12 Things I Know about the Life of Poetry

Tony Hoagland



On your right hand side, you got your Experiencing. On the left hand side, you got the biggest girlfriend (boyfriend) you could ever want, the English Language. They are not the same. The energy of inspiration can originate from either bank of the river. After that, the one must move towards and through the other. In the making of a poem, experience must be strained through the altering membrane of language. Conversely, if the poem begins from the ingenious fabric of language itself, that language has to be stressed, brokered, swayed, battered, and transformed by the powerful presence of experience. One dimension without the other will not amount to the dramatic event of a poem. Either way, an alchemical process must occur. Otherwise there is no tension, and no magic.

The process can be represented like this:



One of the greatest virtues of poetry is that poems model the possibility of feeling all the way through an emotional process. Other poems demonstrate the act of thinking all the way through a thought or an idea. This maniacal doggedness is an essential quality of poems I care about.

Rarely in our daily lives do we manage to finish a thought or a feeling; we usually get lazy or distracted, and quit halfway through. We don't seem to have the time to complete the process, and we dislike the difficulty and discomfort of the task. We walk around full of half-finished experiences.

As a teenager I was attracted to poems because I saw that they had a stubborn tenacity; they would keep chewing on a thing, shaking it after everyone else had gotten bored and gone home. Exhaustive tenacity is one of the heroic dimensions of poetry. And it requires heroism of the writer.




Most of what passes through the mind on a given day is just garbage, the same garbage that goes through everybody's mind; and highly redundant garbage at that. Why should artists be exceptions? Petty appetite, resentments, plans, calculations, wound licking, wishes, anxieties about what will happen tomorrow, or what happened yesterday. The daydream of daily life. Of course, great poems have been made from such material. ("This is just to say," for example, or "Lana Turner Has Collapsed").

Nonetheless, the canny poet might learn to wait and watch carefully, to be selective about what to pluck from this torrent of trash. Instead of grabbing any old thing that happens to be floating by, we can cultivate our discrimination to recognize the occasional thought or observation that possesses some flavor of originality, of distinction, of an encounter which has not been told over and over again.

In fact, there IS such a thing as an uncommon thought, an uncommon perception of human nature, or even of nature itself. Every once in awhile something atypical shows up, a phenomenon no one has mentioned. Recognizing such an event when it occurs, and snagging it before it disappears downstream, might just be a great labor-saver. It may even be a kind of talent of its own.

When you observe the unfamiliar quality of a passing thought, perception, event, or feeling, attach yourself to that one, and let the rest of them go.




It is as dumb to deny the tragic character of the world, as it is to deny the necessity of hope in your account of human life.

The telling question for the artist is: what sequence are you going to arrange them in? That order of presentation says a great deal about the artist.




You can learn more from reading a single book of good poems over and over than from rushing through a shelf-full (or internet-full) of randomly selected collections. You can learn more artistically from reading a single poem many times with great attentiveness, than from reading incidentally encountered poem after poem. (See Item #3)



No one knows what a poem is.




Poetry is not a faith-based charity. If you don't understand a poem after a good hard look, or you just don't like the way it feels, that might be investigation enough.

Conversely, if you write something that can't be understood, or does not give pleasure (in one of the many ways that poetry can give pleasure), there is absolutely no reason in the world why anyone but your mother should waste their time on it.

The relationship between reader and poet, if it is real, must be reciprocally rewarding.




In the attempt to make a vocation in American letters, it is treacherously easy to become embittered, greedy, careerist, and so on. Most of us have a hungry ghost inside: if you make the mistake of over-feeding it, you may turn into a jackal, err, I mean a complete professional.

An even more sinister, possibility for poets is this: It is possible to become ironic without even noticing it. As if you had been infected by some tick bite, or drunk strontium water outside the gates of the AWP conference, clever mannerisms of voice and diction, and obliquities of structure may infiltrate your poetry with an almost inaudible scorn for experience, and emotion. Attachment of the self to the world is (and always will be) the testimony that underlies every good poem. We act so civilized, but we still thirst for the depths.

How can this contamination be prevented? Only, perhaps, by a conscious and deliberate, overt, voiced commitment to the humanist soul-preserving agenda of poetry. Your choice must be made, and reiterated. Vaccinate yourself today. Read some Emerson. If you can't say, at least to yourself, "I am on the side of the soul," you should change your vocation.




Suspect conspicuously skillful writing, or at least, don't over-value it. Good writers routinely are lost in the poppy fields of flair and facility. Soon, they don't even know what they are hiding! Eventually, often, it comes to seem that they write so well in order to compensate for having little real news to convey.

A fresh piece of emotional intelligence, a new angle or perspective offered by a poem with adequate language is worth all the exquisitely crafted language in a poem by BH or HN.




To write good poems, your life has to be difficult; or, to put it anther way, you must not expunge difficulty from your life. Fortunately, to sustain difficulty in life is not difficult. On the other hand, if your life is too difficult, or if you cultivate difficulty out of a hysterical need for it, which will not be good for your poems, or your life.




The job of a writing teacher is several-fold: First, to be a trove of information, a guide and an anthology of what exists and has been done; a reference-book, to point students towards poets, poems and poetics that might introduce them to their lineage, and save them time.

Secondly, the teacher should be a reliable mirror for the student's work, describing it back to her or him, identifying with precision its stylistic and substantive tendencies, so that the student learns exactly what it looks like to someone who has read and thought about many more poems than the one at hand.

Thirdly, the teacher holds in place a set of aesthetic positions in relation to which students may form their own identities; they may absorb, circumvent, modify, flow around, or reject the considered poetics of their teacher— the teacher provides a fully developed landmark, a prominent reference point, by which to take one's bearings. It's not that the teacher has no prejudices, or is Right; it's that the teacher holds a stable and articulated position.




You have to love Poetry more than you love Your Poetry. That way you have a hometown to go back to when you are lost, joyless, dry, and sick with the strivings of self. Big P has hot springs, and Ferris wheels, fear and trembling, motorcycle gangs and churches. It's where strangers tell you things. It's a good place to rest up and be restored. All your old mothers and uncles and girlfriends and boyfriends are still there. When my head is on straight, reading and writing make me happier than I have always been. When I am bent, and poor, and pathetic, and in need of restoration, I go back to Big P.