again, I wanted to make a connection, I wanted to learn from a fellow poet whose work I look up to, so I wrote him.
Four days passed and I received a kind reply, which has developed into a frequent correspondence. Richard thanked me for my letter and was delighted to discover that he was on my family tree of poets. At the time I had been working on my M.F.A. thesis, and through it, discovered that Richard is a poetic family member of mine. I asked him if I could ask a few questions about poetry, and he encouraged me to write back and that he would answer them, so I did. On May 19th I received this lengthy letter with all of my questions answered. This is the advice Richard gave me, and that I now give to you. Enjoy!
Reflective and universal—that’s a good way to think about poetry. And I agree that poems should not be fancy, but clear. That said, I’d include Gerard Manley Hopkins in the group of poets who are not fancy but clear. The poems should still be musical, after all. That’s what attracts the ideal reader—the sounds first, then secondly the sense of things, the story. That’s why “even the most basic reader” can pick up a poem and read it and become one with it. The poem is always both “intimate and public.” And reading poetry is certainly not a matter of education, or even “liking” poetry. The poet writes for himself and for everyone. It’s a matter of writing the poem with God-given power, which is available to everyone—imagination and heart.
Mystery is a good word, and a good thing. But maybe we’ll leave it at that. Mystery is everything the poem doesn’t say, but points to. It’s worth embracing, even if you can’t get your arms around it.
Teaching poetry, as you say, is about helping us understand the mystery of our humanity. It’s a noble path, teaching, but difficult. Always remember that your task is to humbly lead, not to comfort or reassure.
My pointers for being an artist? That’s a good question. Looking back over the years as an older man, I’d recommend (who said this, I think it was Milton?) that a poet should drink pure water from a wooden bowl. Abstain, if you can, from those things that harm your thinking and your physical well-being. Auden said to keep a garden and learn foreign languages. That makes sense to me.
I write for a whole complex of reasons. I once wrote to find my way or as a stay against madness; now I write because I accept that it is what I've been called to do. And God is sweet to let me write just for the simple and childlike joy of making a new thing out of nothing. Poetry is work: it takes me a very long time to make a poem, years, so I find that poetry is humbling, which is something I need because I am a prideful man and it's a good thing to be taken down a couple of notches by poetry. I certainly don’t write because I have “something to say,” as I have too great a regard for simple silence—which is much harder to come by these days than yet another poem.
Your question about favorite poets is one we all ask. We like to share reading lists. Whose on your list? Poets in translation have always been important to me. The modern Polish poets. The ancient Chinese. Neruda, Cavafy, Transtromer. Rilke. Milosz. There are so many!
As for reading, I very much like short stories and good non-fiction. My two favorite books: the dictionary and the Bible.
Thanks so much for being patient with me—spring has brought a thousand little errands along with its ten million dandelions, but everything is fine here, as I hope it is in your world.
Wishing you all the best,