Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Are We Writing Toward Memorable Words?

As 2010 approaches, I realize that my main goal as a poet hasn't changed at all: I want to write memorable words.

And that's a difficult task when "po-biz" looms over many poets and writers. Often, without realizing it, we might think of ourselves as failures if we haven't published X amount in a year or haven't won an award recently. I remember one former creative writing teacher of mine who said the lines someone writes at this hour might be "the best lines written on the planet, but po-biz doesn't exist for such lines," and he might very well be right.

Imagine, for a moment, if Emily Dickinson had diminished her poetic ambition because she could only publish a half dozen poems and wasn't encouraged by the powers that be during her lifetime; the world would be diminished if we didn't have her verse that she wrote for the dresser drawer--and for the ages. Although Dickinson wrote approximately 1700 poems, at least two dozen of those poems would easily qualify as memorable words; others might find three or four dozen poems by Dickinson that are indeed memorable to them.

But even those who bask in "po-biz" can find themselves wondering about their accomplishments. Robert Frost, probably the most heralded poet in the 20th century, had misgivings about the quality of his work; one need only read Donald Hall's fine pieces on Frost to discover that even multiple Pulitzer prizes couldn't keep Frost happy. And that's probably why Frost never let up on the ambition he had for his poems even into his old age--he wanted his work "to last."

How does one know if one's words will last? Well, one will never know; that's history's business, but it's still a good thing to nudge one's self when revising (when the real writing begins) and to step back and ask (especially after months have passed during a poem's creation), "Are those words still as interesting as they were when I last inspected them?"

If poets routinely asked themselves such a question, the world would be an even finer place than it already is.

Let us start 2010 by asking ourselves such a basic question every time we think a poem, a short story, a play, or a novel is ready to be let loose upon the world.

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