Sometimes I Think That This Is What It Is to Write a Poem (and at Such Times I Am, Without a Doubt, a Monster of Grandiosity)

Danielle Blau

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 161.

I’m often overcome by a weird sort of wonder at the thought that the one and only thing on Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter) which can rightfully be called “free,” is, perhaps, a poem. The sort of freedom I’m flashing on at such wonder-struck junctures is Spinoza’s—so a weird sort of freedom. “I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature,” the Dutch philosopher wrote in a letter dated October 1674 to a person named G.H. Schaller. “You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity.”

A poem, it seems clear to me when I’m in this particular frame of mind, is an enactment in miniature of Spinoza’s “free necessity,” following its own internal laws of logic, the nature of which is determined utterly and decisively by the nature of the poem, and of the poem alone. And though the poem is beholden to nothing and no one beyond its own nature, if you listen, it will tell you—its writer—where it needs to go, in its own time, in its own language.

Needless to say, you’ll have to pay careful attention, since every individual poem has its own set of laws, its own sui generis but relentless—unwavering, unassailable—inherent order. And none of what the poem is, and must be—absolutely none of it—can be assumed or inferred. The poem—like the world, for Spinoza—is causa sui: the cause of itself. It is entirely unconstrained by external forces.

The norms of narrative don’t hold—unless they do, because the poem says so, or more accurately, because the poem’s very essence necessitates them—nor do the norms of language or grammar or logic itself, certainly not logic itself. If a sentence has started, you would be wrong, as either its writer or reader, to think you can predict how it will end. You would be wrong to trust that a sentence, once started, in a poem, will end.

This is no free-for-all, though. Far from it. To say everything is permitted in poetry couldn’t be further from the truth. Make no mistake: There are mistakes. In fact, at every given moment, as you write, every choice is a mistake—except the one. And which one that is is not your choice but the poem’s. And also: It is not a choice, not even for the poem; it is a necessity.

Once a poem has conjured itself—and don’t be fooled, it has conjured itself; you, the writer, were merely incidental—there is only one place it can end, and only one path it can take to get there. Every move here is radically determined and determining. Every component is connected, and every connection is necessary.

Such is my experience, at least, when I am in the throes of poem-writing—and believe me, it is a process every bit as grandiose and without-a-doubt deluded as it sounds. What else could drive a reasonable person, a putatively reasonable person, to lose herself for hours in grave and blissful deliberation over a line break—as if it mattered, as if it objectively mattered—if not self-delusion?

But, still, I can’t help but think, I can’t help but trust, implicitly, as I write, that it is, all of it, profoundly necessary. That at the truest and most fundamental level, there is no sentence, no line, and no line break, but only one thing: the poem’s single unified explanatory system, in which each seemingly inessential detail—each sentence, each line, each line break (yes, it may well seem inessential to you, that line break, but then, as it turns out, you’re totally wrong)—is in fact a necessary implication of the entire necessarily existing implicative order of the poem itself. That every step justifies the next. That every cause has one effect. That every fact has an explanation. That the particular world of the poem, as I have laid it out, as it has confided itself to me—if I have listened intensely enough, and have assumed nothing, and have made no mistakes—is the particular poem’s only possible world.

That this is how the poem will save me.

Because when you begin to sense what it might be like to think the poem’s own thoughts—when the accidents and vicissitudes and opacities of your own personal history, of your own personality, seem, not to disappear, no, because even as you’re thinking the poem’s thoughts, the poem, of course you realize, is thinking your own; so, no, not to disappear, but to dissolve, to melt back into the poem’s diamond-hard latticework, to reconfigure in the poem’s own image, and to reemerge intelligible, meaningful, and necessary; when you can come close to this, when you and the poem seem (very nearly) to be thinking with one mind—it is something (very nearly) like freedom.

Gone, at last, is the terrible burden of choice, of weighing what appear to be equally serviceable options, of forcing yourself to make what you deep-down doubt amounts to much more than an arbitrary decision (and does the fact that it’s arbitrary even matter? You doubt it.)—and here, at last, is what you need to do instead: listen.

Pay close—excruciatingly close, exquisitely close—attention. Do not miss, or misinterpret, the secret that the poem you’re writing is trying—in its own time, in its own language, in its own voice—to share with you. No, do not, under any circumstance, miss (or misinterpret) the poem’s secret, which is no less than its own nature, its own idiosyncratic and essential ordering principle, with which it has thought—is constantly thinking—its own self into existence.                       

And so long as you do listen in the rapt, quasi-possessed manner required, then you and the poem, thinking almost as one, will know exactly what needs to be done, exactly when it needs to be done. And you will know too (and perhaps here lies the most liberating notion of all)—it will be clear beyond a reasonable doubt; there will be no more question; it will be self-evident—yes, you will know that it needs to be done.

Remember, it is the poem—not the poet—that is absolutely free. The poet’s freedom is derivative only: She is free insofar as she can get nearer and nearer to thinking the poem’s own thoughts. In other words, the poet herself is never, can never be, completely free. And so, since only the poem itself can know the whole infinite sweep of its implications, the necessary magic of poetry’s free necessity goes further still, because even as, step by step, word by word, this individual poem discloses itself—even as it pounds out the one and only possible rhythm determined by its nature, even as you assimilate its essential pulse, even as this pulse becomes your own—it will still, somehow, surprise you.

As the inner workings of the poem subsume the inner workings of your mind, the poem will nevertheless continue, with each and every necessary line, to take your breath away, to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, right up until—and well beyond—the end.


Danielle Blau’s debut full-length poetry collection, peep, was selected by Vijay Seshadri for the 2021 Anthony Hecht Prize and was published in both the United States and the United Kingdom by Waywiser Press in 2022. Her nonfiction book, Rhyme or Reason: Poets and Philosophers on the Problem of Being Here Now, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.

Art: Austin Schmid