Friday, May 26, 2006


American Life in Poetry: Column 061


Everywhere I travel I meet people who want to write poetry but worry that what they write won't be "any good." No one can judge the worth of a poem before it's been written, and setting high standards for yourself can keep you from writing. And if you don't write you'll miss out on the pleasure of making something from words, of seeing your thoughts on a page. Here Leslie Monsour offers a concise snapshot of a self-censoring

The Education of a Poet

Her pencil poised, she's ready to create,
Then listens to her mind's perverse debate
On whether what she does serves any use;
And that is all she needs for an excuse
To spend all afternoon and half the night
Enjoying poems other people write.

Leslie Monsour's newest book of poetry is "The Alarming Beauty of the Sky" (2005) published by Red Hen Press. Poem copyright (c) 2000 by Leslie Monsour and reprinted from "The Formalist," Vol. 11, by permission of the author. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.


Blogger Amy said...

Yes, the point of this poem is well taken on me. I do most of my poem writing during the summer, and spend the winter months revising them and reading other poetry. Perhaps I spend more time reading than I should, but I still think that poets, by and large, don't read enough poetry. Maybe I'm just overcorrecting. :-)

4:21 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Michael Parker said...

This is very good message to remember. Haven't we all been here?

11:15 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Carter Monroe said...

I don't see how one can spend too much time reading poetry unless the reading is redundant. Meaning, reading the same books or same authors or same basic styles over and over. This includes that legion of poet makers out there who spend too much time reading their own work. I can, however, very strongly identify with reading as an escape from one's perceived personal responsibility to write.

There's a difference between being serious about writing poetry and writing serious poetry. It's always struck me as being somewhat of a paradox that the most obscure musicians, even with severely limited talent, have massive and encompassing music collections. Yet, there are people who write poetry on forums all over the web who have yet to climb out of the Plath jar so to speak.

I commented recently in a discussion thread started by Pris Campbell titled "Poets, who are our readers" and addressed this subject. One idiot, who actually edits an online journal, took me to task for opining that it is damned near impossible to write good poetry if you don't really know what it is. He postured that "some" reading was necessary, but in the scheme of things paled in comparison to life experiences. Well, everything is a life experience. There's no way to halt experience. Reading is an experience.

I guess the difference between the art of music and that of writing lies in a kind of technical definition. You can hate a song, but know that the guitarist is an excellent musician. Such a recognition is not always the case when being introduced to a new poet or a new style of poetry and the reason is likely due to the fact that whatever rules abound in terms of free verse can be viewed as being almost as subjective as the personal taste of the reader.

Ultimately, I don't see how anyone can grow as a writer without at least trying to grow as a reader. This exemmplifies the double-edge sword of the web in that too often we simply wind up reading each other too much and ignore everything else.

5:44 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Pris said...

An interesting discussion. I find reading essential, too, and try to balance my time. I also find the novels of Alice Hoffman a huge inspiration in my own style of writing, since most of her prose sections read like poetry. I just read the Pulitzer Prizewinning book of poems by Claudia Emerson, too, and she sings!

5:58 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger J.B. Rowell said...

Thanks all,

Yes, Michael, that poem hit home. I definitely need to read more poetry, and more of a variety. I also need to do more of my own writing. My trouble is how to keep them from overlapping, and not let one be a distraction from the other. Any tips on how to do that?

I like how your routine seems to be seasonal, Amy, is that because of a job and/or school? Also - book, poet, and poetry recommendations are most welcome - please share!

Alice Hoffman and Claudia Emerson are a great start - thanks Pris - I've been meaning to order Emerson's book - is it still back ordered?

And Carter, thanks for your thoughtful comment, I think there is a balance of reading and life experience needed, but then again, there are plenty of poets with mostly internal experiences who write amazing poetry - but a poet must be well read.

I'm realizing I need a reading list for this summer - help!

11:11 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger Pris said...

Hi Julia
I was fortunate with Emerson's book. She grew up in Chatham where a friend of mine raised her family and knew her. She's since returned to live there and so got me an autographed copy even before it's nomination. So, no idea about the backordering. It's really an excellent book. That and one by Sharon Olds have been among the most recent I've been through several times.

For your reading list are you looking for light to medium reading as a break, along with more serious novels? Harry Crews is a very strange writer, but fascinating and has steady followers. I found one of his books in the eighties and became a fan. For lighter, but well written, Patricia Cromwell's series on the medical examiner are a cross between fascinating detail, good plot and writing, and relationships woven in. Sue Grafton's alphabet series has been good up until her last ones. And darn, am blanking on his name, but if you haven't read Jitterbug Perfume and/or Even Cowgirls get the Blues, he's another fascinating writer. More mainstream, but offbeat, too.

7:53 AM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger Carter Monroe said...

Heck, just drive down to my house one day and go through the stacks and take what you want.

12:41 PM, May 29, 2006  

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