The endowments and the foundations won't, but you can help support my long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle. Any donation to help defray expenses will be appreciated. Send to Tom Montag at: PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931.
Yet I am also a writer of prose - a poetic kind of memoir and essay and journal entry. My book about my first fourteen years growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home, is finding an audience. Indeed, it has been adopted this semester as a textbook for a writing class at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, and adopted for the second year for Charlie Mescher's advanced writing students at Maria Stein High School in Ohio. I will be speaking to both those classes in upcoming weeks. My emphasis in the Briar Cliff class on October 11 will be "place and the writer." My emphasis at Maria Stein on November 11 will again be: "Yes, you can make literature of this life right here." At Briar Cliff, I will also read in the evening for the university community and the public, from my poetry and prose, and will talk about my middlewestern Vagabond project and read from those journals, too. At Maria Stein High School, I will also be talking to another class of Mescher's advanced placement English students about poetry, using my "99 Propositions" as a starting place for discussion.
I get paid modestly well for my visit to Briar Cliff, but my trip to Maria Stein High School is done gratis. These students, many of them, are farm kids, or come from families not long off the farm. I have a special desire to tell them that we can make literature of our farm lives. All too often we are led to believe that the makings of real literature are to be found elsewhere, not here in the middlewest; I want those students to know that notion is hogwash. Our lives here can be the stuff of literature; this place, and what happens here, can be transmuted into literary art.
And conveying that message - that here be the stuff of literature - is the poet's proper work, too, isn't it? Pointing at this part of our world and saying, "Look!" Showing how one can hold up the wonderments found among our ordinary clutter - that is the poet's work. Allowing young eyes to open to the beauty of their own lives. Affirming the value of the world they grew up in. The poet's work is to joust with such windmills as these, sometimes, and I accept the challenge.
So - I will get to do a little of that kind of work this fall, and it pleases me. It pleases me immensely.
76. Writer's block is a luxury you can't afford; it is the lazy writer's excuse. If you want to write, write! Admittedly, as William Stafford says, you may have to lower your standards for a while, but write something. Every day. Five minutes. One line.
77. Show up – you've got to be there when the poem gets there. If you don't make time for the poem, the poem will pass you by. Make a space in your life for the poems to come into – get up 10 or 15 minutes earlier every day, and use the time to sit at your desk writing. "If you build it, they will come" applies not only to the Field of Dreams, but to poetry also.
78. As Ted Kooser reminds us, if you want to toss ringers in competition, you have to throw a lot of horseshoes in practice: write, write, write.
79. As Kooser also tells us, we should look at our poems to see if we can trim away the first two or three lines without loss. We often start writing long before the real poem begins, and all of that can be trimmed. Be ruthless. Good poetry is made by subtraction, not by addition. Think of Lorine Niedecker's "condensary."
80. Write and keep writing – without fanfare, without trumpets sounding, despite the lack of attention, despite the loneliness. You're a poet. Do your job without whining. No one said it would be easy, or fun. Shaddup and write.
81. The essential elements of the poem are three: measure, sound, and image. How is the line measured; how does the sound support the sense; does the stuff of the poem come out of real life sensation, the associations here at our fingertips?
82. Establish what your true work is, and do it. What have you been put here for? Is that the work you are doing?
83. It is not enough to write what you know: first you must learn to see. That is, to pay attention. What is out there, what does it mean, what does it want to be? We tend to go through life taking things for granted, but poets can't take anything for granted.
84. When you have nothing to write about, write about nothing. That's what I did in this poem is from The Sweet Bite of Morning:
APRIL 5, 2001
Empty morning. Empty as an over- turned bucket at some forgotten corner
of some barn, some Iowa farmyard, summer, 1954. The sun beats at that
emptiness, heats the empty air of it. A bucket full of emptiness, nothing
in it but that nothingness. Some wind is in the grass nearby, small noises. There is
no noise at all where nothing echoes. That's how empty I've become this morning.
The mourning dove calls as if it's moaning.
85. You have to put a metaphorical frog in every poem, and the frog has to jump. This is very much Basho's sense of the poem – that the frog has to jump. That's the moment of poetry. Or the Chinese poets might call it the moment "the poet lifts his eyes," that is, the moment both the poet and the reader recognize that the poem is about something much greater than what it appears to be about.
86. As Ted Kooser indicates, the poetry must lead, and the form follow. "Every successful sonnet is a good poem first and a good sonnet second," Kooser says. Sometimes we get it backwards, thinking the form makes the poem. No, the poem makes its form.
87. Form should be invisible. To the degree that a poem calls attention to its form, to that degree it fails.
88. Prose poems are not poems: let's stop pretending they are. Okay, that's a cranky personal opinion. Now you know where I stand on the subject, in case you wanted to know.
89. Keep a notebook, a poet's journal. Make space for it – the words will come. Really, they will. For nearly five years I kept a journal of my drive to work, the ten miles from Fairwater to Ripon. The same ten miles every work day for five years. My challenge: to write one good sentence each day. What I got was a thousand pages of manuscript typed double-spaced. Some of those pages are becoming poems. Here is one of them, from The Sweet Bite of Morning:
April 20, 2001
It's a grey, wet morning. This pale light has been used already at some dim street corner in a small town along Maine's coast; beneath the yard light of any farm in upstate New York; of a steel mill in Indiana, the fire in it. It is light as seen through water the way a fish's eye sees. A used-up brightness but good enough for us, we're middlewestern, we don't have to have the best of things.
90. If the sound of your words isn't as important to you as their meaning, you might not be a poet. Poetry is the sister of song, so make it sing. Pay attention to sound and rhythm and the song at the heart of the poem. I'm particularly fond of the sounds in my farmer poem called "The Shed:"
At night I hear its boards creaking in a steady wind. Unfit to house tools now, the shed has opened itself to field mice & moonlight. The air within it moves. An owl leaves the rafters. By day the shed sags & leans toward the trees behind it. Sometimes a play of light through the roof marks the age of this aging wood: cracked & bent, tired as the farmer was, who built it, when he died; the wood grows dark as soil. The old lumber's knotty ache reverberates as, bowed, the shed falls so slowly – year by year – back to the land. The green floor, here, measures the patience of the earth, waiting to take the wood.
91. Don't write political poetry; write the truth of what you see. Let the politics fall where they may.
92. A good editor is the best friend a poet can have. I don't necessarily mean a magazine editor who is going to publish you, but someone who tells you the truth about your work.
93. The poet's life is lived by metaphor. We are given to careful observation, to seeing pattern, to making associations, to understanding how one thing is like another thing. Sometimes we may be moved by the narrative urge the way story-tellers are, but more than the story-teller we must see how disparate things fit together, how all things belong, how much this is that. This is the poet's task, fitting together all these pieces of the world at their specific points of intersection and association. Poetry is as much about these connections as it is about the words themselves.
94. Step outside yourself in your poems, outside of your own skin. Transport yourself into another soul, assume a mask, a persona. Become someone else. Lead another life. How are things from that perspective. Here are some of my poems in other voices:
Civil War soldier, George Cadman:
I have a first rate rifle. It shoots as true as a die. I can send a ball at two hundred yards Within three inches of my mark. Pretty good for a novice, isn't it? It will kill at seven hundred yards.
I haven't had a chance to kill At that long range yet.
He doesn't live that far down the road, the way we measure. He is a neighbor and now his crops are wiped out by hail. What could I say, standing with him in the middle of a shredded field? Only if he'd lost his wife or one of his sons could he have been paler. They were his, those fields planted in long straight rows, kept clean of weeds, brought along. When he spoke, or tried to, his only voice was a cough repeating, "Gone. All my work done in."
Married to Prairie, widow woman, 1880s:
The prairie grass stands so tall it covers dawn. Oil cloth on the windows and only the glow of the fireplace speaks of morning. In the loft above, the children are stirring. The corn mush thickens. My back goes straight: another day, like another horse to harness.
Ben Zen, a little monk in America:
I push the mountain, Ben says, and push
The mountain and Still the mountain
95. Poetry is a magic we spend our whole lives failing to master. It is a shape-shifting body of wisdom. The moment we think we know something, everything changes and it becomes clear we know nothing. The poet must be comfortable with this kind of uncertainty and disappointment.
96. Poetry is like a creature from the great depths of the ocean: the moment we pull it up from the deep thinking we can have it and hold it, it lays there dying. The best we can do is let the poem continue to swim where it lives and then report on the movements of its shadow. That's about all we get – a momentary recognition that something moves there, deep.
97. Solitude is not desolation. This is a lesson from Lorine Niedecker: if we are to learn the lessons of the world, we must quiet ourselves so we can hear the world. The solitude itself is not poetry, but there is solitude at the heart of poetry. Design your life for silence and solitude; learn to listen for that which does not shout.
98. Have I contradicted myself? Well, then, I contradict myself. Think of Whitman. He contains multitudes.
99. Be very wary about letting anyone who doesn't inhabit the poem tell you how it should be. The poem knows. Listen to it. It will tell you what it wants to be. Those around you who want to tell you what to do, they have their own agendas, and it's not always the poem's agenda. That includes me. Why are you listening to me? You should be listening to the poem.
early. I am driving through relative darkness. Morning has not yet come to meet me.
Yesterday north of Five Corners, the workmen did nothing more than smooth the other shoulder of Highway E and set up more of the orange barrels. All day the mountain groaned and this is all it brought forth? Dang.
daughter Jessica and I have promised each other we would traverse a thousand miles over the course of 2006. I would walk the distance. Jessica would be training to run a marathon. I can report that we are on track to make our goal easily.
This past Sunday, Jessica and I, and J.'s husband Tait Brink, walked the Fox Cities Marathon in Neenah-Menasha-Appleton, adding 26.2 miles to our total for the year. Jessica and Tait had intended to run the marathon together, but life intervened.
Jessica was in surgery for four hours just twelve days prior to the marathon. Her training schedule got interrupted and she was off-stride. But, trouper that she is, she said she'd still walk the marathon with her dad (as she did last year), and that Tait would walk it with us too. So that's what we did. Here's the report, in pictures.
Tom Montag, Jessica Montag, and Tait Brink, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4:15 a.m. in the motel parking lot before the Fox Cities Marathon. The guy with the sun-glasses already seems to be in pain.
Yes, it was a cold morning. Here we are, staying warm in front of the fire in the shelterhouse near the Starting line.
Start time for the intrepid walkers was 6:00 a.m. We are ready to rock.
Waiting for READY! SET! GO! in the pre-dawn darkness.
Yep, it was still pretty dark out there as Team Montag started putting some miles behind them.
"Here comes the sun, dooh-la do-dooh, here comes the sun!"
The happy couple, still smiling about Mile Marker 7.
This is Mile Marker 7. Team Montag is just getting warmed up.
This is what the elite marathoners looked like coming past us around Mile Marker 12 or 13. You need that kind of grim determination whether you're walking or running, but especially when you're running. You go, guys! We gave them a "Thatta boy" and applause, as we encouraged every subsequent runner coming past. As one woman runner said to us late in the race, "We're all a team, and we're almost there."
Mile Marker 14. We've passed the halfway point and we're still smiling. Well, the two young'uns are, at least.
Mile Marker 18, customarily considered "The Wall" for marathon runners. We haven't hit the wall yet....
Uh-oh, there's the wall! You may remember that last year it was raining cats and dogs at this point in the race. This year it is raining golden sunshine.
This moment of father-daughter bonding as the going gets tough.
Our marathoners have mastered the big hill leading to Mile Marker 24. How do you do it? You put your head down and lean into it. You give 'er, and don't look back.
We've got Mile Marker 25 behind us. Do you know how FAR that is? Twenty-five miles? If we had been headed straight up, our altitude would be 132,000 feet! That's the distance from sea-level to the top of Mount Everest nearly four and a half times. Yikes!
And they've still got energy to goof around at Mile Marker 26. Who are these people?
The grumble bear and his lovely daughter after crossing the finish line, with their medals.
Jessica and Tait after the finish line. The woman with the medals didn't think Tait looked tired enough to have completed a marathon, but he got a medal anyway. Let me assure you, he did finish it. We all finished it. We're not the kind of folks who start something and walk away. Nope, Team Montag goes right to the tape.
Jess and Tait with Mary Montag, Jessica's mom, after the finish line.
Jessica with her parents after the finish line.
Yep, Jessica had a tough couple of months leading up to the marathon, but she put her head down, leaned into it, and didn't look back. Then she walked the marathon, which was the easy part by comparison. She's an inspiration. She's got another tough month coming, but she's a trouper.
Yu-hoo, Jess! We did it! We couldn't be more proud of you. You go, girl!
51. Poetry workshops and writing groups do not create poetry. Poems are made in solitude, usually done quietly while you are alone at your desk. At best, poetry workshops and writing groups allow you to hang out with other people who want to write poetry, which can be a good thing for you, but don't ever think that workshops and writing groups actually write the poetry. Writing poetry is what writes the poetry and, if you're serious about it, it can get awfully lonely.
52. Harness your obsessions. You know the most about that which you are obsessed by. Use that knowledge. Properly pursued, your obsessions can lead you to poetry. Mine lead me.
53. Blog. Challenge yourself to write something everyday that you can post. This year, with my daily "Lines," I am putting up a little poem five days a week, every week. This MAKES me write. This MAKES me look at the world. This MAKES me listen to things around me. I have to pay attention. Blogging puts me in this position.
Lines for February 28
Bright sun. The night is done. The wind
would blow the day away. To where?
One must wonder: from where, to where,
most of all, why?
54. Don't blog. Blogging is a terrible addiction and will consume your life, destroy your marriage, push you to the brink of insanity. Oh, perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.
55. Learn to read upside down. Eavesdrop shamelessly. I wouldn't have much to write about if I couldn't read upside down and if I didn't eavesdrop. What goes on inside my head is not nearly as interesting as what's going on in the world around me.
56. William Carlos Williams said: "No ideas but in things." I agree. This means two things for me: first, it's about where you start: you start with the world as it is, not with your idea of the world, not with preconceived notions. And, second, your poetry has to be set in the muck and mire of real things, those things right here at our finger-tips.
57. Richard Hugo said: "The impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what you have already conceived to be the truth is the mark of a beginner." He says, and I believe it, that a poem has two subjects: first, the subject which triggers the poem; and, second, what the poem comes to mean, whether the poet ever recognizes that or not.
58. Hugo also said that our relationship with words must be stronger than our relationship with whatever triggers the poem. In other words, your concern for what you believe to be the subject of your poem must never get in the way of what the poem wants to talk about.
59. And Hugo said: "It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.... In the world of imagination, all things belong." Sometimes, perhaps, you don't know exactly why things fall together the way they do as you write, why unlike things seem to fit so comfortably together. That's okay. We are not in charge; the poem is in charge.
60. Sometimes you must want to use a word simply for the sake of its sound, or as Dylan Thomas said, for its taste. A poem is a machine made of sound. That means that the sound of the words means at least as much as, if not more than, the meaning of the words. Collect words you like the sound of, and make them your own.
61. 99% of everything anyone tells you about writing poetry is hogwash. That includes what I'm telling you. The proof of the poem is not in what one says about poetry, but in the poem itself. You should learn poetry from poems, not from what people say about poetry.
62. Read poetry; read a lot of poetry; read 100 poems for every poem you try to write. You don't watch a plumber install the toilet and think you are a plumber. You have to help the master plumber install a lot of toilets before you become a master plumber yourself. Don't think poetry is any easier than plumbing.
63. Throw out your first 200 poems and start over. That was the best decision I ever made as a poet, to throw out the first 200 poems I'd written and start over with a fresh slate. Don't be afraid to do it.
64. Make a physical space where you can work at your poetry, a particular place in your home, and treat it like an altar: here is where you do your holy work. Can you be considered serious about poetry if you don't make a place for it?
65. A poem, if it is a good poem, will have in it the power to change the world, or a least the reader's world; this is an awesome responsibility and a great honor: don't waste it.
66. Poets are radios, as Jack Spicer suggests. You turn the radio on, you tune it in, you pick up whatever is being broadcast on the ether of the universe. I don't know where poems come from. Do you? How did I ever become a pioneer widow woman on the tall grass prairie, 1880s. I don't know who she is, but I can hear her:
All these days go round like wagon wheels. The seasons change, and stay the same. The moon, it pulls at me to mark the months. And so blood flows. I am alone and must pretend your hands still touch me. Sometimes I speak a secret tongue.
67. Do not write the poems that are expected of you. Life is too short to do the same thing over and over. Set out, every time, to write something you haven't written before.
68. Do not write poems about the "proper subjects" of poetry. If something is the proper subject of poetry, it has already been written to death, and you don't need to do it again. Write something new.
69. Establish for yourself the language you don't use and won't use in your poetry, and the language you will use. I heard a poet read at the Lorine Niedecker Centennial Celebration in Milwaukee a few years ago, and afterwards I said to someone: "except for the articles, prepositions, and conjunctions in his poetry, I don't think I have ever used any of those words in my poetry." He was a literary critic and an academic as well as a poet, and I think his universe and my universe were mutually exclusive. I think I know why I don't use the words he uses: because my work wants to come out of the muck of our everyday living, and his comes out of a more rarified version of the idea of life.
70. You might need an MFA in creative writing to get hired to teach college students how to write poetry, but you don't need an MFA in creative writing to write poetry. Sometimes having someone available to show you the ropes makes it a little easier to find your way, yes. Yet, if you want to write poetry, if you really want to, you will find your way. You learn to write by writing and by reading, and you can do that at your desk on your own.
71. A poem succeeds on the strength of all its elements acting in concert – sound and sense, music and image, roll and flash; remove one element and the poem collapses. If a poem doesn't seem to be working, ask yourself which element is missing or messed up. Is the sound wrong for the sense? Is the line wrong for what I'm trying to do?
72. Poetry is not "self-expression." It isn't "therapy." When I'm reading your poem, I don't care about you; I want to know what the poem has to say. Put your feelings in your diary.
73. In the grand rush of creation, don't slow down to make it exactly perfect right away – keep rushing to finish; then, when you have the structure of it in a draft, go back and revise, revise, revise. A poem is about structure and you have to get that; you can make the details right during revision. 90% of any writing is revision. That percentage might be higher for poetry. Contents may settle during shipment. Your results may vary.
74. Do not wait for inspiration. Inspiration is from the Latin, to breathe in. That is not a passive business, but something you control. If you need inspiration, breathe in. What you need is all around you.
75. Listen to the poem. Have you got it yet? It's all about the poem; it's not about you.
this morning. Sun against the brown, dry leaves of a tree across the street from our house. This is the kind of morning one likes to hurry, for he is full of joy and knows how much there is to be done.
When I drove home from work last night I saw very little progress on Highway E where the roadbed has been torn up. A shoulder was graded back. Orange barrels were set along the roadside. That's all? If I had a job like that, I could write a book between one shovelful and the next. Think about that. The old joke about highway workmen leaning on their shovels appears to have some basis in fact. What am I missing here?
Dew this morning. The insistence of a blackbird's call. A flutter of sparrows at the end of the driveway.
Along Washington Street youngsters are waiting for the school bus. Youth is the face of hope. Even with their postures all akimbo, they are still the promise of the future.
The flag at the Fairwater cemetery blows from northeast to southwest.
The air seems to vibrate with the fullness of our lives. I cannot complain. Off to the north, a bank of deep blue clouds hugs the horizon. All sky may look the same to us, yet it is a coat of many colors.
North of Five Corners where Highway E is torn up, hope. Perhaps the workmen mean business. I've seen a machine that will put down the asphalt surface. Having the machine here is progress, no? Maybe today the novelist on the road crew won't have time to finish his book. If there is a novelist on the road crew - you want to believe some one of them has been doing something these last days.
26. Buy at least one book of poetry a month. You're a poet – If you don't buy poetry, who will? If you don't read poetry, who will? And you'll be surprised at what you learn. As Dr. Williams stated, people are dying every day for lack of what is to be found in poetry.
27. Compliment those poets whose work you appreciate. Yeah, send them a letter expressing your admiration. They need to hear it, and you need to say it. It will be good for both of you.
28. Visit Iceland at least once in your life. That's a country which appreciates its poets. They even bury them in the National Parks. Can you imagine that happening in this country? Think of, say, Allen Ginsberg getting buried in Golden Gate Park.
29. Write like you mean it, in ink, with a Parker Pen. Some poets will tell you to write in pencil. That's wrong. You have to mean it when you write poetry. If you make mistakes, cross 'em out, and keep going. It's okay to make a mess of the page. Critics like that. It shows that you're doing your job.
30. To avoid sentimentality, make the shape of the poem just as hard and sharp-edged as the shape of the experience. A form that holds firm will not allow you to gush emotion. The poem should create the feeling in me, but it shouldn't tell me how to feel; don't pull my chain with cheap tricks. Earn my sentiment.
31. Don't ask: Is this a good poem? Ask: Does the poem work? Ask: Does the poem do what it needs to do, and how can I help?
32. Get it right. Some poets will tell you that you can make stuff up. You can't. You've got to get it right. If you are talking about a flower, say, or the process of prairie, be accurate, to the fullest extent it is humanly possible. The world will not be redeemed if our poets don't get it right.
33. It's okay to go ahead, sometimes, and write poems you don't understand. I don't think we're always in charge.
34. Still, you want to write to be read and understood. If you don't want to be read and understood, why bother. Writing poetry for your own enjoyment seems pretty narcissistic. Poetry is an attempt to say that which is unsayable. And this is an act of community. It is not a private gesture but is meant to communicate; it is not meant to create puzzles, but to solve the puzzle. So let your poetry communicate.
35. You have to walk 20 miles a week anyway, so write while you walk. Wordsworth did. You can too. Nowadays you can use a little digital tape recorder like the Olympus VN240 PC, and you don't even have to slow your pace.
36. Sometimes poems have to age, like cheese, like wine. Let us take our time. Poetry waits, and sometimes improves with the waiting.
37. Find one good and loyal and true reader and ask her what she thinks. Preferably she will also be a nurse, and your wife, as my best reader is. Write so she can understand what you're saying. If she can't understand it, perhaps you need to work it until she can.
38. The dullness of the world is not in the world, but in yourself. If you find yourself bored, this is not the world's failure, but your own.
39. If your poetry doesn't make you a better person, you're doing something wrong. The awe that brings us to poetry should also make us holy. From The Big Book of Ben Zen: You can't always go To the cave of a thousand Buddhas, Ben says, and you can never Come back the same.
40. Don't ever assume that your stance in the world is wrong and the world's resistance is right. Indeed, the business of poetry is changing the world's mind. Poetry is always about something bigger than ourselves. If the struggle doesn't seem worth it to you, maybe you don't have the heart of a poet.
41. Love an animal. Animals have a lot to teach us about communication. I think purring is almost like praying. On the other hand, there is Ben Zen's opinion:
When you are looking For a place to sit down,
Says Ben, and there are As many cats as there
Are chairs, there are Too many cats.
42. Do not fear failure; indeed, embrace failure. The only failure is failure of the imagination. Push yourself until imagination fails. That's where success will be found.
43. Fear success. Success tends to make us forget the reasons we started writing in the first place. Success spoils us. We are no longer hungry, so we no longer pay quite so much attention to what is put before us. When our attention slips - that's the beginning of the end for a poet.
44. Believe in yourself even when no one else does. Walt Whitman had to self-publish Leaves of Grass. In her solitude, Emily Dickinson knew more than her peers knew. Our own Lorine Niedecker never got the attention she deserved while she was alive, yet she kept writing. Being a poet, a real poet, can be an awfully lonely profession, so you've got to believe in yourself. If the pain of being a poet is not worth it to you, become a plumber. The pay is better and people are generally glad to see you when you show up.
45. The difference between good poetry and bad poetry is not subjective. Read 100 poems for every poem you try to write, and you will begin to understand what I am saying.
46. Never settle for an easy line. Indeed, it is good advice to cross out everything you are overly fond of. Lines which call attention to themselves are not good lines.
47. Whether you use traditional prosody or you are the free-est of free verse poets, you must measure your lines. If you don't measure your lines, it's not poetry. It's this simple: poetry is measured. When you don't measure the lines, that's prose.
48. Now, of course, we could have a very long discussion about how we might measure our lines. We could talk about the haiku line, about iambic pentameter, about syllabics, stress count, the speech unit, the image, breath, fields of energy, whatever. I know which kinds of measure work for me. How do you measure your lines? Is the unit of measure you're using true to the poem you're writing, to what the poem wants to be? My daughter was only 6 or 7 when she asked me after I'd given a poetry reading: "Dad, why do they call it 'free verse' when you tap your foot?" Why indeed? I think it is because I don't use traditional measurements. But it's got a beat and you can dance to it.
49. Don't talk about what you are going to write: write it! From Ben Zen:
You have got to Start plowing
And stop talking About the plow.
50. Listen to the poem. Am I repeating myself? Good. I will say it again and again. It is not about you, the poet; it is about the poem. What does the poem need to be? Your job is to get out of the way.
at the same time in Paul's Cafe," Ivan noted. "Reminds me of the want ad in the paper several years ago. Wanted: a dishwasher to wash dishes and two waitresses."
"I heard a bunch talking about the size of the mosquito this year," Ivan said. "Several told how big they were, but David Winkleman topped em all. David said he saw a mosquito so big that you could have thrown a saddle on him."
"Last Saturday morning two older gentlemen were sitting at the round table," Ivan saaid. "One of the waitresses pulled the curtains across the back room. You couldn't see what was going on. One of the old guys said to the other old guy, 'What's going on back there?' The first old guy says, 'The Giddy Ones meet there every Saturday morning.' I think he meant the Gideons."
"That was the same morning," Ivan added, "that one of the waitresses had her back to me when she was waiting on someone. When she turned around she said, in kind of a nasal twang - it had to be a Heart of the Ozarks twang - 'Were you looking at my butt?' I was not only looking at it, I was admiring it. Older gentlemen do that occasionally. Old people get their jollies from looking. Ain't got nothin else to do. At a certain age men automatically join the double B group. The double B group is divided into two categories. They are the butts people and the boob people. If you will look closely you will see their watery, rheumy old eyes focused on either butts or boobs. Don't condemn em - that's just nature's way of getting their heart beat up and their blood sugar down. What it does to their cholesterol is still under investigation."
"I'm about to give up on Old Stop," Ivan said. Old Stop is his car - sometimes it goes, and sometimes it doesn't. "I'm afraid she is going to get me hurt. I started to pass a car on the highway recently when Old Stop quit. The driver I was passing wondered what in the world I was doing getting halfway around and then slowing down."
"The waitress that has been on the blink and hobbling at the Second Cup has discovered she had a broken bone in her foot," Ivan said. "The Scond Cup owner, Lynn Pickel, drafted her husband into service last Wednesday morning. He done a darned good job, too. But he was wondering how the dogs were getting along without him at home. The Pickels raise and train hunting dogs."
"Art Woodcock wasn't at the Jr. Hi football game last Thursday evening," Ivan said. "Evelyn was there, and I asked her where Art was. She said he was home with the flu. Now let me tell ya, when Art Woodcock stays home from an athletic event, that is a serious case of the flu."
"Back in the '30s, like 1933-34 or 35, somewhere along in there, the city of Smith Center let contracts to pave some streets that were dirt streets," Ivan said. "One of the streets was Third Street. Linton Lull was just a lad and his family lived at 120 West Third. Linton remembers that the contractor dumped several piles of sand in the street. Linton, not being careless but just not thinking, leaned his bicycle against one of those sand piles. The roller rolled over the sand and the bicycle. The result: one flattened bicycle and one sad lad. The incident apparently scarred and bruised Linton's sy-kee deeply, because you hardly ever see him riding a bicycle now."
"Can't remember what we talked about at the As the Bladder Fills Club last Friday morning," Ivan said. "The fire whistle blew about 8 in the morning, but the noise decibels have to be way on up for that group to hear. Nobody heard the fire whistle but me. Francis Runyon finally came in and said they thought a truck was on fire up on the highway, but it wasn't. It was just burning oil heading for Lang's Diesel."
"Sometimes," Ivan said, "it takes years and years to really appreciate what a man is saying. Many years ago I was sitting in the James and Lyal Barbershop. Barber Jess James was giving Art Reliahn a haircut. Jess said, 'You going to the game tonight?' Art said, 'The last time I went to a football game, all I could think about was how cold I was and how bad I had to pee. Them's my sentiments exact. But I'll keep goin' to both places."
"Well, it's getting that time of year," Ivan said. "It won't be long until we will be seeing white-haired old men wearing thick-lensed glasses, driving motor homes that cost a quarter of a million dollars, going south on Main. Those old fellows turn on their left turn signal at the junction of Highway 36 and 281, and they don't turn them off until they hit the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona."
"Got a note from Bill Greene, former football and basketball coach here in Smith Center," Ivan said. "His football team was undefeated and his basketball team went to the station tournament. Bill had been reading about the car trouble I was having. He said a guy was driving down the road one day and his car stopped. So he pops the hood and gets out his flashlight and is looking around to see if he can find the trouble. He heard a voice. The voice said, 'It's the distributor.' He looked around and all he saw was two horses. One white horse and one black horse. The white horse said, 'Turn your flashlight around and tap on the distributor a few times and then it will start.' So the guy did, got in his car, and it started right off. The next day the guy went to a mechanic and told him the story. The mechanic asked, 'Was it the white horse?' The guy said, 'Yes.' The mechanic said, 'You're lucky, because the black horse doesn't know crap about cars.'"
"I don't know if there is any connection or not," Ivan said, "but since it started raining, I've got the shingles. They are uncomfortable, and aint the best things to sleep with. From what I've been told, shingles can last a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. One thing about it, having the shingles hasn't changed my disposition. I still hate the world and everybody in it. Well, that's not true, I've never hated anybody in my life. In fact, I have only disliked one person intensely. That was a marble player back in grade school. He cheated. The rules were: knucks down and shoot your hardest. He fudged and babied up. I've mellowed a little. I still don't like him, but I don't dislike him intensely."
"Kim Roberts, who replaced Cindy Rorabaugh at Kloster Chiropractic, used just the proper word when Dr. Kloster told her I was one of the older residents in Smith Center," Ivan wrote. "Kim said I was 'seasoned.'"
"Well," Ivan said, "I finally traded Old Stop off. Got me one of them sedate family see dans. What I really wanted was what we used to call a 'cat wagon.' Them was those hopped up coupes and they were called 'Cat Wagons' because you could pick up girls with em."
"You know," Ivan said, "I thought when the kids who are juniors this year graduate, I would fold up my football watching tent and go silently into the good goodnight. But I've been watching those Jr. Varsity and Junior High kids, and I'm gonna hang around and watch them."
"I think we are going to have some good-lookin' girls for the Old Settlers Day parade," Ivan said, "and good-lookin' girls are my favorite kind."
and come up with blue sky this morning, with a slight frost of haze against it. The sun explodes in patches as a result, the leaves on the chilled trees tremble with the force of the light upon them. I feel all my muscles today; I feel as if I am entirely animal. Too much squinty-brained thinking sometimes leads to the rebellion of flesh, a reminder that we are physical, sentient beings. I think the thinking part is over-rated. I'd trade some thinking capacity for a better sense of smell, maybe, or better eyesight.
Dew on the windshield of the pick-up. A crisp, apple smell on the air. Sunlight like a yellow blanket.
Along Washington Street a modular home sits on its foundation. The old house had been bull-dozed down unceremoniously. Ah, progress. There were three new houses put up this summer in the development along Mary Lane.
In the country, I see blue sky all the way to the rim of earth in every direction. The geese have come down to Wisconsin: great waves of them settle northwest of the hawk's tree.
Those workmen I'd hoped would re-surface Highway E yesterday must have spent the whole day talking about it and none of the day actually doing anything. There had been no further work on the road by the time I came home last night, at least not so's I could tell. Sometimes I think I'd like a job like that, then I remember I'm not very good at doing nothing. Too much farm boy in me still, I guess. The workmen are back again today, blocking traffic, some of them sitting two to a truck. They will talk some more and we can hope they'll get closer to doing something than just talk.
On Saturday, September 23, 2006, I delivered this essay on writing poetry and being a poet to Wisconsin Regional Writers Association at their fall meeting in Janesville, Wisconsin. Those in attendance asked how they could get copies, so I said I would post the full text here at The Middlewesterner. Here they are, then, the 99 propositions, in four parts, with all their contradictions.
1. Listen to the poem. What is it trying to say? Let the material itself tell you what it wants to be. You like sonnets? Too bad – not everything wants to a sonnet. Not everything wants to be a haiku.
2. Don't despair.
Being a poet is not a career move you can justify rationally, and the world will not cater to you because you've chosen the life of a poet: indeed, people may tend to step away from you. But don't despair. There is a quiet joy to be found in a life given to poetry.
3. Marry a nurse.
For 35 years, when they asked me what it takes to succeed, I have been telling young poets to marry a nurse. Nursing is a profession that is actually in demand and one gets paid for services rendered, so if you marry a nurse at least one of you will be employable.
4. Walk 20 miles a week.
Being a poet is hard work and you have to be in shape. 20 miles a week is about the kind of training program a poet needs. That would be 1000 miles a year, assuming you take two weeks off for vacation.
5. The poem is always about the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon.
The good poem should not call attention to itself. The poet's tool-marks should not be visible. How you achieve what you achieve should seem as natural and effortless as breathing. The poem should be as smooth and comfortable as a river-stone, the way it fits your hand.
6. Do not think you are a poet because you write poetry.
You are not a poet because you write poems, but because of the way you engage the world. You see the world in terms of like or as, in terms of patterns and associations, rhythms and recurrences. You see where and how things are alike. Or, if you're not a poet, you don't. Being a poet is about the way we confront the world, the way we apprehend things, the way we come to understanding. It is about how we see. Do you find the secrets in the little things, and do they stand for larger things? Does the metaphorical flower open for you and reveal its larger meaning? I believe that if you are answering yes, you're a poet whether or not you ever write poems.
7. Do not measure success in terms of money.
Never. Not ever. Of course, I know it is the American way to use money as the yardstick, but that doesn't mean money is a gauge of true worth.
8. Do not measure success in terms of fame.
Fame is fickle. We each get our sound byte and then the spotlight moves on. Chasing the spotlight will wear you out and make you forget that your business is poetry.
9. Being successful as a poet is about the poem: it is not about publication; it is not about prizes; it is not about gaining attention.
Sometimes these things come to the poet, but they have nothing to do with the poem.
10. Measure success only in terms of how true the poem is to its intention; how close it is to what it should be.
Your job is to make the poem as true to the material as it is humanly possible to do. Do that, and get out of the poem's way.
11. If you can't write poetry without using meter and rhyme, you can't write poetry using them: poetry is not to be found in particular tools.
12. The poetry is not about you, it's about the world.
We don't need navel-gazers. Give us instead – as William Blake put it - "the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour...."
13. Of course, you may write poetry for your own edification, if you wish, but please – SPARE US.
Poetry is not something done simply to gratify the poet's ego; it has within it the possibility of saving the world and the people of the world. Treat your work with that kind of seriousness.
14. You will find the material of poetry right here, right at the tips of your fingers.
If you cannot make poetry of what we have here, you cannot make poetry. We are brought up to believe the stuff of literature is someplace else, not here, not in the middlewest. That's hogwash.
15. Have no expectations.
Having expectations always limits what you will find when you put pen to paper. That's because, with expectations, we tend to see what we're looking for. And that's no way to find something new.
16. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the speaker of your poems, the "I," bears any special resemblance to who you are in everyday life.
The imagination scrapes us pretty thoroughly away from our work. We disappear into something greater and more cosmic than our selves. At least this is the case if the poem turns out to be any damn good.
17. Write in an American idiom.
The best poetry has the stink of our living about it, the muck of our places, the lilt of our accents, the turn of our phrases. Don't pretend otherwise. Admire the great dead poets, but don't try to sound like them.
18. Find a master.
If you haven't already done this, you want to locate for yourself a poet from whom you can best learn the art of poetry. You never have to actually meet the poet; you learn from the poetry. Who is your master?
19. Find a master, learn everything you can from the master, and then, as the Zen teachers say, "kill the master."
That is, you have to go beyond the master's limitations; you have to find your own voice; you have to start fashioning a poetry of your own. You become your own master. But it does take years.
20. Hanging around with mediocre poets will make you mediocre.
Hanging around with first-rate poets won't make you first-rate, but at least they won't ruin you, and you might learn something from them.
21. If you want to write, and write well, don't drink.
Drinking wastes a lot of time we could give to poetry or other worthwhile endeavors. Imagination is enough. You don't need drugs or alcohol.
22. Oh, maybe a little red wine to loosen your tongue.
But certainly not enough to tongue-tie you.
23. If it's not broke, break it.
If there isn't a surprise in the poem, if it doesn't take me someplace I haven't been, if I am not changed by it in some way, maybe it's not a poem.
24. Being satisfied is the first step towards death.
If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. Never stop revising. This is art. You are trying to make something beautiful. Good enough is not enough. Of course, once it is accepted by a magazine, you can leave it alone for a bit. But look at it again before you put it in a book. And again before you put it in your collected poems.
25. Listen to the poem: what does it want to be?
You are the chrysalis in which the caterpillar is transformed into the butterfly. You are the midwife birthing the child. You are a radio picking up the news we need. Listen to the poem.
Blue sky above, yet grey clouds to the west at least. A brisk weekend with sun and a sharpness to the light. My wife told me she saw the hawk eating at the corner of the alfalfa field south of the hawk tree - having at a white bird, a sea gull perhaps. This was last week, I'm not sure which day, what time of day. Did the hawk kill a sea gull or was it scavenging? Does it matter? Well - yes, somehow it matters; yet I suppose it doesn't matter if I know how it matters.
On Saturday we visited my wife's brother and my 15-year-old niece. They had come back to "the farm" in Marquette County for the first time since my sister-in-law's death. The farm is the emotional center for them, their home. They brought back Karen's ashes with them. The remains will be put into our small cemetery there, at the home Karen loved, at peace, out of pain. In the place all of us hope to end up, the farm, at peace, out of pain.
Oh, there are clouds to the east and the south, too, and the sky overhead is closing. There is dew on the windshield of the pick-up, there is a real chill in the air.
Just north of the village, the whiteness of frost layered on a lawn, unmistakable. Farther north, plants look as if they have been nipped considerably. There it is then - the first frost of autumn. The new season hums its song.
At Five Corners I look off to the north-northwest: I see geese, a wave of them.
Where Highway E is torn up, several workmen stand around as if they are thinking about resurfacing the road. Finally. Now, if they'd just get to it!
Yesterday, the hawk in its hawk tree. It reminds me - again - that we are physical beings in a physical world. Yet we can be more than that - we can aspire to greatness, we can hope to leave something of lasting value, something larger than ourselves, something to benefit others. If we don't, if we are simply physical beings in the world, and are little more than shit factories. Raw materials going in one end and our main product comes out the other. Does a fellow want to be remembered as nothing more than a shit factory?
A chill wind bloweth. The first day of autumn has winter's breath. Every year it happens; every year I want to be surprised. Isn't that life? Fool me again.
The flag at the cemetery flaps briskly west to east. To the north, low along the horizon, a bank of dark, cold clouds. There are clouds to the east, low along Lake Michigan.
Again this morning the hawk is in the hawk tree.
With this wind, leaves on the ground are like little wild things scurrying.
Just south of Five Corners the burros are in their pasture, all of them with their heads down eating their way towards winter.
my sadness, I'm starting to realize, is the absence of bird song at dawn. The sky is silent. Where once there was a wall of sound in the house of morning, now there is only an open emptiness. There is no sound of birds in the morning now to cheer us onwards. How can I be 53 years old and only now realizing how much I miss the birds in the morning? How can a fellow say he is a poet when he cannot even see this, when he has missed so much?
When I step out to the pick-up to head for work, now a couple sparrows of chittering at the end of the driveway, as if to cheer me. It rained again last night. More leaves have collected on the ground, some few. It is a grey day. Grey clouds against a grey sky.
Downtown at the post office our post mistress raises the American flag. There is not enough wind to move it.
A sourness in the air, where the canning factory is spraying its waste water. A sparrow hawk on a power line nearby. The hawk is in the hawk tree. The sky to the north is a smeared water-color.
About half the field of beets south of Five Corners has been taken; half remains.
I wish the road crew would show up to finish their work on Highway E north of Five Corners. The roadway has been roughed up for nearly a week, then nothing more. The sound of tires on the surface grinds like a dull drill at the dentist's office, way back in an aching molar close to the ear. Twice a day I have to endure it.
The street is wet, sky is overcast. Fall is in the air. How could I live without the turn of the seasons, without the change of the sun's angle and how it takes hold of things, without spring mud and fall colors, summer's green vibration and our winter blizzards? Every day is the same, yes, but it is not too much the same. We have reason to rise every morning full of anticipation.
The flutter of leaves. The surface of the pond like rumpled fabric, dark grey and roughly woven. The green of many of the trees is in retreat. We see a lot of yellowed leaves already, brown leaves fallen to the ground, here and there a hint of redness.
All things do not dream their ending.
Waste water is being sprayed again this morning just north of the village. Leaves on the hawk's tree are starting to turn dark and crisp.
Some of the beets in the field just south of Five Corners were harvested yesterday. The cabbage nearby is still in the field, somewhat ragged.
weekend and it is blue and bright this morning. Having spent much of the afternoon in the sun on Saturday, I am a little sun-burned, the last hurrah of summer.
It has been cool out. We have to believe autumn is rolling in on us like a storm. Soon the leaves will fly about, making their multi-colored blizzard. All things in their time, whether I understand or not.
Some things I say - some of the things I write about here - sound almost like prayers. Praying is a talk you have with yourself, and some of us hope that God is listening. I don't know if there is a God, and if there is how does one explain the world's miseries. The story of Job just won't do, as far as I am concerned.
No dew this morning, but the smell of autumn is in the air. Of leaves and apples, of vegetation decaying.
The canning company is spraying waste water in its field to the west of Highway E just north of Fairwater.
What clouds there are this morning look air-brushed on the sky. They have a soft and vague appearance.
Hoorah for summer! say the flowers at Five Corners, their heads bobbing in the breeze. They make their last remarks before this too passeth.
as my head. Not much traffic on the street, nor much lumber to my thought. Golden sun against leaves shrinking from the promise of winter. I wish for an explosion of the moment, the sight of something not seen, insight into the world.
Dew on the windshield of the pick-up. A breeze cool enough to raise goose bumps. Sun and shadow, green and gold. A small discussion of sparrows at the end of the driveway.
Downtown the Grand River is roiling westward. What rushes it? Flag at the cemetery blows west to east. Waste water from the canning factory is being sprayed in the field along the west side of Highway E just north of the village. A sour smell. A huge flock of seagulls, like a blizzard. There is a huge chunk of moon in the western sky. To the east, a bank of clouds at the edge of Lake Michigan.
A mile south of Five Corners a spray plane turns on its left wing tip.
Grey overcast with sky showing through here and there. The birds have not been very cheery at sunrise of late - all their good cheer is done for another year perhaps. They have packed their bags; I suppose they are thinking about laying about in the warm sunshine somewhere south of here. I should like to go with them.
One hopes his mind stays clear as he ages. One hopes he can continue to pay attention the rest of his life. It would be such a waste otherwise, but I know a lot has already been wasted. I shall pay attention today.
The flag at the cemetery hangs limp, yet in the country I see the clouds have come apart to reveal copious blue sky. Three crows fly as the crow flies. Another field of corn is gone. There is enough sun for pale shadows.
North of Five Corners Highway E has been roughed up considerably, in preparation for a new layer of asphalt, I suppose.
Reeds in the marsh across the street from where I work - they look like woven gold in the morning sun; the fabric ripples as if worn by a woman moving through the new day smooth, and easy, and supple.
I assume death still pulls the wagon slowly. We have blue sky, this morning, sunlight on the green leaves, and sadness. Why can the woman not be lifted out of her suffering. Release her. I have given up hoping for miracles. Let her go.
Dew on the windshield. Some slight haze off to the east. It sits like chiffon above fields of corn, a kind of Thursday morning Key lime pie, maybe.
"has a seminar every weekday morning that is better than any seminar you could attend in our Division I colleges. Right up there at Paul's Cafe you will hear more knowledge, wisdom, and farm facts and just general all around agricultural know-how than you can find in a semester of college classes. There is one drawback to the Paul's Cafe seminar. You have to have enough acumen to separate the Bull Stuff from the truth. If you can do that, you are home free. Another thing you will notice at Paul's - those smart, successful farmers are never there when there is work to be done on the farm. The only thing that will ever put them behind on their farm schedule is weather conditions and just the minute weather conditions improve the farmers are long gone."
"I was talking about people with nicknames an issue or so back," Ivan said. "Bill Lyon saw me and asked me if I remembered Pedie Rorabaugh. The thing I remember about Pedie was his vocabulary. He didn't speak shirt-sleeve English. He gilded the lily every time he talked. One of the things I will always remember was Pedie's description of someone he didn't like. If he didn't like a person, he would refer to him as 'that incoherent diabolical S.O.B.'"
"It's nice to hear good news," Ivan said. "Last Thursday morning Joe Lambert said the Thornburg Road was the best it had been all summer. His brother, Dwayne, who is usually pretty conservative in his praise, said, 'It's a regular boulevard.'"
"Well, boys," Ivan said, "you can take this to the bank. The Smith Center Redman will not be caught with their punts down when they open the season against Norton. Coach Roger Barta and crew have been running their usual efficient pre-season practice. And they will be ready. When the Redman score their first touchdown, which, by the way, will be early, the Norton coach will think, 'I thought we prepared for that.' But the Redmen do not depend on surprise nearly as much as they do on execution. We play some teams that we could send em our play book and tell em what we were going to run and they still couldn't stop us."
"Oh, crud, I spoke too quick," Ivan lamented. "The zuchinni monster struck again. Just when I thought I was safe in leaving my car unlocked, the zukeeney monster struck again. When I returned to my car one day last week I thought maybe I had a low tire. My car was listing slightly to port. The list was caused by a gigantic zucheeny. Arky the waitress spoke rather sharply to me the other day and said that I had misspelled zukenny. Arky was educated in Arkansas where, apparently, they hadn't taught her that zukennie could be spelled any way the writer thought proper. There is no 'right' way to spell zukeenie."
"Polkas," Ivan said, "are like politicians - when you've heard one you've heard em all."
"I want to make this abundantly clear," Ivan said. "When you are running down Smith Center, you are walking on the fighting side of me. I've read about people telling about how ignorant, provincial, and out of step we Smith Centerians are. My question is this - if you're so brilliant, how come the only job you were offered happened to be in Smith Center?"