About Poetic Composition

No matter how sorrowful the subject matter of one’s story or poem, no matter how grim one’s vision of human existence, every serious artist brings to his or her creation a similar kind of loving care for detail and form. In this sense all true art is life enhancing, for it affirms the virtues of precision and the goodness of design.

Good writers need good readers, and good readers must be good listeners. Caring listeners must be as sensitive to rhythm and voice tone as they are to image and to meaning.

Every true poem contains and implicitly expresses the delight of its own creation, thus possessing what Wallace Stevens calls the “gaiety of language.”

Revision means learning through the acknowledgment of limitation and failure. Creation in its largest sense, then, must be thought of as a process of creation, destruction, and re-creation. In this process we may become aware of powers we did not know we possessed.

No biographer can describe the leap an artist makes between his or her life and art. That particular transformation is the very mystery of art and the transfiguring imagination. The ability to fabricate is, in part, a power we create out of pure potentiality. This power to create grace from disorder derives from the cultivation of a discipline, the learning of a skill; its potential is inherent, but its realization must be earned.

We do not invent language; we inherit it. Language has its own genius that re-creates itself through our use of it. We are the means by which it grows and keeps itself alive. Like a god, it speaks through us and survives us. Our minds are created by language; our thinking is made possible by the structure it provides, just as our bodies know only what our senses are capable of perceiving. And if we give ourselves to the language, embracing it, cherishing it word by word, laughing as we name the world, we may take on something of its grandeur and its majesty.

At the heart of literary ambition, there lies the wish to name things in their passing, cherishing them more powerfully and precisely because they are passing. We are most centered in our lives when we apprehend ourselves in our own vanishing.

To resent the past is to repress the certain knowledge that the present generation—for all our innovations and reforms—soon becomes the past. A serious writer’s only hope lies in the power of a literary tradition that remains relevant and alive, in which the bond between parent and child is a source of power, rather than a threat to individuality.

Our salvation as a species lies in the desperate hope that our aggressive instincts may yet remain within the scope of the human will—the will to make civilization itself a work of art that names and celebrates nature, that does not entirely replace nature with self-reflecting human images.

We must remember and remain true to our evolutionary origins, not merely as multipliers but as namers as well. The wisdom of celebratory art must protect us from our aggressive desires to dominate; ultimately it must be ourselves that we subdue.

Cells die continuously in the human body—red blood cells live about three months, white blood cells, about two weeks, yet the body survives through change. We do not grieve for the death of a cell. It may be that we need to think of the Earth as a single organism, in which every change and every death contributes to the ongoing life of the planet, and further still, perhaps we need to think of the universe as such a single organism, created out of the originating unity of the Big Bang. The artistic imagination invites us to move outward, beyond our lives, our place, our time. From the perspective of the fifteen-billion-year story of evolving matter—where nothing might have been—a story told alike by poetry and by science, perhaps our imaginations really can pass beyond sorrow if we can identify our singular lives with all the living and all the dead, empathize with existence itself—the transformations of energy continuing infinitely beyond us.