The Poet as “Perpetual Amateur”

tony

In his book Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland ends a chapter about Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Louise Glück (the “Three Tenors,” as he dubs them) with these words about poetry as a “profession”:

“‘Profession’ has always seemed like a misleading, even laughable word for poetry—not just because it suggests that the economy has a Poetry Sector, but also because it suggests that poetry is masterable, that poetry itself is stable, that some persons possess poetry, and that others don’t. Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be ‘professional.’ The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet—one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem.

“Nonetheless, some poets, like those discussed here, make you want to use the word professional because their careers are testaments to their stamina of craft and spirit. Having found an initial place for themselves to stand and a way to speak, they have lost and found it again and again: they have reconceived themselves, gone past their old answers into the new questions. This combination of restlessness and intensity seems fundamental to the path of poetry. And because they have impressed us many times in the past, we follow along, knowing that on a given occasion in the future, unpredictably, they will knock the hats off our heads all over again—as if to remind us what we are in the presence of.”

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Speaking of professionals, today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is an Emily poem, one to mull over as you watch the sun rise and the sun set. Yes, there are some stop-you-in-your-tracks lines here!

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose…
Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

 

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Don’t look now, but there are only 10 more school writing days until the Christmas-New Year’s break. Looking for holiday-themed writing prompts? We shared some quirky ones (half seriously) that you can revisit or visit for the first time.

Celebrating something other than Christmas? Add to the prompt list! It’s more fun for students to come up with questions and prompts than come up with poems alone, after all. Make them the teachers and put their expertise to work!

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