Featured Title

Breathing Room
Breathing Room

Also available as a trade paperback


More books by...

The Poems of Peter Davison
The Poems of Peter Davison

The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath
The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath

Writer's Recommendations

About the Author Poem Poets on Poetry
Picture of Author Author Name

Years ago I read a truly discerning piece of advice about writing. If a poem you're struggling with doesn't conclude properly, said the late Richard Hugo, look a few lines before the end for the trouble: trouble is seldom located where you think. So it is that "finding time to write" is seldom what keeps writing from getting done. In nearly half a century as an editor I have been hearing complaints from writers about the difficulty of finding time to write--especially as the deadlines for their book contracts approached. Those in the teaching profession were particularly vociferous. I have taught very little, but in the course of a lifetime of meeting deadlines--those set by myself and those set by others--it has seemed to me that the difficulty comes not at the end of the writing task but at the outset, in the middle, and every day. What's not begun will never end.

I did not begin this piece of writing in order to scold. Time lies all around us, when beepers and e-mail and paper memoranda demand instant replies. I do not for a moment minimize the difficulties that the Information Age thrusts upon us: the requirement to hold oneself alert and available at all hours, the expectation of always being on stage. Yet the great writers we admire have somehow, whether they be Balzac or Proust, always beat their deadlines when the word called. In his late sixties today, John Updike seems to have no difficulty "finding" the time to write poems and novels, to say nothing of some little thing a couple of times a month for The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review or for some local pageant or charitable purpose. Writers like Updike write because it's what they do.

No one would wish to advocate the sort of auctorial sprawl that disfigured the best writing of such eager workhorses as J. B. Priestley (well over 100 books) or Isaac Azimov (over 500): I claim no great virtue in quantity for its own sake. Stanley Kunitz has created a magnificent though slender body of work in the last three-quarters of a century through the expedient of being ready, when poems presented themselves, to write them down three times a year. He did not find time for such poems: they found time for him. He also wrote, now and then, some wonderful essays, or translated the work of another poet--and all this while teaching some of the best poets of the last two or three generations. Result: a body of poetry that carries real atomic weight. He counsels patience if you seek poetry:

The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance starts when you have to convert it into language. Language itself is a kind of resistance to the pure flow of self. The solution is to become one's language. You cannot write a poem until until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they link up there's a quantum leap of energy. You can ride on that rhythm, it will take you somewhere strange. The next morning you look at the page and wonder how it all happened. You have to triumph over all your diurnal glibness and cheapness and defensiveness. [from NEXT-TO-LAST THINGS, 1985]

Time is in the air you breathe. The writer who fills many shelves does not breathe more eagerly than the crabbed sufferer from writer's block, but the two differ in the ways they use their oxygen. Katherine Anne Porter spent a lifetime writing floods of letters on blue paper, to anyone who would listen, about the outrages visited upon her by visitors and interrupters. Nearly every letter complained that nobody would let her alone to write. Once the letters were written, she could escape to the next party, the next interruption. Perfectionism kept her from producing, in a very long and plaintive life, more than three diamantine volumes of short stories, a long, brilliant, flawed novel, a superannuated short memoir of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a scattering of essays on this and that: five books--and tens of thousands of letters--in nearly ninety years. She wrote every day but seemed to find it impossible to finish. Her books were tickled out of her. One of her editors, Seymour Lawrence, paid to stow her in a series of country inns when her novel, SHIP OF FOOLS, was approaching the 20th anniversary of its deadline delivery date--and, behold, after a series of interruptions, and many blue letters--it was finally done, and became a great best-seller, after weighing down its author's mind for some three decades.

Who will pretend that writing is not difficult? The mind that suffers may take a long time about it. And when we have a report to finish, or a term paper, or a dissertation, or a monograph--or a poem or a story--some event will invariably intervene, whether it be a telephone call or an earthquake, to distract the attention. Yet Saul Bellow has admirably reasoned that the two concomitants of the writer divide themselves between those two very poles, distraction and attention. The writer feeds on distraction, the unruly events of daily life that make up the warp of his weaving; yet he cannot realize the fabric of writing without employing the attentive shuttle that binds warp and woof together. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But reason has little power when smothered by the blanket of time.

"Creative writing" in the late 20th century cravenly yielded to the time-dilemma by kneeling down and yielding up the very language by which the passage of time could be commanded. Fashionable writing in fiction and poetry gave up on time by the simple expedient of ignoring it. It took itself out of time, making itself hopefully timeless, and cast its narratives in the present indicative. Here's how that writing began to sound: "So Roger speaks to her very quietly. He strokes her hair. He holds her feet. He whispers just under earshot to soothe her trembling. And Jean, calming, begins to listen, though she does not really hear. Her very toes and fingers are absorbing his wordless message."

This kind of utterance has been regarded as very heady stuff indeed. In the 1980s, at the height of the furor for the present indicative, I became aware, as poetry editor of a national magazine, that of the sixty thousand poems that were submitted each year, at least eighty per cent were framed in the present indicative. For a while now I have been watching that percentage slowly recede, but still it hovers at perhaps sixty per cent and for all these years I have been wondering why. Various reckless hypotheses present themselves:

(1) Did the Sixties so undermine confidence in history that anything to do with The Past (including the past tense) became suspect, that only The Present had any validity?

(2) Was the Clintonian self-absorption of the baby-boom young so profound that only by examining and presenting themselves through the clinical self-regard of the present tense could writers seem to catch a grip on reality?

(3) Was the brainwashing of the logarithmically expanding "creative writing community" so extensive after the 1960s, that teachers thought it necessary to jettison every grammatical sophistication of past ages, from Cicero to Coleridge, so as to make their students speak only the insistent demotic language of immediate-speak?

Questions of grammatic preference may seem to undertake a lengthy digression away from the question of "finding time." But if the writer's very language seems to be crumbling in his or her hands, might that not make for desperation in the face of the passage of time, that most uncontrollable of forces? If nothing in the world is constant except change; if one fears, with justice, that time will never have a stop; if all occasions do conspire against you--what can help writers, then, in their tipsy balance between present and future?

Maybe it will help to look a few lines higher up: perhaps the solution lies earlier than the ending. "Theme alone," Robert Frost once wrote, "will steady us down." Nothing endows writers with a keener incentive to write, to plant their words where they will stay, than having something of their own to brandish. "You can't give up to the forces of silence," said the poet William Matthews, not knowing in 1997 that he had only a couple of weeks to live; "They mean us harm." I wonder whether any writer's difficulty in getting started arises from thinking more about who might listen than about what it is he or she wants to say. The doctoral candidate concerns himself with the opinion of his adviser; the writing student frets about the possible reaction of his fellow workshoppers; the assistant dean agonizes about the reception of her report by The Administration. Yet in every instance, what has been asked for is merely and precisely what the writer doesn't dare to stammer out: what is it you really think?

And of course that's when the hollowness grabs the pit of the stomach. As the old saw has it, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?" Anyone setting out to write anything must recognize that to speak a piece one must emerge from a shell. The unspoken gnaws at us all. It will not let us come out with the words, nor will it let us rest. As we stare at that first ghastly, gawky, abortive sentence on our lined foolscap or on our computer screen, we know we have fallen short, we know our powers are inadequate to our task. But we cannot let the failure rest there: we require ourselves to inquire a little higher up in the procedure, as the poet looks a few lines before his ending for the solution to what went wrong. You, foolish writer, are not the first who has passed this way. Everyone from Homer forward has hesitated at this threshold. Everyone who ever had something on his or her mind has stammered at the words in which to embrace it. And every one of us has failed. As Bertrand Russell said, in an epigram which I have been reciting to professional writers for forty years, "Our writing is never so good as we think it is when we think it is good, nor so bad as we think it is when we think it is bad." Courage! What you have to say is more important than your inadequacy at saying it.

Originally appeared in the Phi Beta Kappa Key Recorder (April 2001). Reprinted by permission of the author. No part may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

More Poets on Poetry

W.S. Merwin | Mark Strand | Kenneth Koch | Marge Piercy | George Bradley | Philip Levine | Frank O'Hara | Henri Cole | J. D. McClatchy | Wallace Stevens | W. S. Di Piero | Peter Davison | Edward Hirsch | Marie Ponsot | Anthony Hecht | Mary Jo Salter | Franz Wright