By Peter Filkins
Randall Jarrell famously said that writing poetry was like walking across an open field waiting to be struck by lightning. In reverse fashion, Robert Frost’s dictum, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” makes the same point about the need for the poet to be surprised by his own poem while writing it, or to experience some moment of charged inspiration. And yet I wonder how often writers are truly surprised in the middle of writing a poem, or if in fact it’s the same kind of surprise that we associate with a surprise party, or being surprised by a burglar, or being surprised at developments in the lives of our friends and colleagues. I worry, in fact, that such a notion buys into an idea of the poet as having special powers of vision or inner knowledge denied the common person, or that all good poems must pull off some kind of astounding insight unavailable to the rest of us.
Most often when a poem “occurs” to me, it is just that, an occurrence or event, a moment in which something said or read or observed or experienced stops me and says, pay attention, look closer, think about what might be here or what you might be able to do with it. But such moments don’t have to be that momentous. Reading Jon Stallworthy’s biography of Wilfred Owen, I was struck when he moved to Harold Owen’s story of how, as a boy, he had seen a shark that he caught dance alive on its tail later the same night without ever questioning the story’s veracity or strangeness, just as Stallworthy does not raise suspicions about Harold’s claim of having seen his brother sitting before him in his ship while cruising off the coast of Africa the day Wilfred died back in Europe. In writing the poem, I somehow wanted to do justice to such strangeness, to let the poem discover and reveal what that strangeness had to say about the tragedy of Owen’s death in the last week of World War I, or the tragedy of war in general. Reading Stallworthy’s biography, I knew I had something with which I could work, that somehow something had been revealed to me. The work of writing the poem, then, was to see if I could make the same happen for the reader.
When I’m asked how I know when a poem is finished, I always say that it’s when I feel that I have exhausted its possibilities. In fact, I am usually aware fairly early on what a poem might be able to do with the material that gives rise to it, but it takes months, even years, to see or discover if I can pull it off in as engaging and readable a fashion as possible. In “A Country Quilt,” for instance, I knew I wanted to somehow connect the unique artful feel of the quilts made by the African-American women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, with the larger machinations of American history, racial politics, and the solace of making. That’s a fairly difficult thing to do in convincing fashion, for history tends to swallow up poems and the momentary insights they offer us. But if I do feel the poem works, it is because it has arrived at a place where I find a “rightness” that I am willing to stand by in terms of what it has to say about craft and patience and history and suffering, and how such elements tend to be as much entangled with one another as distinct and set apart.
James Merrill said that the purpose of writing poetry was to find the words that one could stand by. Wallace Stevens arrives at much the same conclusion in aspiring to “The poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” For me, a poem is done when I am willing to both stand by it and to find myself evidenced within it. That need not be something “personal,” but it does involve the arrival at a mien, an angle of regard to the material at hand, which is really where I am most present. Not in what I say, but how I choose to say it. Not in what a poem is about, but in how I’ve gone about it. Not in a poem’s “surprise,” but how, both strangely and recognizably, something has been revealed.