Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation:

Mid-leap in her escape, the nymph
is bushed: one hand bursts out in

branches, tropes turn

(“Some Kind of Pine,” Hinge & Sign, p. 27)

Regarding Rilke: I’m really taken by his intense, mythic quality, especially the fascination with the inner life and how it relates to the outer life. The poems have a grand sweep and arc to them. It’s a quality that my writing used to have, but one that I abandoned in recent years while focusing on diction and imagery. That might not be all to the bad, but it’s not something I want to disappear entirely from my writing.

I went back to your response to Packet #2 and found the bit that resonated so much with me. It’s a perfect example of the very concept in practice – it stays with me because of the bit about the Mars lander, which illustrates an abstraction!

…we are little Mars landers with five gauges.  The only way we can take hold of the world is through those five fingers, five channels, whatever metaphor works for you.  One way to think of moving through a poem is like traveling through a landscape of thoughts and emotions.  You can only make the landscape visible to someone else by using specific images.  …Every great 20th century poet passed through that discipline.

In that passage you also suggested that I read “Howl” and “Meditation at Lagunitas” and research the Imagist school further. I’m going to do just after I send off this packet so that I can keep the momentum going for Packet #4 (I guess that makes this the penultimate packet!).

While researching poetic music for the McHugh essay, I came across an abstract of a paper on Academia.edu titled “Silence and the Sawmill: Rainer Maria Rilke on the Nuisance of Sounding Music,” by Axel Englund. Englund argues that Rilke found music – and noise in general – a nuisance and a distraction from his work. “While he does speak favorably of music, he returns to notions of silence as the essential aspect of music,” he writes. “Pure white paper and pure silence are the prerequisites of his poetic imagination, as if he needed to be liberated from sensual impressions of sight and sound in order for his thoughts to become real in their place.”

It made me consider the necessity for both stimulation and silence in the life of a writer. On the one hand, I find experiencing the external world immensely inspiring – both directly with my senses and also via others’ poetry. Likewise with stimulating intellectual conversation. But the act of writing and revising poetry requires for me stillness and privacy. Even if I’m generating work with other people, there must be some aspect of solitude and silence during the act itself.

This passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet touches on that:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. … There is only one thing you should do. Go inside yourself.

Emphasis is mine. On the one hand, this is an inspiring passage that recalls to me the pure, intrinsic value of writing. On the other hand, it’s a football that my sophomoric, defensive writer self would scoop up and run with all the way to the wrong side of the field. That’s why I emphasized “right now.” Rilke is writing these letters to a young poet – someone who needs encouragement in determining his own inner voice that says “this is done,” or “this needs more work.” I am not a young poet, although, like all poets, I must return again and again to beginner’s mind. In the same letter, Rilke goes on to mention that there are flaws in the young Mr. Kappus’s writing. This is the tightrope any writer dedicated to the craft must walk: maintaining a connection to that inner voice while also striving to improve their own writing.

Later in Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, “Works of art are of infinite solitude, and no means of approach is as useless as [literary] criticism. Only love can touch them and hold them and be fair to them.” It can be difficult to love someone else’s poetry. You called it lazy teaching to focus solely on what needs fixing in a poem. And finding and nurturing what works does take real skill. At the same time, a loving parent (or auntie) can’t be too permissive. I’ve been in workshops at both extremes, and neither is very helpful in the long run.

All of this to say that you and other workshop participants have been able to love my work enough that I’m willing to unfold from the tight, well-mannered poems of my application writing sample. These poems fit the Procrustean bed of PoemWorks, with its emphasis on a particular kind of aesthetic – tight, highly polished, reminiscent of the Imagist school and the mid-century greats like Plath and Bishop. But not all poems can be well-mannered. Some of them must be leggy and strange, ungainly and corrupt. It’s up to me – with the help of trusted poet-confidants – to prune them into something… maybe not a topiary, but something with a shape and integrity of its own. I’ve seen monstrous poems succeed. Just look at “Howl,” by Allen Ginsburg or “Fast-Speaking Woman,” by Anne Waldman. Or the sprawl of Walt Whitman. Am I strong enough to birth a monster?

Regarding the poems in this packet and the last:

“The Wait,” is not a poem about The Rapture in the Christian sense of the term, but it is about release, lightening, and flight. My own spiritual and religious practice tends toward feminist, earth-centered worship, with a smattering of Buddhism and mysticism. I’m a true believer only in the sense of having a deep connection with a divine power of my own understanding. I believe there are as many faces of the Divine as there are people in the world. I’ll consider whether it’s important to convey that fact in the poem, and/or how I can divorce it from more Christian/Rapture imagery. I have a few ideas. One can’t control how the reader reads the poem, but one can make the attempt.

Thank you so much for your feedback on the Void Poems. It gave me a lot to the think about. The work I’ve done this packet becomes very relevant here. I’m thinking the poems might be a monster I’m willing to bear. I’m not abandoning them. Just gestating on the difference between void and abyss, falling and flying.

“Pastoral, Poughkeepsie” is a second draft, still young and in need of shaping. I wrote it with the perspective of 20 years. “Diana’s Dance” is a poem I actually wrote during the time frame that “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie” takes place, not in hindsight. My challenge here, I suppose, is to see whether it’s possible to prune the poem into something a magazine editor would publish while still maintaining the voice of the young poet who wrote it. Or leave it be and try again with a kernel of the poem’s moment. I can’t just break it open and discard it.

“What a Mess I’ve Made” is, as you can no doubt tell, from the PoemWorks school. I consider it polished and well-mannered, complete enough to send out on a round of submissions. I included it mainly because I wanted a pat on the head from you, as a way of showing you I am still a good poet – in the sense of “good boy,” because really, what is a good poet? I’ll try to take your feedback in the spirit of Rilkean love with which it’s intended.

I’m still getting used to the rhythm of the packets. A second- or third-semester student strongly suggested that we don’t wait for feedback from our advisors before we start work on the next packet. It’s natural to want to take a breath after a big effort, though. I was pretty useless for the entire week after Labor Day — as you know, since I wasn’t able to attend your party.

In to keep momentum after sending you this packet, I’m making the commitment now to re-read “Howl” and “Meditation at Lagunitas,” and to research the Imagist school – I have Moore and Pound in my library, so I also have primary sources to draw from.

Wishing you good luck with your house hunting and wishing us all a rainy October to remedy this year’s terrible drought.

Featured image photo credit: Nilufer Gadgieva via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.