The Kenyon Review Credos
My love of poetry started with Shakespeare’s sonnets. When I was in college, I wrote a paper on poetic devices, and I have a vivid memory of feeling the doors in my brain unlock when I saw how Shakespeare made puns out of metrical substitutions. Take, for example, the line “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” in Sonnet 73—the first three syllables are stressed, and the last three syllables (arguably) are also stressed. When I recognized that pattern, I felt the echo echo through me, the spondees transforming man to tree to church. I was hooked by the way Shakespeare layered words like chords, and by the way rhythm made meaning.
It takes me a long time to finish a poem. If I were a knitter, I’d be the kind who sheers her own sheep to get wool. If a fisher, one who fishes by hand. Sometimes I wish I wrote more quickly, but mostly I revel in the slow process. It is not because I’ve ever been certain of my talent that I’ve devoted myself to poetry. If I were to trace my path, it would consist mostly of a series of very small, instinctive decisions that shaped what seems now a kind of radical life (as Dante says “Halfway upon the journey of this our life, / I find myself alone in a dark wood”). If I could have seen the whole route at once, the writing life might have been harder to choose. Thankfully, the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and they obscure the miles.[i]
Last spring, twenty years after I wrote my first poems, I published a book. During those twenty years, I became more and more committed to poetry—I enrolled in community workshops, I got my MFA, I taught poetry workshops, I got my PhD. Truth be told, I’ve probably continued writing not only because I love the process of discovery, but also because I love the company of other writers—both the ones I meet in person, and the ones I only know from reading. Though many think writing is a solitary act, to me it feels highly communal—a continuous form of conversation and exchange. Several years ago, I was in a workshop where we all recited some of the lines we knew by heart to each other—our poem DNA. It sounded something like: “banked fires blaze; listen now again; all are naked, none is safe; this is precision; the no-song-left-but-this dark; from which I struggle not to stray; the body wishes to be held and held; later flowers for the bees; surmise, she rises in the sunshine; the secret of secrets is within me again; somebody loves us all.”[ii] We carry these ongoing choruses with us. I gather lines so I can give them away.
At this stage in my career, I’m the quintessential sophomore: “sopho” (wise), and “moros” (foolish, dull). I’m dwelling in possibility, as Dickinson would say, a roofless house. Shiver me timbers! To tilt towards dull would kill me. Dread comes when I imagine poetry as a finite pie; joy is seeing it’s a hive: the more bees, the more honey. I may never write another poem that resonates with anyone, but I am less afraid of this than of squandering my chance to write something meaningful because of fear, laziness, or ego. It’s the constant work of revision—to persist, to re-see, to let go, to let be.
I am writing this on the day we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a poet, I see a connection between Dr. King’s use of anaphora and the way he lived—asserting himself into the line of fire, again and again, to bring his message of peace. I can’t help but think that this consistency between his life and his words is exactly why the speech thunders through the body, and why the rhythm makes right action feel possible. I believe words change us.
Some theorists claim that matter’s made of strings—all the world’s a lute. Maybe this is why rhythm is so powerful. It incites, and it consoles; and it does this because it is both in and beyond time: as personal as our pulse, as external as the sounding sea. Its constancy promises continuance, even beyond death. If I quiet my ego’s hunger for fame and acceptance, I can hear rhythms affirming the interrelated patterns of the world, and this gives me a sense of some great connecting force much larger than myself, like an eternal beat I will never fully comprehend, but to which I nevertheless belong.
[i] This sentence quotes “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost.
[ii] “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden; “The Rain Stick,” by Seamus Heaney; “What Are Years,” by Marianne Moore; “Persimmons,” by Li Young Lee, “The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz; “In the City of Light,” by Larry Levis; “To Autumn,” by John Keats; “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” by Gwendolyn Brooks; “On the Road,” by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Jane Kenyon; “Laughter and Stars,” by Tess Gallagher; and “The Filling Station,” by Elizabeth Bishop.
More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.