This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.
But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.
For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.
It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.
I. The Craft of Humility
I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.
I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.
Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.
II. The Craft of Love
Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.
I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.
We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.
Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:
But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.
Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.
That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).