How To Be a Poet

The old joke goes: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” And, of course, any word could be substituted for “doctor”–even “poet.”

Wendell Berry’s poem “How To Be a Poet” got me to thinking: Is there, as with Taoism, a “way”? When my students insist they cannot write poetry, I show them Naomi Shihab Nye’s One Boy Told Me, a found poem consisting of wonder straight from the mouth of her young son.

“We’re all poets when we’re little,” she says. For young writers who all share on their résumés this thing called “childhood,” it’s helpful. Each student can recollect things they said and noticed as a kid, and if they can’t, they need only interview their parents for homework and come back “poets” the next day!

But back to Wendell Berry. His “how-to” is more poetic, as you might expect. Thus, would-be poets thinking in terms of black berets, happening cafés, and certain prescribed ways need not apply. If muses could be bought in a bottle, after all, every alchemist would sell them.


How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
The last two lines are a bit like a koan: “make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.”
Meditate on that, grasshopper. Then see if you can figure your own way to be a poet, for someone else’s way is never yours. If that comes as some disappointment to you, trust me. You’ll be better for it in the long run.

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