Within the past few days, I've finished four new poems. All are tiny . . . and that makes me worry about falling into the old bad habits of my apprenticeship, when I would use a fluent, almost flippant, brevity to avoid facing up to the problems I needed to plumb. On the other hand, I recognize that, in my current incarnation as a writer/human being, brevity has allowed me to zero in on white space, the shape of individual words and letters, the precise placement of dependent clauses, the repetitions of sound within so-called minor words, the pitch-shifts of punctuation. It's not that I ignore these elements in larger poems: by no means. But in tiny works they become the narrative; they become the lyric.
This fall and winter I moved from copying out Rilke's poems to copying out Clifton's, and I know this shift in study has been helpful to me. I have a quicker affinity with Rilke's version of music, but Clifton's visual power has been tonic. The poems I am writing now do not imitate either poet, but nonetheless I am feeling their lessons in my writing.
The shock of our political nightmare, the shock of losing my homeland, the shock of family change: I know these backstories have jolted my imagination, wrenched my voice. I have needed to make poems that talk less. I have needed to find a way to circle the silence that exists within language and within history.
For me, writing has never been a form of therapy. I usually feel worse after I finish. Writing flays me, and the scars don't disappear. But when I try to understand what drives me forward into creation, I come back, again and again, to the fact that poetry forces me to face up to the world. It doesn't solve my terror, but it also doesn't allow me to turn away from it. And the greatest poems demand that I walk inside that terror . . . naked, with torn feet, across the stones, through the fire.
To be a poet is to be both a participant and a guide in suffering. So it's no wonder I feel ill after I finish a poem. It's no wonder that most poems, even finished ones, are flawed. The task is nearly impossible. Yet the poets keep writing.