It took me a long time to learn how to write prose about poetry. In large part this was because, like many of you, I had grown up in an education system that encouraged me to think of literature as something separate from myself rather than something that I could engage with personally and idiosyncratically. I knew as a reader that poetry could change me as a human being, but the English papers I wrote in high school and college ignored that inner knowledge. Instead, I worked to convince myself that cool objectivity and critical analysis were my true nature and that my passion for literature was sober and precise rather than mutable and intoxicating.
I have come to understand that writing essays about poetry is a way to articulate links among reading, reaction, inspiration, and daily life. Essays don’t need to be analytical pieces written to impress a teacher with the breadth of my knowledge. Rather, they can help me clarify and expand my personal relationship to the art.
In the two essays anthologized in this chapter, I write about a single poet, William Blake, yet the pieces cover different ground. In the first, “For the Eye altering alters all,” I imagine how Blake might have responded to one of my own poems. This was a nerve-wracking assignment: it is always difficult to give myself permission to speak to a great poet as a colleague. But it also pushed me to look closely at the similarities and differences between our styles, to consider what I trusted and did not trust in the work we were doing as poets. Unlike my discussions in part 1 of this book, which focused on elements of language, the essay takes up broader questions of morality and responsibility, referring specifically to the central Blake poem in this chapter, America: A Prophecy.
The second essay, “Blake the Terrible,” considers the two best-known Blake poems in the canon, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger,” in the context of my own life history. For me it’s been important to articulate the power of personal reactions to literature. Like scholarly analysis, this is a form of critical thinking: a route to discovery, a forum for asking questions and drawing conclusions. Likewise, I think it’s important to engage with literary stereotypes. I know both of these Blake poems so well that I found it challenging to look at them with new wonder. But when I pressed myself to do so, I also found that I was reexamining my own perceptions and motivations.
[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)