P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.6 - November 2016
"Helplessly Intelligent": Some Notes on Poetry & Community
by David Graham
Many years ago I found myself on the phone with a poetry hero of mine, the late Anthony Hecht. I had never met the man, but was under pressure from my publisher to solicit book jacket blurbs for my first collection, preferably from Big Names. Hecht was about the only such poet I could ask. He had done me a couple kindnesses, selecting a poem in a blind competition, then graciously writing me the best letter of recommendation I ever had. It began, “I have never met David Graham, but have long admired his poetry. . . .” That “long” was a bit of a stretch, I knew, but as a young poet how I basked in it! In any case, reputations in 1985 didn’t come much better than Hecht’s, a well honored member of that amazing generation of poets born in the 1920s that includes Hall, Rich, Wilbur, Levertov, Ginsberg, Sexton, Levine, Bly, Kumin, and others. I was suitably nervous and star-struck to be on the phone with him, and so blurted out something rather naive in my best aw-shucks voice. Telling Hecht what at honor it was to speak in person with him, I said “You know everyone in the poetry world!”
His reply was startlingly blunt. “Yes,” he agreed in his smooth patrician tone, “but some of them are perfectly dreadful!” Though relatively young, I knew he was right. In my short career I had already met more than my share of self-important, cut-throat, petty, vain, careerist, rude, blinkered, and narrow-minded poets. Which is to say, of course, that poets are human, probably no better or worse as a group than any other, except perhaps in pretentiousness and vanity. We may rival actors in that.
And the intervening years have not, shall we say, proven Hecht wrong. Give me a few beers, and I can tell you some stories, about names big as well as oh so small. . . . Still, if I’m honest I must also admit that the art of poetry, directly or indirectly, has brought me some of my best friendships and most fulfilling interactions. Down through the decades I’ve hung out a great deal with other poets in many different places and on a wide variety of occasions. And I’ve thought a lot about what the community of poets can, at its best, look like.
In my teaching career I also faced in every writing course the challenge of helping create a productive and welcoming environment—a writing community—without sacrificing the sort of critical rigor and standards we all need to succeed in revising and improving our work. It’s a perennial question—how to be open minded and encouraging while still challenging ourselves and others to develop and grow.
Needless to say I have no magic answers. But I will describe one of the best poetry communities I ever witnessed. For a number of summers I attended, in various roles, conferences at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s old farmhouse in Franconia, Hampshire. There I got to know its founding director, the late Donald Sheehan. For over a quarter of a century Don directed The Frost Place, including the Frost Festival, the Frost Museum, and the Poet in Residence program. Not a poet himself, he was a legendary teacher and scholar of English, Russian, and classical literature. He was immensely knowledgeable about and supportive of the art of poetry. Even more importantly, he set the tone of the Frost Place: non-hierarchical, community-minded, informal but serious and rejuvenating.
Blessedly, there was virtually no Po-Biz at The Frost, and any celebrity poets who put on airs or otherwise did not enter into the spirit of the place were not asked back. By all reports as well as my own observation, Don was responsible for much of what made those gatherings so remarkable. As Donald Hall once put it, The Frost Place has always dedicated itself not to poets but to poetry. That’s part of the answer to the questions I’m circling around, I am sure, implying a certain bedrock humility as well as a passion for the art itself. Fittingly, Sheehan himself was a soft-spoken, deeply religious and humble man. It's hard to describe what a magnetic personality he had, but my old professor Sydney Lea hit the nail on the head in saying, "when Don entered the room, the atmosphere calmed and people began to behave better."
One of the highlights of my life was being asked, in 1996, to live in Robert Frost's farmhouse for the summer as Resident Poet. I got to walk Frost's woods, sit in his writing chair, enjoy the stunning White Mountains scenery, and soak up the atmosphere where he wrote some of his best early lyrics. But by far the best part was coming to know Don better, and observing at first hand how he directed the place and its programs. My teaching and my poetry were forever improved.
I loved what Don would say each summer when introducing the workshop at the Festival, which I'll take the liberty of quoting at length below; it seems to me to have a lot to do not only with the art of poetry, but with teaching and living one's life in a healthy way. I am sorry that I can't discover where I found the text of his remarks originally, but here in his words is the gist of a talk I heard him give more than once:
"The heart of the conference is the workshop. Thus, you will need to work from the heart. There is a natural urge to hide: a swarm of anxieties, both our own and others' that we pick up on. Above all, there is an overwhelming 'need'—a false hunger—to be praised, coupled with a hair-trigger impulse to envy anyone else whose work seems immediately praiseworthy. Thus you are likely to find yourself whipsawed between the hunger to be admired and the impulse to envy those who are admirable.
You will need to recognize and acknowledge all of this--in order to reach the key that unlocks all truth: taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.
This taking-care, which is a form of love, increases the quality of the intelligence. If you must make a flash choice between sympathy and intelligence, choose sympathy. Usually these fall apart--sympathy becoming a mindless 'being nice' to everyone, while intelligence becomes an exercise in contempt. But here's the great fact of this Festival, for twenty-seven years now: as you come deliberately to care about another person's art (and not your own), then your own art mysteriously gets better.
Thus, your work at this conference is to make the art of at least one other person better and stronger by giving—in love—all your art to them."
To those who might fear that his approach did constitute a vapid “being nice,” I remember Don insisting that “we are all helplessly intelligent. Choose sympathy, and the intelligence will follow.” If you think about it, going in the reverse direction tends to be more common, whether in reviewing or workshopping; and too often sympathy gets omitted altogether. Embedded in Don’s approach, I would say, is a realization that there are many sorts of intelligence. Unfortunately, both the academic enterprise as well as the publishing world often value and thus reward unduly the meaner and least attractive sorts of intelligence—involving competition and one-upsmanship, mocking of error, envy, and a blinding pride in one’s own aesthetic and intellect.
In contrast, I believe that not only is it sweeter to praise and sympathize, but also it requires every bit as much intelligence to do it well. Every poet, as well as practically every poem, has weak spots. That’s not news, and it’s relatively easy to point them out. Much harder, in my experience, is explaining why a poem is good. Furthermore, writers, especially beginners, need to know what they’re doing well just as much or more than where they’ve failed. For years at the start of each writing course I would conduct a sample workshop with an anonymous piece of writing, telling students we were going to practice and discuss good workshop technique before we turned to their own drafts. All I would say beforehand was: “How could this writer improve this writing? What would you say to him or her?” Invariably all the comments would be negative, often rather viciously so. After a while, I would simply ask students, “Imagine the writer were here. How would he or she feel now? How likely is it that what we said would result in better writing?” It wasn’t usually necessary for me to belabor the point much. Students could see that starting with positive comments was not only “nice,” it was also highly practical. And so we would try to practice doing so.
There were many other influences on my teaching, certainly, but Donald Sheehan definitely helped clarify such things for me. Thus, when Firestone Feinberg invited me to be a part of the Verse-Virtual community, one of the first things that caught my eye was his desire not just that poets communicate with each other, but that we do it in a positive manner. That’s the kind of community I am happy to claim as my own.
©2016 David Graham