First things first, I’d like to tell you how perfectly delighted I was to receive your letter. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, and am deeply humbled by your faith in my ability to assist you, like Rilke in his letters to his own young poet counterpart. In all honesty, your questions were some that I have grappled with for many years. Ever since I first began my voyage into poetry, in fact, and I suspect that I will continue to chafe inwardly over them as long as I remain involved with that elusive spirit-inamorata. The thing about your questions, is that they are so broad in scope, with convoluted depths and ambiguous connotations. Your questions, Sir, such as “What is poetry?” and, “Why Poetry?” are tantamount to those age-old philosophical queries regarding the definition of existence and the meaning of the universe. Nevertheless, I will do my utmost as I attempt to address them.
The question of what poetry actually is, is somewhat of a nonstarter to me. By definition, poetry is undefinable. I remember my first years of college, and subsequently my first years as a writer. I had been writing as a hobby since I was thirteen, mostly amateurish garbage, but I thought it was good enough at the time to keep doing it. I finally reached the point where I began identifying myself as a writer—there was nothing else in the world that I could imagine doing, nothing else that I wanted to do. This is the first step to becoming a poet, or, really any writer. As Rilke himself said, “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write” I discovered that I would, that my soul was itself imbued with a craving for the caress of the Muse.
However, at this point, and even through the first semester of my third year as a college student, I almost exclusively considered myself a fiction writer. I would write short stories, aspire to novels, and write the occasional essay. Poetry to me was on the opposite end of the writing spectrum, the end with arguably purposeless emotional abstractions, and pompously neurotic language distortion. I’d written a few bad poems, just to say that I’d tried it, and then given it up.
It wasn’t until I took a Poetry class during my Junior year that I truly encountered Poetry for the first time, for what it was. But what it was, and what it continues to be, I could not accurately tell you. The first time I saw Poetry, unclad and aglow, I was enthralled by her. The sight of her, the sound, smell, touch, and taste of her, was captivating, enrapturing, even though she was intangible. She was sensual and incorporeal. I was paralyzed by her. By the fervor that I sense in your words, my friend, I venture to say that you are coming to the realization that you have similarly found yourself suddenly, inexorably head-over-heels for this mystical lady.
Do not quench this ardor.
Even if you try, you will not succeed. Rather, you will find yourself restless and dissatisfied, like a man who refuses his very nature or denies the woman who owns his love. Instead, accept it, embrace it, for it is the new real. You have been paralyzed, and like any victim of paralysis, whether that is paralysis of the body, the heart, or the soul, it is a state that you have no power over. You simply need to learn to live with it, and then you will thrive in it.
If I was to choose one word to describe Poetry, pervading is the first that comes to mind. Pervading, even according to the Google definition, means something that is “spread through,” and “perceived in every part.” Life, if you are open to it, is imbued with Poetry. It is inescapable. Everything is saturated with it. It is a concept that is so enveloping that I am constantly awed by it, as I hope you are.
Poetry is the beauty, the profundity, the secret of every moment. It is the nose-crinkles of the pretty girl that holds your heart, coiled around her fingers as she taps your leg, hoping to hold your hand as well. It is the baptism of the Midwestern rain, careening from the heavens to the grassy knoll below, or the tattooed windshield as is slowly fogs. It is the otherworldly wonder of the young boy, fascinated and horrified by the “evil” electric stapler as his mysterious father looks on. It is the bleeding moon, bandaged by clouds as the bottle is passed around, and it is that bottle, shattered under the overpass, glinting green glass pinging on the pavement. It is your hair and your soul, blown back by the wind and the Holy Ghost’s whispers, caressing and arousing.
So what is poetry, you ask?
Everything and nothing.
It is a worldview. It is a fluttery thing. Everything that captures your imagination, whatever is evocative, or cathartic, has been bathed in poetry. What enlivens your love-dead heart, Sir? Poetry is what makes you feel, what brings you serenity, what inspires you to get off of your passive ass and live your life. It is all that is beautiful and hopeful in the world.
The poet Thomas Gray said that “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” William Hazlitt said that “Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life.” From Leonard Cohen: “Poetry is the just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” But I think it was Seamus Heaney who captured it best when he said: “The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost.” If Poetry is nothing else, it is an elevation, of mind, heart, and spirit, an intimacy from which you could never recover from if you tried.
People are too often bound by themselves. Squeezing hands are shackles around throats as life passes them by. “I am Jack’s choking ambition,” they say, “I am Jack’s shuddering constipation of the soul.” The collective spirit of the world is flaccid, impotent, and Poetry is the aphrodisiac. It is the prune juice. If you are kindled to creativity, or galvanized to better yourself, you have encountered Poetry—whether you recognize her or not. God is love the Bible tells us. He is also Poetry. Or, at the very least, he created it, and empowers the transformative glory of it. Poetry is a reflection of His nature, indescribable, eternal, and breathtaking.
Despite this, like love and hope and women, Poetry is a double-edged sword. It is indeed like the sidewalk glass under the overpass, a twinkling fascination, but it still cuts. As a librarian friend of mine said, “Poetry can also be a box of tacks, scattered across the floor, or a barbed wire maze.” Whenever there is so much power, even so much inherent good, there is the potential for devastation. Not to mention that Poetry can be, and often is sad, or brutally honest, or some other purgative agent that would not strike many as a beneficial thing. Often, poetry can be construed as dark, depraved. Poetry, in all of its goodness, is ambiguous, labyrinthine, and multifaceted. There is not much in the world that is misunderstood more than Poetry, and you don’t hear Poetry bitching about it either.
The question of why is just as Delphic, that is to say, impenetrable. However, it is also intuitive. Do you not feel it stirring within you, Sir? Rising through you, rushing with the blood in your veins, and seizing your heart in your chest. Poetry already pervades each facet of existence, including you. To ask Why Poetry? is like asking Why Beauty? or Why Life? It is incomprehensible. If you truly have been paralyzed, then there is no “why” for you. You have no choice, just as any paraplegic has no choice.
Furthermore, if you do feel it clenching your abdominals, then you are a poet. If you are a poet, as I mentioned earlier, then it is your nature. You are no more able to deny this characteristic in you than you are able to deny your fondness for spearmint, or your personality. You can do your best to smother it, thrust it into a dusty tin lunchbox and shove it into the spookiest corner of your psyche, but it will still be there. And it will haunt you. You must decide if it is worth it to you, my friend, if you are willing to do what it takes, and sacrifice what it takes, and even believe what it takes to grow into the poet that Poetry knows that you are. It is like a marriage—a man and a woman, Jesus and the Church, you and Poetry—and marriages are never easy, but they are worth the trouble. You have to find the answer that I did, that Rilke begs of you—can you live without it?
This train of thought segues into your next question, which I will address. You asked, “What does it mean to be a poet, and how do you know whether you have arrived?”
This is also a question that has taken ahold of me in my past broodings, and even these days it grabs me in my more insecure, doubting moods. Allow me an anecdote.
I distinctly remember, as a seven year old, fervently wishing that I had a beard. Both my father and my grandfather had beards, thick and full, and I was besotted with the idea of having one of my very own. I would fantasize about the style and length of my beard, from a snowy Gandolfian beard, to a simple soul- patch. When I was finally able to grow my own beard, I was sure, I would have arrived. The growth of a real beard would be the pinnacle of my earthly existence, nothing would be as good or as sweet.
Then one day, over a dozen years later, I remembered this seven-year-old’s fantasy. I stared into the mirror in my dorm room, unable to remove my gaze from the twirled mustache, thick beard, and reaching goatee. I had achieved that childhood dream, and how. Rather than rejoicing, I was beset with a prodding in the back of my mind. Had I arrived? Was this actually the pinnacle of my life, the highest height only to plummet as time progressed?
It was one of those moments when reality silently steals up to you, lightly resting his frigid fingers on your skin. All of a sudden, I found myself at a point that I had dreamed about for years, completely unaware that I had made it there.
Similarly, throughout my childhood and my teenage years, my primary goal was to make my parents proud, to live up to my father, and possibly one day surpass him. He was on a separate plane, above and beyond me, and I was diligently attempting to catch up. This pursuit continued until the second semester of my Junior year, the same time I took my poetry class, and the same time I grew my beard. After a conversation with my father, and subsequent identity crisis, I woke up one morning looked at my beard, and realized that I was a man. I was an independent adult man, with responsibilities, capabilities, and desires, and I needed to take ownership of that. No one was going to take care of my life but me, and I sure as hell was not about to let it pass by me. At the same time, it dawned on me that I did not have any control, and the control that I did have was just a hopeful delusion. Those moments of revelation change you, fracture your conceptions, and change your perspectives.
Becoming a poet is like becoming a man, Sir, or falling in love. It is something that you pursue, that you desire with a passionate ambition and earnestness. But just as the others, Poetry finds you when you least expect it, the moment that you look away, the moment that you begin to question the longing. “Don’t think,” she tells you, as she leans in and your lips collide. Your heart bursts like fireworks for the first time.
It is when going home becomes going to your parents’ house, because you have no home, and you relish in that. “You’re not who I hoped you would become,” he said, and you wonder why. But then, you find the moment, the blessed serenity when the horror is whipped away by the wind and you stand on the hilltop, marveling at the way your beard wafts with your hair, and you decide that you are who you hoped you would become.
You must become vulnerable to her touch. Poetry will come if you are open to her, and even if you are not, she will dance right through you. Let yourself break, and then be rebuilt.
You, my friend, are concerned with becoming a poet or defining poetry. And while these are questions worthy of your consideration—your beliefs will shape your poetry—the answers transcend the questions. You must decide if she is worth the trouble, worth the wait, and worth living for. If she is, then she will take you. Observe, witness, experience, and write. Live, Sir, in the pervading poetry. One day you will look in the mirror and realize that a poet is staring back at you.